Posted: March 18th, 2023
African Studies and Multiculturalism
An article by Mineke Schipper, titled “Knowledge is like an ocean: insiders, outsiders, and the academy,” has as its focus the discussion the “unequal power relations that persist” between Africa and the Western world. The piece, published in Research in African Literatures, also points to the fact that African scholars who wish to participate in the discussion vis-a-vis those “power relations” are for the most part shut out due to “a continued marginalization and inequality in access to information and dialogue.”
Schipper uses several analogies to make the point that “various kinds of people” have been kept out of sciences and also kept “outside the boundaries of ‘civilized mankind.'” And in the process of making the point that Africans, in particular, have been isolated from the global intellectual and scholarly community, Schipper quotes from David Hume (1748) who suspected (in “Human Understanding”) that “…the negroes and in general all the other species of men…to be naturally inferior to the whites.” Hume insisted there “never was a civilized nation of any complexion than white,” albeit he neglected to mention the many uncivilized acts of colonial violence that the British visited upon innocents worldwide.
Still, though that racist passage by Hume was penned 258 years ago, Schipper goes on to suggest that not much has changed in the world in terms of opportunities for African people of color in science and scholarship; “…the majority of people have no say…” In the writing of history, or the development of science and literature, according to Schipper, author of several books and Professor of Intercultural Literary Studies at the University of Leiden.
It is true, as Schipper claims that “written texts” tend to “dominate oral history and oral literature” and they take on a life “of their own.” And it is also true that researchers’ writings “effectively mold reality according to their own will,” although that does not prove in any way that researchers’ “wills” are necessarily or generally speaking evil, racist, necessarily biased against any culture or limited in their range of ideas. So, in assessing Schipper’s contentions, one needs to keep an open mind and understand what it might be like to be a person of scholarly skills who lives on a continent that is constantly being pushed away from the world of respected scholarship.
She connects writing with freedom, and suggests that “white domination and prejudice” have effectively blocked African writers and poets from expressing their rebuttals to Western scholarship on African affairs. Historically, the colonized are “by definition doomed to remain an outsider,” according to Albert Memmi (quoted by Schipper), because there can be no assimilation between the colonial culture and the colonized. And worse yet the histories written about the colonized by the colonialists – whether during the period of colonization or after the colonialists go back home – tend to be bigoted piety.
For example English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, in a BBC radio lecture, made the claim that Africa had no history and that there was “nothing to be found in Africa” other than “…unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe.” This racist diatribe was replied to by Kenvan Ali Mazrui, according to Schipper’s article, because “there had been enough history of barbarians and savages” and it was time for a new take on African history.
It now becomes important that the mere accumulation of extra information does not perpetuate the Trevor-Roper myth,” Mazrui wrote in 1970. Only a “process of counter-selection can correct this, and African historians have to concentrate on those aspects which were ignored by the disparaging mythologies,” Mazrui continued. Another African historian, Henk Wesseling, quoted by Schipper, had this to add to the subject: “Anyone who reconstructs the African past in terms of the present [political] state structure, actually reconstructs nothing, for that structure is a product of a very recent colonial past.” The history of Africa “has been discovered,” Wesseling continues, “But how is it to be written?” That is precisely the issue that Schipper’s article addresses. “Us” versus “them” is not a new theme, but it more than aptly applies when it comes to the cultures of Africa trying to offer a legitimate, unbiased, objective theme to its history.
Meanwhile, the problem of representing Africa in literature and history also relates to the field of anthropology; the “colonial behavior pattern” of many anthropologists, unfortunately, has not been helpful in telling the real story of Africa. But Schipper notes that anthropologist Johannes Fabian, in his book Power and Performance, constructs “a dialog” that embraces a “reversible relationship between anthropologists and what used to be called their objects.” Fabian “seeks to avoid the allegation of an unequal and manipulative relationship between subject and object, between researchers and informants, for which a previous generation had been blamed,” Schipper writes.
In Fabian’s approach to anthropology, the construction of knowledge about a given culture is based on a scenario in which “nothing of what really happened is hidden” and everybody involved participates “on an equal footing”; however, as fair as Fabian’s approach may seem to be, Schipper continues, it “cannot succeed,” simply because his “performance partners are not in the academic circuit of which he is a part and for which his research results are finally intended.”
