Workshop in African Intellectual History

Daniel Magaziner
May 19, 2016

The Workshop in African Intellectual History opened on March 31 with Daniel Magaziner’s (Yale University) reflection on what historians can offer “to moments of great restiveness,” such as the present, where students across university campuses are looking to ideas help challenge institutionalized racism around them. “We have time,” Magaziner explained, “time is our most valuable currency. Historians sometimes work with urgency, but frequently against urgency. We work slowly, methodically to recover times when there was time… to take the time to make our way through archives, to talk to elders, to peel back layers of ideas and bring them to the present.”

With this invitation for those present to enjoy this time to learn from each other, Robert Harms welcomed Achille Mbembe (University of the Witwatersrand) to deliver the opening lecture for the workshop on “Decolonizing the University.”

Bringing both the themes of urgency and the importance of methodical recovery to the fore, Mbembe observed, “more than half a century after the formal end of colonial empires, the injunction to decolonize has never been as strident as it is today.” While he expressed sympathy towards the renewed energy to dismantle oppressive knowledge regimes, Mbembe noted, “I am rather skeptical as to whether there is anything original we could add to the existing library of critique of decolonization.” Following a historical contextualization of the concept of decolinzation, and an analysis of its theorizing by Frantz Fanon and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Mbembe interrogated its application by students at South Africa universities. Here Mbembe focused on the RhodesMustFall and FeesMustFall movements, that garnered international attention over the past year for their roles in the removal of Cecil Rhodes’ statue from the University of Cape Town and the success in preventing tuition increases at public universities, both of which were framed as parts of a broader agenda to decolonize the university. Mbembe put forward the theory that these movements’ actions are based on the politics of viscerality that deploys the motifs of the body, such as pain and suffering, anger, grief, and fear to perform a certain type of radicalism. He critiqued the ways that this emphasis on the body as the primary site for political theorizing has delineated the terms for imagining and articulating possibilities of intersubjectivity and the terms of decolonization more broadly.

This theory of viscerality sparked lively debate throughout the workshop and provided a reference point in several scholars’ discussions of the importance of theorizing the internal body, the relationship between the body and intellectual history, and the role of the visceral in political and social life.

The first full day of the workshop began with Abdoulaye Gueye’s (University of Ottawa) framing remarks, In the Shadow of Negritude’s Craftsmen. Here, Gueye discussed some of the social, political and material differences between negritude writers and the post-negritude formations that later emerged. In this framing, he made important connections between post-negritude formations in Francophone Africa and in France. This theme of the movement of ideas across geographies emerged as a significant link between papers and panels over the next two days, a number of which returned to Gueye’s framing of these flows.

Beyond Biography, the first panel of the day brought together four papers, each approaching the idea of biography differently to ask a series of conceptual questions about the role of ethnography in biography and the meanings of intellectual, of chronology, and of archive. The diversity of approaches to the use of biography here is illustrated in the papers presented:

  • Kwasi Konadu (City University of New York), “‘You say he is a good Whiteman who will not cheat me?’: Medical Anthropology and The Intellectual History of Kofi Donko”
  • Jonathan Earle (Centre College), “Reassessing Epistemological Boundaries in African Intellectual History: Historical Imagination & Reading Practices in Colonial Uganda”
  • Tobias Warner (University of California, Davis), “The Fetish of Readability: David Boilat and the Making of the Colonial Library in 19th Century Senegal”
  • Lauren Jarvis (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), “Isaiah Shembe, Intellectual Community Conversion in Early Twentieth-Century South Africa.”

In these essays, Jim Sweet (University of Wisconsin, Madison), the panel’s chair, identified a potentially productive methodological tension in constructing biographies that fundamentally influenced what these narratives could shed light on about the past. He described this tension as “between the desire to tell individual stories of literate intellectuals based on archival sources along a legible chronological arch versus a desire to tell the stories of individuals as part of intellectual communities… based on a composite of diverse, sometimes unverifiable, sources in a fragmented fashion that is often scarcely legible, let alone chronologically coherent.”

