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What is African Studies? Some Reflections

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 May 2016

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Almost as long as African studies has been a recognized intellectual enterprise in U.S. higher education, scholars have sought to establish its credentials as an academic pursuit and have debated its characteristics. To take the most obvious example, the home page of the African Studies Association (ASA) Web site ( declares, “The African Studies Association was founded in 1957 as a non-profit organization open to all individuals and institutions interested in African affairs. Its mission is to bring together people with a scholarly and professional interest in Africa.”

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Copyright © African Studies Association 2002

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1. The authors recognize the enormity of a question such as, What is African studies? and the absurdity of presuming to find any pat answers. A more diligent study would require dedicated time and significant funding of a sort that has not been available to the authors. It must be recognized that the perspectives offered here refer almost exclusively to African studies in the United States unless otherwise noted. If we allude to a few books as being typical on topics of emerging importance to African studies, we do not mean to imply that their authors, or even the topics so broached, are the only ones that might be considered in creating a definition of African studies. Indeed, it is certain that each and every Africanist would write a very different paper than the one we submit here.

2. Oliver, Roland, In the Realms of Gold (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), 284 Google Scholar.

3. Bates, Robert H., Mudimbe, V.Y., and O’Barr, Jean, eds., Africa and the Disciplines: The Contribution of Research in Africa to the Social Sciences and Humanities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), xi Google Scholar. For a trenchant critique of Africa and the Disciplines, see the review by Echeruo, Michael J.C. in Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature 41 (1993): 233235 Google Scholar.

4. For a popular account of this struggle within the academy, see Kotkin, Stephen, “A World War among Professors,” New York Times, 7 September 2002 Google Scholar.

5. Guyer, Jane, African Studies in the United States: A Perspective (Atlanta: ASA Press, 1996), 1 Google Scholar.

6. Mudimbe, V.Y., The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988)Google Scholar; Mudimbe, V.Y., The Idea of Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, and London: James Currey, 1994)Google Scholar; Amselle, Jean-Loup, “L’Afrique: Un parc à thèmes,” Les Temps Modernes 620621 (2001-2002): 47 Google Scholar, soon to be published in translation to English by Françoise Lionnet.

7. Guyer, 1.

8. Moore, Sally Falk, Anthropology and Africa: Changing Perspectives on a Changing Scene (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994)Google Scholar. A useful overview of why arts and aesthetics are routinely neglected and humanistic anthropology marginalized in U.S. and British anthropology is provided by Jeremy Coote and Anthony Shelton in the introduction to their edited volume Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).

9. Hountondji, Paulin, African Philosophy: Myth and Reality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996)Google Scholar.

10. Hallen, Barry, A Short History of African Philosophy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002)Google Scholar.

11. Bongmba, Elias, African Witchcraft and Otherness: A Philosophical and Theological Critique of Intersubjective Relations (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001)Google Scholar.

12. Rowland Abiodun’s “An African (?) Art History: Promising Theoretical Approaches in Yoruba Art Styles” and Olabiyi Yai’s “In Praise of Metonymy: The Concepts of ‘Tradition’ and ‘Creativity’ in the Transmission of Yoruba Artistry over Time and Space” are both found in Abiodun, Rowland, Drewal, Henry, and Pemberton, John III, eds., The Yoruba Artist (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994), 37-47 and 107115 Google Scholar, respectively. Apter, Andrew, Black Critics and Kings: The Hermeneutics of Power in Yoruba Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992)Google Scholar; Lawal, Babatunde, The Gelede Spectacle: Art, Gender, and Social Harmony in an African Culture (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996)Google Scholar.

13. Ray, Benjamin, African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community (New York: Prentice Hall, 1999)Google Scholar; Hackett, Rosalind, Art and Religion in Africa (London: Cassell Academic, 1999)Google Scholar; Olupona, Jakob, ed., African Spirituality (New York: Crossroads, 2000)Google Scholar.

14. Levtzion, Nehemia and Pouwels, Randall, eds., The History of Islam in Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000)Google Scholar.

15. Robinson, David and Triaud, Jean-Louis, eds., Le temps des marabouts: Itinéraires et strategies islamiques en Afrique occidentale française v. 1880-1960 (Paris: Khar-tala, 1997)Google Scholar. Christianity in Africa also deserves far more study than it has received, but see Isichei, Elizabeth, A History of Christianity in Africa (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1995)Google Scholar.

16. See, for example, Vogel, Susan, ed., ART/artifact (Munich: Prestel for the Center for African Art, New York, 1988)Google Scholar; Schildkrout, Enid and Keim, Curtis, African Reflections (Seattle: University of Washington Press for the American Museum of Natural History, New York, 1990)Google Scholar; Nooter, Mary, ed., Secrecy: African Art That Conceals and Reveals (Munich: Prestel for the Museum for African Art, New York, 1993)Google Scholar; Thompson, Robert Farris, Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas (Munich: Prestel for the Museum for African Art, New York, 1993)Google Scholar; MacGaffey, Wyatt, Astonishment and Power (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993)Google Scholar; Cosentino, Donald, ed., Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodun (Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1996)Google Scholar; Ross, Doran H., ed., Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity (Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1998)Google Scholar; and Gonseth, Marc-Olivier, Hainard, Jacques, and Kaehr, Roland, eds., Le musée cannibale (Neuchâtel, Switzerland: Musée ethnographique, 2002)Google Scholar.