Indeed, sociologist Genevieve Bolleme writes that the concept of “the people” is “always political, or a result of some specific ‘political policy’ that occurs from the moment ‘the people’ are declared marginal or held at bay.” The “specialist” (e.g., the anthropologist) looks at “the people” from the “outside” and makes “the people” the object of research, the subject of the literature to be written; but, and here is the million dollar question, after “continuous fiddling” and readjusting of the “image” of “the people,” do “the people ever recognize themselves in what others write about them.” Do indigenous people ever get the floor “to speak and write on behalf of their own groups”? Not very likely, the answer has to be, and when they do get to speak, is anybody listening to their voices?
Meanwhile, an editorial by Jean-Francois Fourny and Marie-Paule Ha, published in Research in African Literatures, called “Introduction: The history of an idea,” takes a deep dive into the definition of “culture” and into “multiculturalism.” The authors assert that the “idea of multiculturalism” as the “coexistence of different cultures within a different community has in fact known a long and tortuous history.” To back up that bold offering, the authors point out that in many instances, the attempt to blend several diverse cultures in one setting has been “by turn tolerated, condemned or promoted” according to “specific political imperatives of a given period.”
The oppression of the colonized by the colonialists is, in words used historically, the “denial of culture” – be it ethnic, linguistic, social or economic – to the “way of life of a given community.” When the historical literature is written, according to the authors of this editorial, too often the “uncultured group” is subject to the “domination and oppression” of the “cultured group” – and that is the same as the “uncivilized group” becoming “civilized” by the oppressor.
The history of the word “culture” itself is interesting; its first meaning was, according to the editorial, “the tending of something, basically crops or animal”; and from the 16th Century onwards the word was used to describe human development; in the 18th Century is came to be interchangeable with “civilization”; later, Herder’s writings influenced “culture” further, into “nations, periods, or even social and economic groups within a nation,” the editorial continues.
The modern sense of the word “culture” is used in three ways; a general process of “intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development”; a “particular way of life, whether of a people, a period, or a group”; and three, “the works and practices of intellectual and artistic activity such as music, literature, painting, theater, or film,” Fourny and Ha explain. And so, with those careful descriptions of what culture has meant in the past, and what culture does represent today, the first and third descriptions, Fourny and Ha explain, are “often perceived (rightly or wrongly) as pertaining to the purview of the social elite classes.” The middle, or second, description is the anthropologist’s view of culture: they put forward that knowledge, rules, behavior, belief, myth and codes all combine to define a group or “a people.”
And moreover, those nations in Europe and elsewhere that were colonial powers at one time or another in Africa, for example, now find that individuals from the very “cultures” they once ruled over have “made their way into the metropolitan centers” of their homeland in Europe. But for France, as one example, the word “multiculturalism” causes discomfort, now that folks from the former French colonized nations of Africa are living in Paris and elsewhere; after all, the right wing in France believes that their nation is only for “real” French men and women, not for these interlopers from African countries France once held colonial power over.
Social dissent and unrest should not be the result of multiculturalism, the authors point out, but nonetheless those are the social realities, in many instances, of the new global picture. There is now, like it or not, a “blurring of cultural borderlines,” the authors report; and as a result, the notion of culture within the word “multiculturalism” no longer refers to habits and customs of a people in anthropological terms. Rather, “culture” in the term “multiculturalism” alludes to race, creed, sexual orientation, gender, and lifestyles of various and divers groups within the greater culture.
A very poignant quote is offered in the conclusion of the editorial, a quote which cries out to be read to those reporting on, studying and/or dealing with today’s dramatic cultural changes in Western societies; it is a statement by Aijza Ahmad, who reflects the perspective of “the less-well-to-do colonial states,” according to the editorial. “It is not at all clear how the celebration of a postcolonial, transnational, electronically produced cultural hybridity is to be squared with this systematic decay of countries and continents,” Ahmad writes. And how will this cultural hybridity be squared “with decreasing chances for substantial proportions of the global population to obtain conditions of bare survival, let alone electronic literacy and gadgetry,” he wonders.
