Race and the Politics of Knowledge Production in African Studies

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In the United States, African scholars are conspicuously underrepresented in the field of African Studies. For years, Black scholars have called attention to the racial politics that make this situation possible. This issue took on renewed urgency during the 61st annual meeting of the African Studies Association (ASA) in November 2018. On the second day of the meeting in Atlanta, Jean Allman—an eminent historian and president of the ASA—gave a lecture titled #HerskovitsMustFall? A Meditation on Whiteness, African Studies, and the Unfinished Business of 1968.1 Allman’s lecture chronicled the historical and continuing marginalization of Black scholars in African Studies and revealed how the field became dominated by white men. The talk was designed to open the door for the following day’s sessions, led by Black African and African American scholars, on what can be done about the persistent problem of racism in African Studies. Still, the enthusiastic reception of Allman’s talk highlights the fact that even the work of calling attention to the racism within African Studies is racialized.

Allman began the lecture by highlighting how the first leaders of the ASA intentionally established African Studies in the United States as a white man’s dominion by undermining the work of Black scholars. For example, Melville J. Herskovits—the first president of the African Studies Association and after whom the ASA’s annual book prize is named—once boasted that he was responsible for ensuring that W.E.B. Du Bois did not receive funding from the Carnegie Foundation to support his work on the Encyclopedia Africana.2 Although he was unable to complete the project before his death in 1963, Du Bois envisioned the encyclopedia to be a comprehensive work on Africa and African descended people that would challenge the prevailing enlightenment idea that Black people were incapable of developing civilizations. The hostile treatment of Black scholars by the ASA’s first leaders contributed to the rift between the fields of African Studies and African American Studies that is still palpable today. Thus, despite the fact that African Americans were amongst the first scholars in the United States to study the peoples and cultures of the African continent, African Studies became a field controlled by white, mostly male scholars who branded themselves as “Africanists.”

Allman’s talk also highlighted how the predominance of white male scholars in African Studies is reflected in the African Studies Association’s leadership structure and the recognition of scholarship in the field. Since the organization’s founding in 1957, 54.1% of its presidents have been white men. This number was at over 75% in the decades between 1957 and 1977. Moreover, as of 2018, 50.0% of all the recipients of the Herskovits Prize—the annual award given for the “best scholarly work on Africa published in English”—have been white men. Additionally, 48.6% of the recipients of the Distinguished Africanist Award have been white men. Meanwhile, the number of Africa-based women scholars represented in each of these categories has been 0.0%—an astonishing indicator of how the forces of racism, sexism, and geopolitics work to marginalize the contributions of African women.

At the conclusion of her talk, Allman received a standing ovation from the predominantly white audience that filled the ironically named Imperial Ballroom where the talk was held. As a Black African, and a doctoral student in the field of African history, I left the talk with a great sense of sadness, not because any of the information was new but because the resounding applause made it clear to me that the majority of the people in attendance were convinced that the issues Allman had discussed were outside of that room—somewhere out there in the big bad racist world. Yet, the people in that room represent the field of African Studies, and thus, the appropriate response should have been anger. Scholars of Africa should be outraged that racism has such a strong foothold in a field that claims a commitment to understanding the experiences of a continent composed by a majority of Black people. Later that night, as mentions of the talk on social media platforms celebrated Allman’s boldness and the timeliness of her lecture, I began to think about who is able to make the experiences of Black scholars in African Studies legible. Would the audience have received a Black African scholar with the same enthusiasm if they were to give the exact same lecture? Or would they have been met with uncomfortable silences, accused of “playing the race card” and dismissed as angry and bitter? More plainly, I wondered if the talk was received so positively because Allman is white. The answers to these questions remain unclear. What is certain, however, is that Allman was not the first to discuss the issue of race and the politics of knowledge production in African Studies.

