Judith Van Allen
Cornell University in Ithaca, New York
Into the debates about "discourse ownership" in Africa, I would like to inject some very practical questions about the dissemination of information about Africa to an ignorant West. Questions of discourse ownership have serious political implications for "Africa on the ground" and for the lives of millions of Africans, not just implications for "Africa as a textual construct" within the academy. African studies in the United States has always had an activist orientation, for better and decidedly worse--from pro-C.I.A. activist to national liberation support activist--and Africanists have provided information and strategy for everything from U.S. Africa policy to the anti-apartheid movement.
As a left academic and activist, my concern is to have as many teachers, students and activists as possible exposed to progressive teaching about Africa so that they can pass on their understandings to others and help build a significant constituency that actively challenges U.S. policy towards Africa from an informed perspective. For this goal, I believe that restricting who studies, teaches about and advocates for Africa on grounds of ethnicity, race or nationality will do more harm than good. I am perfectly willing to argue that all Africanists need to be actively self-conscious of the imbeddedness of African studies in imperialism and racism, and that we all have a responsibility to try to deconstruct, challenge, and counter that heritage and to reconstruct African studies--as much as we are able to do at this historical moment--from an anti-imperialist, anti-racist perspective. I just don't think that you have to be African or African-American to engage in that project. I believe that politics is stronger than race, and that if we reduce politics to race, we have already lost both the intellectual and the political battle.
This is a particularly contentious subject in the U.S. now, for good historical reasons. African studies in the U.S. has its roots in U.S. foreign policy "needs," that is, in the perceived need in the 1960s for the U.S. to figure out how to deal with "newly emerging" independent African countries in a way that would gain points--access to oil or diamonds or simply political allies--in the Cold War. So the U.S. government sought expertise, and African Studies Centers and fellowships for African studies and African languages were created, many of them formulated and then funded through the Department of Defense. Cold War or no Cold War, U.S. African policy follows the perceived interests of the U.S. government and the corporations it protects. African Studies has thus from its inception carried contradictions that are now surfacing in force: African Studies Centers may have been funded to assist U.S. foreign policy, but they have produced many, many scholars critical of that policy; and, particularly significantly for this discussion, those centers and much of the rest of African studies teaching have favored white scholars and neglected African-Americans during a period in which African-Americans have increasingly become concerned with and identified with African culture and history.
Since the rise of the Black Power movement in the mid-1960s, various modes of white domination have been challenged, and the tension over racial issues in African studies reached its peak in 1969 at the Montreal African Studies Association Annual
Meeting, when African-American and African members walked out in massive numbers. Within the U.S. African studies community, that rift has been patched over but never really healed, nor have the underlying patterns of discrimination and their accompanying distrust been eliminated.
We--those of us who are white and those of us who are Black--have not yet been able to resolve this history of distance and distrust on a collective level any more than the rest of our society has been able to do, despite all the individual bridges of collegiality and friendship we have managed to build. A few senior white scholars have attempted to justify the domination of the field by whites; some Black scholars have argued that only Africans and those of African descent can really understand Africa. Many Africanists feel caught in between, unwilling to voice a position for fear of being categorized with one extreme or the other. I believe we can and must do better, and that it is crucial that we do so for the future of both African studies and U.S. African policy, as well as for race relations within African studies and perhaps outside it as well. Despite the almost inexpressible and unbearable edginess that characterizes much of white/African-American scholarly relations in the U.S. today, I want to argue against those who seek to make African studies more "authentic" by restricting on racial and ethnic grounds who should do research about, teach about and speak about Africa. They are committing a self-destructive error and could well end up increasing Western ignorance about Africa, to Africa's detriment and to our own.
Most simply put, if we were to restrict--by whatever means--research on Africa to Africans, or to Africans and African-Americans, what would that do to the teaching of African studies in the U.S.? Historically, the U.S. has not been a major colonial presence in Africa, but in its pursuit of economic interests and Cold War posturing, the U.S. has certainly done significant damage to Africa, damage we see continuing--and continuing to be misreported and misunderstood--in the Congo, in Angola, in Mozambique, and in the oil politics of Nigeria. Without the Soviet Bloc as a significant limit on what the U.S. could actually do, as well as a limit on what the U.S. claims as its role in the world as "the only remaining superpower," this country has the potential for doing enormous harm, as well as maybe some good, on the African continent. But the U.S. population and U.S. policy makers know extremely little about Africa-the-reality, as opposed to Africa-the-myth or, according to mainstream media, Africa-the-disaster-area. We need much more education, research, teaching and lobbying about Africa, not less, and I would suggest that any move that results in reducing the numbers of U.S. undergraduates and graduate students, scholars and teachers, of whatever ethnicity or race, who study Africa, write about it, talk about it, care about it and advocate for it with a sophisticated consciousness of both African history and U.S. foreign policy goals is a loss that Africa and Africans can ill afford.