17 See Oguibe, Olu and Enwezor, Okwui, eds., Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to Marketplace (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999)Google Scholar; see also Busca, Joëlle, Perspectives sur l’art contemporain africain (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000)Google Scholar.

18 African Arts has been published since the late 1960s and considers both “traditional” and contemporary arts. La revue noire was an interesting forum of contemporary scenes, but it is no longer published. The magazines Arts d’Afrique Noire and Tribal Arts carry some academic articles but are explicit organs of the art market.

19 See, for example, Coombes, Annie, Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture, and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994)Google Scholar; Fabian, Johannes, Remembering the Present: Painting and the Popular History of Taire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996)Google Scholar; Jewsiewicki, Bogumil, ed., A Congo Chronicle: Patrice Lumumba in Urban Art (New York: Museum for African Art, 1999)Google Scholar; and Landau, Paul and Kaspin, Deborah, eds., Images and Empires: Visuality in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002)Google Scholar.

20 We refer here to critical studies of expressive forms rather than to the music, films, and novels themselves. On music, see, for example, Waterman, Christopher, Juju: A Social History and Ethnography of an African Popular Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999)Google Scholar; Erlmann, Veit, Music, Modernity, and the Global Imagination: South Africa and the West (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002)Google Scholar; and Reed, Daniel, Dan Ge Performance: Masks and Music for New Realities in Contemporary Côte d’Ivoire (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003)Google Scholar. On African film, see Eke, Maureen, Harrow, Kenneth, and Yewah, Emmanuel, eds., African Images: Recent Studies in Text and Cinema (Lawrenceville, N.J.: African World Press, 2000)Google Scholar; Givanni, June, ed., Symbolic Narratives/African Cinema: Audiences, Theory, and the Moving Image (London: British Film Institute, 2001)Google Scholar; and Frank, Nwa-chukwu and Gabriel, Teshome, Questioning African Cinema: Conversations with Filmmakers (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002)Google Scholar. On literary criticism, see Lionnet, Françoise, Postcolonial Representation: Women, Literature, Identity (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995)Google Scholar; Makward, Edris, Ravell-Pinto, Thelma, and Songolo, Aliko, eds., The Growth of African Literature (Lawrenceville, N.J.: African World Press, 1998)Google Scholar; and Andrade, Susan et al., eds., Atlantic Cross-Currents (Lawrenceville, N.J.: African World Press, 2001)Google Scholar—the last two works being from annual meetings of the African Literature Association, which is surely one of the most dynamic organizations of contemporary African studies scholars. African dance has received far less scholarly attention, but see Ajayi, Omofolabo, Yoruba Dance: The Semiotics of Movement and Body Attitude in Nigerian Culture (Lawrenceville, N.J.: African World Press, 1998)Google Scholar, as a study stretching beyond its expressive focus.

21 African Studies in America, The Extended Family—A Tribal Analysis of U.S. Africanists: Who They Are; Why to Fight Them (Cambridge, Mass.: Africa Research Group, October 1970).

22 Zeleza, Paul Tiyambe, Manufacturing African Studies and Crises (Dakar: CODESRIA, 1997)Google Scholar; Martin, William and West, Michael, eds., Out of One, Many Áfricas: Reconstructing the Study and Meaning of Africa (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999)Google Scholar; Emwagwali, Gloria, ed., Africa and the Academy: Challenging Hegemonic Discourses on Africa (Lawrenceville, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2002)Google Scholar.

23 Moore, 75. See also Zeleza, i.

24 Allen F. Isaacman, “Legacies of Engagement: Scholarship Informed by Political Commitment” (forthcoming in African Studies Review).

25 Bois, W.E.B. Du, The Negro (New York: Henry Holt, 1915)Google Scholar; Bois, W.E.B. Du, The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History (New York: Viking Press, 1947)Google Scholar; Hansberry, William Leo, Pillars in Ethiopian History, ed. Harris, Joseph E. (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974)Google Scholar; Hansberry, William Leo, Africa and Africans as Seen by Classical Writers, ed. Harris, Joseph E. (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1977)Google Scholar.

26 For a succinct history of the African Heritage Studies Association, see Walters, Ronald W., Pan Africanism in the African Diaspora (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993), 365371 Google Scholar.

27 Center for Survey Research and Analysis, University of Connecticut survey, “Identifying New Directions for African Studies,” question no. 48.

28 The literature is vast, but the usual starting points are Herskovits, Melville, The Myth of the Negro Past (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958)Google Scholar, and Mintz, Sidney W. and Price, Richard, An Anthropological Approach to the Afro-American Past: A Caribbean Perspective (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1976)Google Scholar.