An article in the NABJ Journal titled “Basket making is historical link: Craft provide link between cultures,” offers another way in which cultures are linked. The history of Africa of course includes the grim facts that “from the late 1600s to about 1808, some 500,000 Africans were sold into slavery in North America” (Frazier, 1995). Many of those slaves landed in Charleston, South Carolina, and were put to work for their masters in plantations in both South Carolina and Georgia. The African slaves were kidnapped and put into bondage came from an area of Africa, according to Frazier’s article, that “stretched from Senegal to Angola,” which today includes Gambia and Sierra Leone.
Africans from that area of the continent helped raise rice, and used “wide fanner baskets to winnow the grain,” and they also used covered baskets to store the crop once it was harvested, Frazier continues. Once they were working in the American colonies, their African culture “evolved into a culture called Gullah,” and some of those people returned to Sierra Leone and that group became known later as “Krios.” The crux of this story is that the making of “coiled baskets” – still crafted by Africans in Sierra Leone as well as African-Americans in South Carolina and Georgia, who are descendents of slaves who worked the plantations so many years ago – “bridges the two cultures,” according to Frazier.
The coiled baskets are the same as they were hundreds of years ago. They consist of “tightly coiled rows of grass that spiral out from the bottom” Frazier explains. And while B.W. Watts sells baskets on the sidewalk just outside the federal courthouse in Charleston, S.C., and has for the past ten years, 4,000 miles away in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Miniratu Ibrahim sits in a big market selling the same kind of baskets to tourists. Cultures linked together, tied together, by the very crafts their peoples have been making and marketing for hundreds of years.
The difference is, in South Carolina, the coils are made from “gold-colored sweetgrass that grows wild at the edge of tidal marshes,” and the baskets are decorated with “brown long-leaf pine needles or bulrush,” and they are partially wrapped with palmetto leaves, Frazier explains. The Freetown baskets are made from swamp grass shaped into bundles “and completely wrapped with palm leaves”; the palm-leaf wrapping is sometimes colored, “created designs around the basket,” Frazier continued.
The sad part of this cultural linkage story is that while the baskets in South Carolina sell very well, and there are plenty of tourists to buy them, there is a civil war going on in Sierra Leone, and because it is very dangerous to venture into the market area where traditionally the baskets are sold, according to Frazier. And worse, “news of the fighting in the international media has sharply reduced tourist travel to Sierra Leone,” Frazier points out. “That has left Ibrahim with fewer buyers… [and] her table is often piled high with baskets waiting to be sold.”
Thomas J. Kitson, meanwhile, writing in Research in African Literature (“Tempering Race and Nation: Recent Debates in Diaspora Identity”), quotes novelist Ralph Ellison’s writing about the peoples of partial African origin, who are “scattered throughout the world”; they are not linked by culture, but rather through “an identity of passions,” he asserted. And those folks, Ellison writes, share with him “a hatred for the alienation forced upon us by Europeans during the process of colonization and empire.” The “suffering” binds African peoples together more than the shared “pigmentation.”
With that, Kitson asks a series of questions in his essay about whether or not Africans truly shared a “common culture” prior to their diaspora experience and whether or not there might now be “common culture” to recover. And indeed, he wonders, what is it “that compels them to continue investing their passions in their loss?”
Kitson helps answer his own somewhat difficult questions by reaching out to African literary figures – the very talent that Mineke Schipper believes is not taken seriously by the world outside Africa. For example, Kitson invokes the work of Kwame Anthony Appiah, who wrote In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. Appiah would agree of some of what Ellison wrote, Kitson explains, including the assertion of Ellison that Africans do not have a common culture.
But, Kitson goes on, Appiah would disagree with Ellison’s “identity of passions,” and instead Appiah sees the world (in his book) “…as a network of points of affinity.” That is certainly a more positive, uplifting way of approaching the legacy of African diaspora. Appiah clearly views the dispersal of many Africans as “an experience of multiple identities,” Kitson explains, and every individual’s identity of course differs slightly from the next person’s identity.
Identities are complex and multiple and grow out of a history of changing responses to economic, political, and culture forces, almost always in opposition to other identities,” Appiah writes on page 178 of his book. And those identities “…flourish despite…their roots in myths and lies,” Appiah continues; and there is “…in consequence, no large place for reason in the construction – as opposed to the study and management – of identities.”