I am not suggesting that there are no serious issues to address about who studies Africa and how they do so. We are dealing with a subject deeply implicated in colonial and continuing imperial relations of knowledge production, and no one should even think about studying Africa without taking those relations into account. Europeans and North Americans who have studied Africa have very frequently either consciously and purposely or blindly and unintentionally served the interests of Western state and corporate forces that were attempting to figure out how best to exploit African resources and support compliant dictators who would help them do so, as well as how best to subvert or destroy progressive forces in Africa. Even when we do our best to ensure that our research cannot be used for oppressive purposes by Western governments and corporations, we still operate within that system of Western domination: we can get grants to go study "them," but they cannot get similar grants to come study "us." However much we lament this relationship, it remains the case that at the present time much of the currently existing valuable research about Africa--as well as considerable amounts of poor or biased research--has in fact been produced by Europeans and North Americans.
One may believe, as I do, that insiders bring particular insights to studying their own societies--as "native" observers--although there is no one "true" insider perspective, but many diverse ones. As a "born and bred" native Californian from the Central Valley, I know about the politics of water, agribusiness and migrant labor "in my bones," but I know it differently from a migrant laborer or a farmer. From years of studying African women, and some years of living in Southern Africa, I know quite a lot about Africa and African women, and much more about them--that is, about differences as well as similarities in many African countries and in the situations of African women of different classes, regions, economic systems and political histories--than probably 99% of the people in this country, except for African immigrants, but including African-Americans who haven't studied Africa. That is less a measure of my knowledge than of the terrible tragedy of the massive ignorance and unconcern about Africa that dominates American thinking and American public policy.
My point is that just as there's nothing like an insider perspective, there's also nothing like an outsider perspective. No one has a monopoly on truth, insight or wisdom. Outsiders sometimes ask questions and raise issues that insiders would never think of. As an American, I would be much less informed about early 19th century American society without the observations and analyses of the French traveller Alexis de Toqueville's Democracy in America , for example. Good observers and good researchers can produce sensitive, valuable insights into societies not their own, insights useful both to those they are studying and to members of the researcher's own society, who otherwise might well continue in greater ignorance and prejudice. Good researchers try to "get inside" the society they are studying, to understand how the people they are studying understand their own society. But both insiders and outsiders must do much more, as the good teachers in American anthropology, history, political science and political economy have taught us. We must also become self-conscious about our own assumptions and perspectives--that is, as we would now say, about the discourses of research we are employing--and must try as much as possible to step outside the discourses of the society we are studying and those of our own society and discipline.
What we must avoid doing, especially given the uses that some Western scholars have made of "their" African societies, is to claim to speak for others. We have no right to speak for others, much less to set agendas for others, even if we believe that they are themselves effectively silenced. And we are fooling ourselves if we claim a transparency that lets others speak through us, as though we could "represent" the "voices" of others with the "objectivity" of a cassette recorder--and this is as true when we study our own societies as when we study other societies. We can work hard to become aware of the discourses with which we deal--our own, our discipline's, the society we are studying--and to express that attempt within our writing. But we cannot escape the responsibility of critically analyzing speakers' viewpoints and interests any more than we can escape the responsibility of analyzing our own discourses. Our job is to speak about others--to analyze others who are, after all, always outside ourselves, whether we speak as insiders or outsiders.
In fact, the attempt to move "inside" and speak "for" has been particularly harmful when we, as outsiders, have tried so hard to don insider clothing that we have become apologists or cheerleaders for movements or leaders in other societies, at the cost of critical appraisals of their actual potential for improving the lives of the masses of people in their countries. For those many Africanists in this country who have considered it their responsibility not only to study Africa but to oppose various forms of colonial, neo-colonial and white minority rule in Africa--and for those who now continue to oppose various forms of internal and external corruption and exploitation, this requires a very nuanced position of vigorous but not uncritical support, and a delicate sense of historical timing.
American political scientists, for example, often were simply cheerleaders for bourgeois nationalist leaders in the 1960s, and found themselves totally at a loss for explanations in the 1970s as government after government was overthrown by its own military. Those of us who as Marxist-feminists wrote glowingly of the potential for various Marxist-led national liberation movements to liberate African women were seriously disillusioned as those movements came to power and sent women back to their pre-guerrilla-struggle roles. We failed our responsibility as critical observers, and so did no good for the women we were studying or for the theory and understanding of the relationship between revolutionary movements and gender. We have since learned better, and more recent research, particularly on gender struggle South Africa, is much more sophisticated and nuanced. Cheerleading is easy; critical analysis is much more difficult and sometimes leads to vociferous attacks on the critic. But critical analysis of ourselves and others is not only what good scholarship is about; it is the best way to produce research that can further human liberation and self-determination.