“How we reconcile these two approaches” Sweet explained, “seems fundamental to our definition of both biography and intellectual.”

The following panel, Nation and Knowledge, chaired by Magaziner, explored various expressions of nationalism and statecraft, paying particular attention to dominant ideologies underpinning the constructions in both. These papers included:

  • Alden Young (Drexel University), “Teaching Economics as Statecraft in Sudan, 1930-1970”
  • Marissa Mika (University of Pennsylvania), “A Scientific Unit. Not Political at All,” which focused on a cancer research ward in Uganda
  • Elleni Zeleke (York University),“Social Science is a Battlefield: the impact of the theoretical journals of the Ethiopian Student Movement on the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974”
  • Aliyu Alabi (Bayero University), “Modernization Praxes in Islamic Education in Ilorin 1930-1965.”

In his response to the essays, Magaziner highlighted the theme of intellectuals and professionalization, particularly “the ways and sets of behaviors that all of these intellectuals attempted to maintain in their different contexts and the technologies of professionalization.” Each of the essays worked in some way to illuminate the relationships between the ideas that the various individuals and groups at hand produced and developments in their respective nation-states. To this point Magaziner asked, “How do you prove the impact of the ideas generated by the people that you are writing about?” This question animated much of the Q&A session, and pointed to the complexities and rich possibilities in intellectual history.

The roundtable, Ideas and Ideology in Words, Media, and Bodies, brought together literary scholar Stephanie Newell (Yale University), art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu (Princeton University), and historian of politics and gender Lynn Thomas (University of Washington). Newell discussed African-owned newspapers in West Africa in the colonial period, focusing on the relationship between newspapers, public intellectual spaces, and colonial bureaucratic spaces. Okeke-Agulu examined art produced by African artists in the period around African states’ liberation from colonial powers. He interrogated “the ways in which nationalism… was rearticulated and redeployed as a tool for ontological sovereignty.” Thomas closed the roundtable with her reflections on developments in African intellectual history, focusing on the treatment of debate, bodies and affect in studies on the movements and impacts of African epistemologies.

Penda Mbow (Université Chiekh Anta Diop) chaired the final panel of the day on Ideas and Transnational Activism. This session focused on how particular religious, political, social movements were impacted by the movement of people and ideas across continents. These papers were explicit and self-conscious in highlighting how both contexts in Africa and elsewhere were impacted, and to different extents transformed, by these flows of knowledge. The broad conceptualizations of activism and movement here are illustrated in the paper titles:

  • Sara Ranahma (Johns Hopkins University), “Young Men for Women’s Education: International Student Conferences in Interwar France and North Africa”
  • Lorelle Semley (College of the Holy Cross), “Scottsboro on Trial in the Black Press in Paris”
  • Joel Cabrita (Cambridge University), “A Transnational History of Zionism in South Africa and the United States: Towards New Ideologies of Empire”
  • Daniel Hodgkinson (Oxford University), “Politics beyond the frontier: black Rhodesia students, debates in ‘exile’, and the Special Commonwealth Programme, 1966-1980.”

Mbow reflected on how the themes emerging from the panel’s essays point to
the evolution of movements such as pan-negrisme, black consciousness, pan-Africanism and black nationalism that share a broader objective of changing African societies and countries. Mbow identified two key drivers of this evolution and spread of ideas. First was the press, which provided a means of dialogue among black elites in Africa and the diaspora. Second, the political left, especially the communist party, which provided an ideological framework that resonated with African political leaders and had transnational roots and reach.

Derek Peterson’s (University of Michigan) introductory framing remarks for the final day, on Dissent, followed a thread of Buganda pre-independence, religious history to argue that in this context, dissent in Buganda political was expressed through reading “selectively, experientially, snipping texts out of the fabric of the Bible [and] using them to uphold a life of peculiarity.” Over time, Peterson explains, some people used these methods to “position themselves within a narrative structure, like orthodoxy, that could authenticate and legitimate dissident religious practice.” Peterson used this case to argue that “the cultural history of Africa needs a history of oddity, peculiarity, and idiosyncrasy if it is to comprehend the taproot from which dissidents can spring.”

