The institutional arrangements for African Studies in the United States are very diverse. This is explained in large part by the racial dynamic specific to each US campus, as well as to the teaching staff and students.The opinion of America, the leading world power, of Africa, an emerging continent with rich but varied geopolitical prospects, is never anodyne. Such a perception enables an understanding of how America locates the dark continent within the great advances of the world, what its place is in the history that is being made, whether Africa is perceived in a global way in relation to American national interests, or whether the American intellectual elite can distinguish between the geographical and cultural realms. In this regard, the American way of looking at the Africans is very interesting and has much to tell us, as also does the fact that work on Africa has multiplied in recent years in the academic world in the United States
The institutional arrangements for African Studies in the United States are very diverse. This is explained in large part by the racial dynamic specific to each US campus, as well as to the teaching staff and students.The opinion of America, the leading world power, of Africa, an emerging continent with rich but varied geopolitical prospects, is never anodyne. Such a perception enables an understanding of how America locates the dark continent within the great advances of the world, what its place is in the history that is being made, whether Africa is perceived in a global way in relation to American national interests, or whether the American intellectual elite can distinguish between the geographical and cultural realms. In this regard, the American way of looking at the Africans is very interesting and has much to tell us, as also does the fact that work on Africa has multiplied in recent years in the academic world in the United States. But with one sizeable reservation: the discipline of African Studies as such has not yet found a stable institutional home. There are many approaches which have permitted the work on Africa to develop in a context of productive tensions, despite only sporadic institutional support and regrettable inconsistency. The Africans would do well to pay attention to this “American gaze” which expresses contrasting perceptions of the African continent which the American political and economic authorities need to provide fuel for their analyses and to help them make their most important decisions.
These studies range from specialised programmes to courses called Africana Studies (covering the study of all individuals of African descent, within a Pan-African perspective) and including Black Studies. Many American universities have run these different programmes side by side, demonstrating the influence of multiple and often incompatible communities concerned with Africa. This ranges from the analysts of the State Department to the Black Power activists on US campuses.
In many respects, African Studies have failed to become fully institutionalised as a discipline in the United States. This is particularly true in the elite universities of the East Coast. The closure of the African Studies Centre of the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) on 30 June 2015 is a token of this failure. The UPenn African Studies Committee, created in 1941, was the oldest among the Ivy League institutions (which includes the oldest and most active universities in the world of research). Its alumni include the former President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972).
This committee included a National Documentation Centre with federal funding to support the teaching of African languages and international affairs, as well as a regional consortium, devoted to the coordination of research work on the continent. This closure means that there is no longer any Ivy League institution which still has a centre, not to mention a department, dedicated to the sole study of Africa. Nowadays, these institutions have only programmes in African Studies. This is in striking contrast to the much more developed research on the Middle East, East Asia and, increasingly, South Asia.
At odds with these geographical specialisations, African Studies remains one of the most interdisciplinary areas of study, with two very commonly found models. The first is a very broad programme, which brings together researchers in the sciences such as biology or epidemiology, in the social sciences such as political science, anthropology, psychology and in the human sciences such as literature, history and languages. The other model combines the study of Africa with that of the African-Americans and the African diasporas. For different reasons, academics express the same criticism of both these institutional models: they do not offer a clearly defined subject for study, the characteristic shared with the courses of study on geographical areas created in the United States during the Second World War. The black American political commentator Pearl T. Robinson, who gave the presidential address to the African Studies Association•1, writes as follows: “In the studies of geographical regions, Africa’s position at the lower level of these hierarchies [of relative power, levels of culture and ideological differences] has never been in question. But the assumptions underlying this marginality – and the controversy which they engender – have come together to produce the rich, varied and tumultuous terrain which configures the current landscape of African studies.”•2
Robinson points out how African Studies have maintained a broad experimental element•3, because they have never been codified as a geographical area to study in the United States through “national interest”, or because their interest has always been regarded as negligible. This fact is important in the American perception of Africa because African Studies have consequently escaped the unchanging “Orientalism” that Edward Said attributed to Middle Eastern Studies.
African Studies has never succeeded in breaking away as a stand- alone discipline; nevertheless, it has played a key role in challenging the boundaries of the study of Islam, the frontiers of the Middle East and even, increasingly, that of the races•4. Michael Gomez has recently published some work of great interest which centres world history on Africa as it replaces the continent within the time continuum. His approach pays homage to W.E.B. DuBois’s plan to restore Africa to its place at the heart of modern history•5.
Locating the African continent in world history is still a challenge for American historians, who have long experienced difficulties in identifying how African events could determine the rebalancing of the global economy from East Asia to Europe and the acceleration of globalisation•6. Even American and French authors such as Samuel Huntington and Thomas Piketty have not been embarrassed to relegate Africa to a mere footnote in describing the contemporary world•7.