And so, the author is urging intellectuals to see identities as transparent, and to resist “myths and lies” while at the same time reassessing the real identities of Africans once the “mystifications” have been disposed of. Appiah seems the kind of writer who is saying, through his work, that anger and rage at the diaspora of the past is useless and wasteful. His use of the word “race” is not in the traditional biological sense, nor the historical or metaphysical senses. In fact, to recognize the historical experience of slavery (e.g. diaspora) as “unifying” today’s Africans is useless because that implies the common culture or identity of Africans, which Appiah has already denied exists.
What Appiah’s book calls for is “another set of stories” that will indeed help Africans “build…identities through which we can make more productive alliances.” In other words, the best way to begin to weave a tapestry of African cultural commonness is by starting over, wiping the blackboard clean of old chalk marks, and using a fresh piece of chalk to begin drawing a new strategy for all to see. And in order to wipe that metaphorical blackboard clean, Kitson suggests, Africans must counter their “alienated image” in the “European discourse of race” through their own writings in African publications. And moreover, Africans and African-Americans must create or at least make available to the young “a system of liberal education that would affirm their race pride and mission.”
Another author that Kitson alludes to in his essay on culture and Africa is Molefi Kete Asante, who wrote The Afrocentric Idea. In his book, Asante writes that “It is clear to me from my own study of history that cultures do exist and in fact persist for centuries with many basic characteristics hardly changed.” This is a far cry from Appiah’s approach, but then, why would African writers be any more inclined to share the same attitudes and perspectives as Africans (who are dispersed world-wide) would share histories?
When human societies are operating “…on the foundations of myths, history, and memories,” Asante continues, “There are certain essential characteristics that identify the contours of our African-American community. These are not immutable characteristics, in the sense of being inborn, but rather the fundamental outlines of what we regard and preserve as characteristic of our society,” according to Asante. He avoids the term and concept of “race” and focuses instead on “a coherent culture,” Kitson insists.
And though Asante tries to break away from the kind of race-based literary rage Ellison employs, he can’t always resist writing about the diaspora and the legacy of oppression; and thus he “occasionally uses formulations that elide agency,” Kitson explains. Kitson illustrates that above-mentioned point by using Asante’s sentence from page 59 of The Afrocentric Idea: “…The internal mythic clock, the epic memory, the psychic stain of Africa [is] in our spirits.”
Whether or not great works of African literature receive the notice they deserve outside the continent, for Africans, the writings of people like Chinua Achebe resonate with power, according to a first person article by Simon Gikandi in Research in African Literatures (“Chinua Achebe and the Invention of African Culture”). For Gikandi, reading Achebe’s Things Fall Apart defined his personal identity; like one of those moments such as “where one was when John F. Kennedy was assassinated,” many of Gikandi’s peers remember where they were when they first read the novel because his generation “shared a common cultural project.”
The reading of Achebe’s novel was pivotal for Gikandi’s generation not only because it was far more relevant to their lives than reading (as they were obliged to at one time) Robert Lewis Stevenson novels; but also because it marked “…that exciting first decade of decolonization.” What Gikandi expresses in his essay might be linked, culturally and experientially, to the revelation that, following the Civil Rights Movement, African-Americans in Alabama and Mississippi could now take any seat in the bus they wished to, could sit at lunch counters, and could vote without having to pay a “poll tax” or take a test written by racist white people in an effort to keep Jim Crow alive.
Fourny, Jean-Francois, & Ha, Marie-Paule. “Introduction: The history of an idea.” Research in African Literatures 28.4 (1997): 1-8.
Frazier, Herb. “Basket making is historical link: Craft provide link between cultures.” NABJ
Journal 13.5 (1995): 4-7.
Gikandi, Simon. “Chinua Achebe and the Invention of African Culture.” Research in African
Literatures 32.3 (2001): 3-10.
Kitson, Thomas J. “Tempering Race and Nation: Recent Debates in Diaspora Identity.” Research
In African Literatures 30.2 (1999): 88-95.
Schipper, Mineke. “Knowledge is like an ocean: insiders, outsiders, and the academy.” Research
In African Literatures 28.4 (1997): 121-142.
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