Reflections on "The Pasts & Futures of African Studies"

Anna Thomas, ArtSci ’10
Anna Thomas, ArtSci ’10

In February during Black History Month, the "Engaging Africa" initiative brought Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, the Head of the Department of African American Studies at the University of Illinois, to speak at Queen's.

Also the 2008-09 president of the African Studies Association (ASA)—the largest association of its kind—Zeleza delivered a lecture titled, "The Pasts and Futures of African Studies." In this lecture, Zeleza outlined many of the dominant schools of thought, both past and present, relating to, and arising from, Africa, and addressed hopes and concerns about the continuance of this academic endeavour.

Although I have always been interested in the African continent—and eager to encounter information that went beyond uncomplicated representations of starvation, poverty, and distress—I have not been exposed to scholarship from and about Africa. For me, Zeleza's lecture introduced the vast field of scholarship that exists, but that is sadly underrepresented in most school curricula. Coming at the end of Black History Month, this lecture gave me an opportunity to reflect on my own knowledge and exposure to the history of a continent that continues to impact our lives immensely.

Zeleza dispelled for me the myth that Africa needs to be integrated into our experiences—it is already there as an integral part of how our Western identities have been shaped. Rather, he advocates for critical and challenging thinking that reorients our conceptions of boundaries. In his lecture he stated, “When it comes to globalization discourses, strangely enough Africa is seen as marginal to globalization, when it has in fact been central to the construction of the modern world in all its ramifications—economic, political, cultural, and discursive—over the last half millennium since the emergence of the Atlantic world system.” Zeleza highlighted the importance of engaging in a critical study of diaspora as a way of uncovering correct representations of Africa in global history. Zeleza’s own research seeks “to map out the dispersal of African peoples in all the major world regions—Asia, Europe, and the Americas; comparing the processes and formation within and among these regions.” He “examines the ebbs and flows of linkages—demographic, cultural including religion and music, economic, political and ideological, intellectual and educational, artistic and iconographic—between these diasporas and Africa over time.” This immense project—which he acknowledges will take many, many years—will be a foundational text for the critical discussion of how the African diaspora has affected the formation of nations and cultures.

In Canada, we usually gloss over the details of our own interactions with Africa. We love our stories of the Underground Railroad—we conveniently forget that we once had slavery—and generally glory in the mosaic of multiculturalism. Zeleza’s discussion of the failure of the traditional "anthropological approach" to Africa has clarified for me why a rhetoric of “multiculturalism” cannot be sufficient in our society. Without engaging critically with a culture, by merely observing and recording, we deny the validity of that culture and the people of which it’s comprised. Truly engaging with the African continent cannot end with embracing similarities and ignoring differences: it can only come through a genuine dialogue between equals. Equally, although I have been referring to "the continent of Africa" as a unit, we must acknowledge the distinct nations, cultures, languages and customs that comprise this continent. When we imagine Africa as a unit, and as uncentral to our lives and experiences, we contribute to the imagined separations of “East” and “West,” “Third” and “First” Worlds, “developed” and “developing” that have allowed us to dismiss or treat Africa as “other.” We must acknowledge the complicated layers of identity and history that impact each African nation, culture, and diaspora as distinct.

If I came away with only one thing from Zeleza’s talk, it was the affirmation that Africa is deeply intertwined in our lives as Canadians. Yet the sad fact is that in our institution of higher learning, we compartmentalize Africa—when we treat it at all—instead of recognizing its formative involvement in our cultures and lifestyles. African Studies is therefore much more than a token nod, or a week designated for “third-world [insert discipline]” but a critical and much needed scholarly examination of every discipline from another, necessary, perspective. As long as we’re content to conceive of Africa as singular, without history, and removed from our experiences, we cannot expect to positively change the society that continues to normalize the marginalization of a continent.

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