Steven Fiereman, one of the most eminent American Africanists, nonetheless still felt obliged in 1999 to describe as a failure his proposal to combine history and anthropology with a view to preparing case studies on the African past and to rediscover structures with local meaning. He wrote: “Studies in one place, then another, and another and yet another cannot be aggregated except on the sole basis of their shared relationship with the corresponding European category: they cannot be included within a broader or more general African narrative. All that which is African inevitably appears in a local and fragmented form, going no further back than the colonial conquest or the period which immediately preceded it.”•8
In fact, the proliferation of case studies on villages and tribal rituals has not succeeded in providing a response to the Hegelian theory that nothing of global importance had ever occurred in Africa and which posited that the continent is nothing more than a victim or a passive receptacle of global forces which it cannot control. Fiereman, who directed the African Studies Centre at UPenn, frequently tackled the failure of the geographical studies approach to Africa. Although he trained many researchers who subsequently went on to breathe new life into the field of African history, his institutional heritage is more controversial. In the 1990s, Fiereman was part of a research group at UPenn which opposed any merger between the African Studies Centre and Diaspora Studies.
UPenn was by no means alone in its approach to the study of the African continent and that of the diasporas. Princeton University long rejected Black Studies. From 1969 to 2006, they had even relegated the subject to the rank of a mere course. The first full professor of African descent at Princeton, the Nobel prize-winner W. Arthur Lewis, had objected to the move to make Black Studies a separate discipline at this prestigious university. According to him, such studies were principally necessary for students of European descent, to help them combat their own racism, while students of African descent were better advised to specialise in the practical subjects which would help them to strengthen and advance their communities•9.
In the decade that followed the end of the Cold War, between 1990 and 2000, research on Africa was marginalised within the American academic community. Before there was talk of an “African Renaissance”, many experts believed that the continent lacked influential economies similar to those of BRICS, extended US military interventions or a universalist ideology or religion which could be perceived as a rival to the liberal democracy that Francis Fukuyama thought would prevail•10. Another problem was the representation of persons of African descent within the American academic community; although African-Americans were marginalised in both International and African Studies, they insisted not only that work on Africa should be conducted in the best American universities - many of which were not in favour of it - but also that such research should not be restricted to a superficial mastery of distant and exotic lands.
Black American students and academics were in the frontline of these demands, adopting attitudes which were often offensive to their teachers. The latter would probably have preferred that their subject should become part of the curriculum in the form of an esoteric knowledge about a distant part of the world rather than see Africa assume some meaning in their daily lives. Certain communities in the US feel very strongly that they are preserving a profound and intimate link with the continent, without necessarily having a concrete connection or the intention of visiting Africa for anything other than tourism. The expression of such sentiments drove the proponents of African Studies to the realisation that the subject could not hide behind the mere provision of simple ideas on the events occurring in our own time on the continent.
Consequently, these communities contributed to the fact that teaching about Africa in the United States is evolving, to become a subject capable of giving the student some basis for understanding the world today. In 1969, Walter Rodney suggested that people of African descent, resonating with the historical situation of the Africans throughout the diaspora, could generate the confidence and vision needed for the elite of African descent to guide their own people•11. In the United States, this approach stimulated African Studies on many fronts, injecting activist vigour into the discipline.
However, the combination of the study of the African-Americans, the African diaspora and the African continent has always been a controversial issue. The recent dispute at UPenn – arising from the creation of the Department of Africana Studies and the final decision to incorporate African Studies into this department with effect from this year – has highlighted the interests at stake. The area of Africana Studies is consequently defined by the lecturers who have joined the Department. This is a multidisciplinary field of studies which subjects several large areas to rigorous analysis : the historic, cultural, economic, scientific and religious networks of the African continent; the dispersal of the Africans via the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, North America, Latin America and the Caribbean; the dispersal of the Africans via the Mediterranean to the Middle East and the movement of Africans towards Asia; the development of trade between Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia; the modern African diasporas brought about by the forced migration of African slaves, now fuelled by globalisation; the different religions of the Africans and those of the African diaspora.
Nevertheless, there has been considerable controversy surrounding the transition of African Studies into Africana Studies, which is a mixture of various components. Indeed, just after the announcement that Africa Studies would be integrated into Africana Studies, student demonstrations were held to protest against this equivalence between Africana and Africa, bringing the old questions and challenges to the fore once again.
For example, the student paper The Daily Pennsylvanian quoted the words of Oyinkan Muraina, a member of the Association of African Students of Pennsylvania, who commented about this decision:“Even if the study of Africa and Africana Studies share certain aspects, they are not the same thing. The discipline of Africana Studies focuses on the transatlantic slave trade and its consequences, whereas African Studies deals directly with the study of Africa.”•12 Unknowingly the student was echoing the grievances which had almost caused a split in the Association of African and African-American students in the 1960s.
At that time, the students were protesting against the creation of African-American studies and African Studies across all the campuses in America. Ayi Kweh Armah, a Ghanaian student at Harvard at the beginning of the 1960s, wrote that his African comrades and he felt that they had more in common with the Whites than with African- Americans•13. Confronted by their respective areas of ignorance, the Africans, Afro-Caribbeans and African-Americans were often wont to withdraw into their own perceptions. And when they were forced to collaborate, they often experienced disappointment.
