Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Where Are African Scholars in African Studies?
December 20, 2016

The invisibility of the “African academic” in African studies is a matter of concern

Yusuf Serunkuma

Many post-colonial regimes are still mired in protracted civil wars and violence, struggling economies, corruption, bad leadership, broken social and economic infrastructure and famine. It is rather dishonest for a country whose main university could be closed for months by presidential decree, whose professors strike year in year out over emoluments, to complain about an overwhelming European or American presence in their studies.

A white European friend tells a story of a panel on “African sexuality” he attended in London sometime in 2005. Among other things, the panel discussed intimacy, sexual pleasure, anal sex, marital rape and genital beautification or mutilation — all from what was considered the vantage point of the African.

Not only was the panel exclusively white, a large section of the audience was also white. With whiteness symbolically read as being European or North American, it translated not only into foreignness to the topics being discussed, but also privileged grandchildren of colonial masters gazing at Africans.

Where were the African academics, at least, marked by their shiny dark or brown skins? Were they invited but failed to get transport? Did these European and North Americans really understand, and accurately and objectively bring out the intricate and many secret details of “African sexuality”? These questions sparked off a long-winded conversation, which, despite its liveliness, left one key question unanswered: Where were the African scholars?

With the exception of a few celebrity names — who actually make quite a list — African studies remain dominated, discursively and institutionally, by non-African scholars: African studies associations are not only headquartered in European and North American universities, but also hold their annual conferences in Europe and North America.

During these conferences, it is very common to find specific country caucuses (Ugandan, Kenyan, Nigerian or Somali) with majority scholars of European and North American descent. Part of the explanation for this is that African scholars cannot afford to travel to Europe and North America for these sessions.

Location may not necessarily be the issue, but the numerical superiority of whiteness in these plenaries (and in publications) has been of concern for many non-white academics and their students as they grumble under their breath bemoaning the continued colonisation, marginalisation and scholarly misrepresentation.

It is also true that “leading journals’ in African studies are not only headquartered in Europe and North America, but many are mostly edited by European and American academics. Many times, the contributions to these journals reproduce similar patterns.

On the other hand, there are only a few African studies associations or journals on Africa, based on the African continent, managed, contributed to and edited by African hands. The problem is then framed with whiteness being not just a timeless symbolism of continued colonial domination and marginalisation of Africans, but also of biased, unrepresentative, inaccurate, and epistemologically flawed scholarship.

Our conversation unfolded against the above backdrop, with the bells of decolonisation and the rise of the “African intellectual” ringing nearby. As a self-reflective white male, he was visibly guilty of their continued “crimes” to African studies but did not see a clear exit.

Should he back off and let African studies to Africans, or start co-authoring all his pieces with “African” co-authors? Exactly, in the age of decolonisation and the rise of the African university, why do white people, these grandchildren of colonial masters, continue to speak for, write about formerly colonised peoples to the point of dominating disciplines?

This often translates into defining the terms of the discipline, which are often, the charge goes, Eurocentric. Why don’t they let the Africans write, represent and speak for and about themselves especially on “inner” subjects such as sexuality? Why don’t white folks sit back and listen and learn? How accurate is this knowledge produced by foreigners about people they barely know? In other words, why don’t they heed Spivak?

There are three assumptions behind these charges: First, there exists a world stage of “competitive scholarship” where continents, countries, nationalities, special groups such as women and “minorities” seek not only accurate representation, but also equal participation.

Accurate representation and active participation are taken as not only signifying but also granting access to power (respect, resources, pride, etc.), which is the envy of the world. It then follows that inaccurate representation, and the absence of participation translates into, symbolically and practically, denial of power and substantive existence, as colonialism defined.

Secondly, presence and participation guarantees not just a level playing field, but also objective scholarship, that is, neutral, representative or even accurate. The “native” has to be listened to, since nobody understands them like themselves. Without seeming to essentialise nativity or indigeneity, it is agreeable that there is a certain sensibility, an awareness that comes with belonging, and inhabiting the particular space under study.

The third assumption is that white scholars have actively sidelined African scholars just the way their grandparents who colonised the continent did. In other words, just like their grandparents, white scholars still patronise the native to speak about themselves.

An equal presence of Africans in intellectual spaces, with perhaps equal power and learning, will not only point in the direction of complete liberation but also acknowledgement of the African as a free and thinking subject.

Although we should be sympathetic to this tone of conversation, it is my contention that it is improperly framed in ways that are not only ahistorical and essentialist, but also dishonest to current social-political conditions of the African peoples.

The invisibility of the “African academic” in African studies is undeniable. However, to demand grandchildren of former colonial masters to leave African studies to African academics — as a way of decolonising African studies, or ensuring accurate and objective representation, is misleading.

Secondly, even to demand equal participation, say through “affirmative inclusion” does not sound like decolonising the academy. It is actually one way of re-affirming an insubordinate position. The one with the power to invite and recruit does have power to define the terrain of the debate.

Instead of asking how to decolonise the academy through more “African participation”, my argument seeks to point to the challenges of representation, and the problem with seeking presence of “African scholars in African studies”.

This is not to argue that the concern over the absence is completely misplaced, rather my intention is to reframe the ways in which we approach and think about scholars, and their subjects in our so-called “African studies”. My overall aim is to draw our attention to the history of the present, and how our intellectual history cannot be divorced from the political and economic histories of the present.

– pambazuka.org

1 comment:

DomzaNet said...

Also, generally, where are African journalists and writers? This Pan African News Wire is an exception. It is aware and it takes steps. But if you go to Counterpunch you will find that the African correspondent is a white man, and there are a couple of Black US-ans who write there. The thousands of African writers who could be there, are not there.