Black scholars have long contested their marginalization in African Studies. In fact, the “unfinished business of 1968” in the title of Jean Allman’s talk was a reference to the efforts of members of the ASA to call attention to the organization’s racist practices during the 1968 annual meeting in Montreal. Moreover, a couple of decades before Allman’s talk, the Nigerian-British scholar, Amina Mama, argued in a lecture at the 49th ASA meeting that “the marginalization of Africa within the world order is echoed in the global knowledge arena.” Mama contended that scholars “based in the relatively well-endowed and -resourced U.S. academy have an ethical responsibility to support, facilitate, and participate” in an engagement with African scholars “instead of just disseminating their own ideas, as if Africa had no intellectuals, no knowledge to contribute.”3 More recently, in 2016, the Liberian scholar Robtel Neajai Pailey published a critical essay in which she argued that contemporary scholarship on Africa is dominated by “non-African scholars who have strategically positioned themselves as the authoritative voices in a 21st century scramble for influence.” Mama and Pailey’s arguments called into question the tendency of “Africanists” to relegate African people to the role of informants while refusing to recognize them as experts and theorists in the process of knowledge production about African societies. Yet, critiques provided by Black scholars such as Mama and Pailey did not push the field to a moment of reckoning. The reception of Allman’s talk vis-à-vis the long history of scholars like Pailey and Mama’s efforts to diversify the perspectives represented in African Studies illustrates the fact that the work of highlighting racial inequalities within African Studies is considered more legitimate and treated as novel when it is done by a white scholar.

The underrepresentation of Africans in African Studies has serious implications beyond the ASA. It shapes how students think about knowledge production and the people who count as knowledge producers. At universities across the United States, chairs of African Studies programs are overwhelmingly white, and the scholars who are invited to campuses to give talks on Africa are also majority white. Thus, it is not uncommon to walk into a lecture or discussion on an aspect of African history, culture, or politics and find the room absent of Black scholars, African or otherwise. Consequently, many undergraduate students go through their entire college career believing that knowledge about Africa does not come from Africans. At the graduate level, many African students often report being made to feel that their experiences do not constitute valid sources of knowledge. Overall, the marginalization of Africans within African Studies supports the notion that Africans can be informants and subjects of study but never theorists of their own cultures, analysts of their own politics, or historians of their own pasts. More simply, the underrepresentation of Africans in African Studies is a visual expression of the idea—institutionalized by the ASA’s founders—that Africans cannot be Africanists.

Black people’s efforts to intervene in the process of knowledge production about their communities has long been a central component of the global struggle against white supremacy. Indeed, this work should not be left to Black scholars alone, and Allman’s talk is a welcome addition to the work that Black scholars have long been doing to diversify the perspectives represented in the field of African Studies. Yet the question that still needs to be grappled with is this: why does it take a white scholar to point out issues of racism within the field of African Studies before it is taken seriously?

  1. Jean Allman, “#HerskovitsMustFall? A Meditation on Whiteness, African Studies, and the Unfinished Business of 1968” (Speech, Atlanta, GA November 29, 2018).
  2. For more on Hertskovits’ efforts to undermine Du Bois see Aldon Morris, The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017).
  3.  Amina Mama, “Is it Ethical to Study Africa? Preliminary Thoughts on Scholarship and Freedom,” African Studies Review 50, no.1 (2007): 1-26.
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Marius Kothor

Marius Kothor is a PhD student in the Department of History at Yale University. She received her BA in African and African American Studies from the University of Rochester and an MA in History from the University of Iowa. Her current research focuses on the role of market women in the construction of national identity in Togo and the construction of African identity among Africans living in the United States. Follow her on Twitter @AfrikanaPress.

Comments on “Race and the Politics of Knowledge Production in African Studies

  • The author has many good insights on racial representation in American academia. Although, for a truly Afro-centric analysis, one must ask if there is a need to retain Africa’s best scholars for African universities, which contain abundant student populations and thriving academic communities. American universities should be challenged to bolster African scholars and universities through exchange programs, publishing, and conferences like the one mentioned in the article. Why reserve African scholars to teach only American students along with the risk of high academic unemployment and student debt in that country?

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