By Efua Prah. Article originally published on ALICE news on 16.03.2022
When we think of Africa, what story dominates? Whilst we have been expertly cautioned about the dangers of a single story, the popular narratives of the lumbering economic giant, or the poverty-stricken continent lingers, not as a slowly diluted image but rather as a looming fact. For the most part, Africa remains the reserve of ire from disparaging global leaders and worst still as the laboratory site for Western ideas and medicine. As African scholars, based on the continent, amongst a plethora of varying interests of exploration, we have also engaged in bodies of work that subvert and destabilize the weight of Africa’s encounter with the European Other. I have chosen this descriptor of the European Other to centralise the subjecthood of whiteness that in its most gross form, produces a malady in consciousness for its ability to morally justify violences perpetrated over a 500-year period against many people of the globe. This is succinctly accounted for in the work of Rosa Amelia Plumelle-Uribe’s book, ‘White Ferocity: The Genocides of Non-Whites and Non-Aryans from 1492 to Date’ in which Plumelle-Uribe sets to task the careful documentation of the crimes committed against the “inferior” Other [italicised to highlight the corruption of sensibility that a politics of whiteness produces] and the ways in which these crimes are inseparable from capitalist accumulation.
The discourse on Africa, by Africans is robust, it is critical, it is full. The records are visible and multiple, although they remain inaccessible as a free digital archive. It was with this awareness that I, in partnership with a colleague, Shaheed Tayob, organised a workshop in African Critical Studies (the naming of which is a moot point). The workshop brought together researchers, thinkers, and activists whose common area of interest is loosely formulated around critical thought in African studies. Held over two days on the 29th and 30th September 2021 at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS), emerging debates centered along lines of mutual import of the myriad intersections and disciplinary departure points and the ways in which these enfold themselves to form critical discussions about African politics, law and socioeconomic realities. Topics in discussion were framed against a historical backdrop that considered a critique of liberal democracy; the problem of race and culture and African history as informing law and development; the implications of an idea of conquest on black subjectivity; violence and the postcolonial state; and the positioning and locating of what African thought/studies is in relation to the making of an archive.
When we examine African Critical Studies, we seek to understand the diverse lived experiences, practices and economies of Africa. We aim to better understand the role history, culture(s), and geopolitics has played and continues to play in the building of key sociopolitical and economic institutions. To this end, we question the making of repositories of alterity as they relate to Africa and also examine postcolonial theoretics, providing an explorative critique of forms of Eurocentric social dominance and political subterfuge. This necessarily means that we engage with discourses on race, class, gender, sexuality and environmental studies from the African context.
I am attracted to this idea of a digital archive because it allows, for those interested, a holding space to place a compass against. Being able to direct our gaze in areas less looked-upon, or indeed for us to (re)tell stories that produce rhizomatic repositories of critical engagement add complexity to scholarship on the continent. As a scholar in the social sciences in South Africa, I am always unnerved at the epistemic closures I experienced in my earlier interactions within the academy, and more importantly, the ways in which my pedagogical programme within the social sciences haunts me as a continued injustice. I wish that during my undergraduate years I had wrestled with the ideas of Valentin-Yves Mudimbe, or indeed, had the opportunity to formulate an understanding of self from early records on African civilization accounted for through the work of Cheik Anta Diop, Nontsizi Mgqwetho, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, and Dani Wadada Nabudere. I wish that when I sought refuge from the polemical ideals of Africa’s positioning on the global stage that I could have consulted the works of Samir Amin, Thandika Mkandawire, or Kwame Ninsin. When foraging for a sensibility in Feminist teachings, why was my compass not set to the important works of Amina Mama, Sylvia Tamale, Oyeronke Oyewumi, or Ifi Amadiume. I want to lay my complaints on my teachers in the academy (a sociocultural powerhouse that remains largely untransformed) who were mostly white and male, for the erasures and for the complicit nature of their silencing of multiple stories, that they as the more experienced scholars should have been better positioned to identify the dangers of a single story. Perhaps it was a laziness on their part, or an absence of mind. Either way, the work has now become mine to nurture. Thus the building of an accessible (digital), rich and critical archive on African Thought is part of the work I allude to when I am asked, “how do you define the work”? There are of course examples of this kind of work. What I add, joins what feels like a strong march toward a pedagogical training that unseats Western epistemic privileging.
The African continent plays an important role globally. It is home to multiple languages and vibrant cultures, boasts some of the world’s most abundant and unique floral and animal kingdoms, and is host to some of the fastest growing economies in the world. Africa is a critical global player at the centre of cultural convergences. Let us not forget.