In the political arena, anti-apartheid activism, which developed on every US campus – often under the leadership of African-American students, with the support of the Black Caucus of Congress – provided an example of the power of the joint approach and the feeling of betrayal which could ensue. Many intellectuals and activists did indeed feel betrayed when Nelson Mandela refused to condemn the treatment inflicted on African- Americans under the Reagan administration...
The UPenn “Africana” model, together with the Harvard and Brown University variants, probably represents the only viable model for the expansion of African Studies in the United States and, as a result, it provides a possible key to an improved understanding of Africa in the United States. Even if it proved valuable to have African Studies departments on every campus in the country, the approach of the geographical regions type of study, with its strong emphasis on the political, cultural and linguistic aspects of a region in the name of “national interest”, seems increasingly outmoded, for two reasons. First, this national interest has become too changeable since the end of the Cold War to guarantee the necessary long- term investments for any original and creative research. Second, geographical area studies have suffered from the need to invent distinct cultural units, identifying differences where perhaps there were none.
As the field of African Studies has never been limited to geographical areas, we have been able to benefit from the light shed by Muslim African- American researchers such as Rudolph T. Ware, who demonstrated that African Islam was perhaps closer to that practised by the Prophet than that of the Middle East•14. Other academics, like Ghislaine Lydon, have shown that the Sahara was never a dividing line between the Middle East and sub- Saharan Africa. The researchers Eve Troutt Powell, Shamil Jeppie and Jonathan Glassman have demonstrated the power of minority groups in inventing transnational identities, often challenging the very meaning of the fact of being “African” •15. Lastly, academics working on interactions around the Atlantic have highlighted the fact that the African migrations were not only directed outwards, but that creolisation often indicated that the migrants of the New World were returning to Africa and creating hybrid cultures•16. W.E.B. DuBois’ dream of integrating Africa into the history of the world and the history of the world into that of Africa cannot be realised as long as a conception exists of a separate African civilisation, mapped and studied separately from the rest of the world. On the contrary, researchers of African descent or influenced by the studies of the African diaspora have opened the way to the conception of a globalised Africa, which must be perceived as an integral part of our understanding of the modern world•17.
•1 Pearl T. Robinson, Ralph Bunche and African Studies Reflections on the Politics of Knowledge, African Studies Association Presidential Address 2007, African Studies Review, Vol. 51, no.1, April 2008, pp. 1-‐16.
•2 Pearl T. Robinson, Area Studies in Search of Africa, n The Politics of Knowledge: Area Studies and the Disciplines, ed. David L. Szanton, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 2002, pp. 83-‐123.
•3 Edward W. Said, Orientalism, New York, NY, Vintage, 1979 and Bernard Lewis, “The Question of Orientalism,” New York Review of Books, 24 June 1982.
•4 See the recent work of Rudolph T. Ware, The Walking Quran: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa, Chapel Hill, NC, University of North Carolina Press, 2014 and Bruce S. Hall, A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, Cambridge, United Kingdom, Cambridge University Press, 2011.
•5 Michael A. Gomez, Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora, Cambridge, United Kingdom, Cambridge University Press, 2004 and W.E.B. DuBois.
•6 Janet L. Abu-‐Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A. D. 1250-1350, Oxford, United Kingdom, Oxford University Press, 1991.
•7 Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York, NY, Simon and Schuster, 1996 and Thomas Piketty, Le capital au 21ème siècle, Seuil, Paris, 2013.
•8 Steven Feierman, Colonizers, Scholars, and the Creation of Invisible Histories, in ed. Victoria Bonnell, Lynn Hunt and Richard Biernacki, Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture, Berkeley, CA, University of Ca- lifornia Press, 1999, p. 184.
•9 Robert L. Tignor, W. Arthur Lewis and the Birth of Development Economics, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2005, pp. 240-‐268.
•10 Francis Fukayama, The End of History and the Last Man, New York, NY, Free Press, 2006.
•11 Walter Rodney, The Groundings with My Brothers, Frontline Distributional Inter- national, 2001/1969.
•12 Jessie Washington, Students Protest Closure of Africa Center in Front of Pros- pective Undergrads, The Daily Pennsylvanian, 13 April 2015.
•13 Ayi Kweh Armah, Fragments, Heinemann, 1995/1971.
•14 Rudolph T Ware, The Walking Quran: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa, Chapel Hill, NC, University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
•15 Eve Troutt Powell, A Different Shade of Colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain, and the Mastery of the Sudan, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 2003; Shamil Jeppie, Language, Identity, Modernity: The Arabic Study Circle of Durban, Cape Town, South Africa, Human Sciences Research Council, 2007; Jonathan Glassman, War of Words, War of Stones: Racial Thought and Violence in Colonial Zanzibar, Bloo- mington, ID, Indiana University Press, 2011.
•16 James H. Sweet, Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the Afri- can-‐Portuguese World, 1441-‐1770, Chapel Hill, NC, University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
•17 W. E. Burghardt DuBois, The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part which Africa has played in World History, New York, NY, Viking Press, 1947.
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