The legacy of colonialism and the continued power of imperial Western domination create a massively unequal and unfair research world, and it is that unjust world in which we must figure out what to do. However much we might value a combination of the perspectives of the insider and the outsider, the fact remains that Africans and especially African women have not had anything even remotely approaching an equal chance to tell their own stories, to develop their own analyses of their own societies--much less anything like an equal chance to study Western societies and tell us, for example, what Western racism looks like if you're a scholar from Western Africa, or Eastern Africa or Southern Africa--or South Africa.
In this historical context, anger towards whites who have "owned" African studies seems to me quite appropriate--and especially towards those among the powerful gatekeepers of graduate work, grants and jobs who are not actively trying to encourage greater study of Africa by Africans and African-Americans. However, discouraging people from studying Africa on the basis of their being white seems to me a serious mistake, for two main reasons. One is that scholars should be judged by the content and character of their research, not by their race or their ethnicity or their cultural histories (or their gender, sexuality, or any other "identity"). No "identity" category guarantees or prohibits good scholarship: the experiences of all such identities provide different and valid perspectives from which to start learning how to be a scholar, a researcher, a theorizer. None guarantees worth to the final product of one's work--a "worth," just to make sure this point is not misunderstood, that must be established through negotiation of these various perspectives, not "given" at the start by the Old Boys. The problem is not one of ethnic consciousness and capability; it is a problem of power and privilege, and it is that power and privilege that must be challenged. We must seek to address the inequities of the past by working to open doors to the previously excluded, whether African-Americans or students of other ethnicities, to promote collaborative research with Africanists in Africa, to assist in building up library collections in Africa, to use whatever institutional resources we have to support African universities and African scholars.
But we cannot address past ignorance by promoting current and future ignorance, and that is what I fear would be the result of discouraging whites from studying, researching, writing and teaching about Africa. Big research universities, and especially the handful with African Studies Centers, can afford to hire people to teach only about Africa, and many of them hire Africans who have immigrated to the U.S. as well as American Africanists. But there are thousands of colleges and universities in the U.S. that have courses on Africa, whether politics, history, literature, or whatever, only because someone hired to teach three other areas within a field also "does Africa." Are there really enough African-Americans and immigrant Africans who have chosen to study Africa to teach about Africa in all of our schools? Is there an assumption lurking somewhere in this argument about turf that all Africans and African-Americans who go to graduate school want to or "ought" to study and teach about Africa? What about all those who want to study and teach about something else, like physics or German literature or racism in the U.S.? Is there a subtext here suggesting that people should only study "their own kind"?
As a white American radical, I fear American zenophobia and its domestic racist manifestations. To counter ignorance and bias, we need more and more people to learn something about Africa besides the latest civil war or famine, not more white Americans learning more about white Americans because that's what white American scholars are writing about. I was a child in the anti-Japanese California of the 1940s, and a teenager in the anti-Communist-crazed and zenophobic 1950s, but I started college during the years when the first African nations gained their political independence from colonialism, and I have been studying Africa and engaging in active material support for African liberation struggles ever since. Perhaps most significantly, however, I came to political adulthood in the 1960s as an activist and internationalist--a person committed to breaking down the boundaries of national and corporate domination and exploitation, and seeking common grounds for struggle against those forces, without denying the differences among us. In that internationalist spirit, I would urge that anyone willing to take on the intellectual burdens and responsibilities of the exploitative history of Western racism, colonialism and continued imperial domination of Africa be seen as an authentic Africanist, and I dearly hope that anyone who grasps those responsibilities and whose heart leadsthem to study Africa and African women will do so.
|I would like to thank Sandra Greene, Leslie Miller-Bernal and Kathleen Sheldon for helping me develop my ideas through many fruitful discussions, and Sandra Greene, Ben Nichols and the editor and readers of Mots Pluriels for their useful comments on earlier drafts. I take full responsibility for my own provocative text.|
Judith Van Allen is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for African Development at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She started her work on African women with "'Sitting on a Man': Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women," in the Canadian Journal of African Studies' first special issue on African women in 1972. She has published numerous articles on African women's political activism and on women and development in Africa, and is currently working on a book on citizenship and gendered political space in Africa, focussed on an analysis of women's rights activism in Botswana.