29 Lovejoy, Paul E., ed., Identity in the Shadow of Slavery (New York: Continuum, 2000), 1 Google Scholar.

30 For Africanist scholarship that argues vigorously for the connection between Africa and the transatlantic African diaspora, see Thompson, Robert Farris, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1983)Google Scholar; Barnes, Sandra T., ed., Africa’s Ogun: Old World and New, 2nd ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997)Google Scholar; Thornton, John K., Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998)Google Scholar; Gomez, Michael, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial Antebellum South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998)Google Scholar; Carney, Judith, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001)Google Scholar; and Heywood, Linda, ed., Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the American Diaspora (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002)Google Scholar. Pioneering studies by Americanists that take Africa seriously include Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the 18th Century (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992)Google Scholar; Reis, João José, Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia, trans. Brakel, Arthur (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993 Google Scholar; original Portuguese version, 1986); and Warner-Lewis, Maureen, Trinidad Yoruba: From Mother Tongue to Memory (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996)Google Scholar.

31 Examples include the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University, the Program in African and African Diaspora Studies at Tu-lane University, and the Interdisciplinary Program in African and African Diaspora Studies at Bard College. We might include Pan-African studies departments found at several California state universities, and we should not lose sight of important—though less bureaucratically recognized—initiatives such as the African Diaspora Research Project at Michigan State University. These initiatives and programs, along with many others, are listed at .

32 Brock, Lisa, ed., Issue: A Journal of Opinion 24, no. 2 (1996)Google Scholar; Byfield, Judith, ed., African Studies Review 43, no. 1 (2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Edward A. Alpers was national program chair for the 2001 annual meeting of the African Studies Association.

33 A small, but growing, body of literature considers recent African immigration to the United States, with important studies still at the stage of unpublished Ph.D. dissertations. See, for example, Arthur, John, Invisible So-journers: African Immigrant Diaspora in the United States (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2000)Google Scholar; Ebin, Victoria, “Making Room versus Creating Space: The Construction of Spatial Categories by Itinerant Mouride Traders,” in Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe, ed. Metcalf, Barbara (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 92-109Google Scholar; Millman, Joel, The Other Americans: How Immigrants Renew Our Country, Our Economy, and Our Values (New York: Penguin Books, 1997)Google Scholar; and Stoller, Paul, Money Has No Smell: The Africanization of New York City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 Lovejoy, Paul E., “The African Diaspora: Revisionist Interpretations of Ethnicity, Culture and Religion under Slavery,” Studies in the World History of Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation 2, no. 1 (1997)Google Scholar, see

35 Walker, Sheila S., “Introduction: Are You Hip to the Jive? (Re)Writing/Righting the Pan-American Discourse,” in African Roots/American Cultures: Africa in the Creation of the Americas, ed. Walker, Sheila S. (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), 8-9Google Scholar.

36 Lewis, Martin W. and Wigen, Karen E., The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997)Google Scholar. We would add that as stimulating as Lewis and Wigen’s thesis may be, these authors’ discussion of Africa is the least accomplished in their book.

37 Lewis and Wigen, 157.

38 See, for example, Hunwick, John and Powell, Eve Troutt, eds., The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam (Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2002)Google Scholar; Teelock, Vijayalakshmi and Alpers, Edward A., eds., History, Memory and Identity (Port-Louis, Mauritius: Nelson Mandela Centre for African Culture and the University of Mauritius, 2001)Google Scholar; Jayasuriya, Shihan da Silva and Pankhurst, Richard, eds., The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean (Lawrenceville, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2003)Google Scholar; and Harris’s, Joseph pioneering volume The African Presence in Asia (Evanston, III.: Northwestern University Press, 1971)Google Scholar.

39 The word diaspora is from the Greek dia- (apart) + speirein (to scatter); see The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, s.v. “diaspora.” Spore is derived from the same Greek verb, and although it seems to appear in diaspora, spore actually represents a back-formation rather than a direct etymological path. Diaspora is often capitalized with reference to the Jewish Diaspora, but it need not refer to that dispersion to the exclusion of the dispersions of other peoples. In her admirable work tracing the African diaspora throughout the Americas, Sheila Walker told of a student who once lamented having assumed that diaspora meant “disappear”— which, happily, it does not!

40 Signal texts include Appadurai, Arjun, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996)Google Scholar; Hannerz, Ulf, Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places (New York: Routledge, 1996)Google Scholar; and Clifford, James, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge. Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997)Google Scholar. Application of these theories and others to a transactional understanding of Africa and the Indian Ocean world was sought through a conference of some 60 international and interdisciplinary scholars organized at UCLA in 2002 by the present authors, with published proceedings expected.

41 See the recent contribution to this discussion by Zeleza, Paul Tiyambe, Rethinking Africa’s Globalization, vol. 1, The Intellectual Challenges (Lawrenceville, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2003)Google Scholar.

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