Also looking to different ways of reading the past, Sean Hanretta (Northwestern University), chair of the Moral Philosophies panel, noted that one of the possibilities that the category of intellectual history sometimes “promises to open up is taking ideas out of context, to break from the procedure of constantly locating practices spatially, temporally, and socially. While Hanretta Acknowledged that “ideas are produced and used in context,” he put forward that “they also have the ability to break free from and to transform their contexts.” Hanretta identified how the different essays grappled with the theme of ideas, context and recontextualization of ideas that moved across periods and spaces. He drew this analysis from the following essays:

  • Jessica Krug (George Washington University), “Fugitive Modernities and the Intellectual Life of Subject and Subjectivity Outside the State: A Five-Hundred Year, Transatlantic Biography”
  • Wendell Marsh (Columbia University), “Knowing beyond Human certainty: the Miraculous in Shaykh Musa Kamara’s Historiographical Method”
  • Charlotte Walker-Said (John Jay College, CUNY), “‘A Spiritual Decolonization’: Local and Global Christian Solidarities in the Catholic Church in Cameroon 1950-1970”
  • Sara Marzagora (SOAS), “‘We proceed following Japan’: the role of the Japanese model in early 20th century Ethiopian political philosophy.”

In the final panel of the workshop, Print Communities, Isabel Hofmeyr (University of the Witwatersrand) noted that the theme of periodicals reflects a larger historiographical pattern where “print culture has become an extremely vibrant and generative site in the field of African intellectual history.” She argued that this work starts to push at broader social and cultural theories and uses reading and writing as a lens through which to grapple with key political and social issues. Newspapers, Hofmeyer explained, “are emerging as major intellectual infrastructures forming part of a global commons facilitating the movement of ideas across borders. The panel’s essays highlighted the salience of this analysis and as the titles below suggest, more broadly innovative ways that scholars are (re)reading print and media sources:

  • Leslie James (University of Birmingham), “What is fascism? An African approach”
  • Emma Hunter (University of Edinburgh), “The press as a baraza: newspapers as a source for African intellectual history”
  • Pedro Monaville (New York University, Abu Dhabi), “How ideas travel: a postal history of the Congolese Sixties”
  • Jacqueline-Bethel Mougoué (Baylor University), “’Intellectual “Housewives’”, Journalism, and Anglophone Nationalism in Cameroon, 1961-1972”.

The workshop concluded with Paul Landau’s (University of Maryland) reflection, on his process over the years of “trying to clarify the nature of what communities think and believe.” Through his reading of local politics in pre and early colonial African polities in South Africa, Landau argued, “meaning is about what you do, to understand what people mean you have to understand what they are doing. It is not something that is contained in the symbol.” With a focus on why and how methodology is crucial to what historians can understand about the past, Landau drew together various threads of discussion from the workshop about the political and social significance of studying knowledge produced in Africa and understanding how different ideas have shaped various societies’ trajectories.

Shobana Shankar (Stony Brook University) closed the workshop with a set of questions brought up at its opening related to whether historians “can work in the same way we have been working in the past on the study of the past in light of what is happening now in movements to decolonize the university.” Like many scholars throughout the workshop, Shankar brought to the fore the relationship between ideas and action, emphasizing the need for intellectual history’s responsiveness to current contexts. In this discussion of the historical profession, Shankar referenced some of the productive models that emerged from the workshop on how historians might work differently, being cognizant of both historical inequality that is often central in the content of intellectual history and also confronting inequality in intellectual production.

The Workshop in African Intellectual History was made possible with support from U.S. Department of Education Title VI National Resource Center grant; Edward J. and Dorothy Clarke Kempf Memorial Fund; Stephen and Ruth Hendel ‘73 Fund for Innovation in Africa; The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale; and the Yale Council on African Studies.

Written by Thuto Thipe, Graduate Student, History 2021