Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

Why Studying African History is Good For You

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by Bronwen

I’m teaching about the post-war African colonial empires at the moment, and came across NYU Professor Fred Cooper’s lecture for the Stanford Humanities Centre while putting together the ‘further reading’ materials for my students.  I highly recommend this podcast.  (Number 29 here).

Listening to it, I was reminded why African history should not be a niche subject, but should be integral to all history curricula: the shape of how we think about the world owes a lot to how the world has engaged with Africa over the past 400 years. From humanitarianism to ‘development’, from ‘modern’ warfare to understandings of agricultural technology, from acceptable capitalism to unacceptable exploitation, concepts that we take for granted have emerged from our engagement with Africa.  What is the state for?  Are political parties inevitable in a democracy?  If ethnicity is defined by a shared cultural heritage and language, where does that break down territorially? What are the smallest and largest effective political structures?  All of these questions are raised by studying African history.

But even more fundamentally, studying African history is important for challenging the narrative of progress, as Cooper does so effectively in this lecture.  Yes, in some ways learning history is about learning how we got here.  But in other, equally important ways, it is about the roads not taken.  Learning African history can help demonstrate that the nation state has never been an inevitability, for instance, and that citizenship is a pretty arbitrary category.  The shifting categories of citizen, subject, and national in French Africa (the subject of the podcast) were not different ways of getting to the objectively ‘true’ form of citizenship as now practiced.  Citizenship, national identity, and supranational identities have always been negotiated and what we have now is just as arbitrary and negotiated a category as the forms that existed in the nineteenth century empires or in the mid-twentieth century Unions or Federations or Communities or Commonwealths.

This is particularly relevant teaching in the EU, where despite the contested nature of that body within English opinion, national and supranational citizenship are part of daily life.  But I imagine it would be equally relevant in both the EU and the US, where countries increasingly cling to an ‘origins’ notion of citizenship and nationality in an attempt to define the limits of social citizenship and its entitlements.

There are so many reasons to study history more generally.  But African history can provide a unique insight into the assumptions we all make about the ‘modern’ world, how we got here, and how completely different fundamental conceptions about how the world operates could be if one small thing were different.


Written by apini

February 24, 2012 at 04:52

Third Chimurenga

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by Bronwen

Africa’s having a bit of a renaissance moment in the news lately.  Between the Economist‘s retraction of it’s claim that Africa is doomed, the Guardian’s report on Africa’s middle class, and a new EU-funded project that highlights Africa’s other class,  it seems that people are waking up to the fact that there’s more to Africa than the grim war-torn, famine-stricken, refugee-filled images of the 1990s and early 2000s. But most of the attention so far has been on the growing material wealth of Africans (or at least, Eur-Americans’ growing recognition of the material wealth of Africans).  The Africa Report and the FT’s This is Africa are both focused on convincing the business world that Africa is a sound investment.

In a different vein, this past weekend’s FT Magazine, Simon Kuper’s column featured a promising new angle that looks beyond ‘hey, Africans can buy things’ to ‘hey, Africa has a thriving intellectual culture too.’  (Again, in the mainstream media.  Africa is a Country has been doing this for a long time.)  As my own research is on middle class West African diaspora contributions to Atlantic intellectual and social developments in the nineteenth century, and I spend a lot of time convincing my students that much of Africa has a long history of a thriving business class and a thriving scholarly tradition, this shift can only be good for furthering my case.

The focus of Simon Kuper’s article is Chimurenga, a magazine published in Cape Town and founded by Ntone Edjabe (pictured) in 2002. Chimurenga bills itself as ‘a pan African publication of writing, art and politics’.  It’s also published in Nairobi with Kenya’s literary magazine Kwani and Lagos with Nigeria’s independent publisher Cassava Republic Press.  In fact it’s a little McSweeney’s-esque, with different formats and conceits for each issue.  The writing, however, tends to be more non-fiction: hard-hitting journalism; book and art criticism; interviews; and a variety of other forms. Beyond the magazine itself, Chimurenganyana is the book publishing arm of the project.  They are ‘ a pavement literature project consisting of low cost serialized monographs culled from the print journal’ and have published 6 books to date.  They also collaborate with academia, putting out a biennual publication on Africa’s cities with University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities.  All of this is very cool, and certainly does its part to show Eur-America that the Africa we think we know is just an Africa of our imagination.

But what I find the most exciting about this is that it’s not for Eur-Americans.  Sure, I can subscribe and can see articles on their  Read the rest of this entry »

Written by apini

February 3, 2012 at 03:25

Joe Frazier’s Historical Significance

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by David

I’m a big boxing fan, but I don’t pretend to be an expert on former heavyweight champion Smokin’ Joe Frazier, who passed away last night at the age of 67. There has been a remarkable moment of sadness coming from all corners of the boxing community, from the classy Lennox Lewis to the controversial Floyd Mayweather Jr., who has promised that his “Money Team” will pay for the funeral. I share that sadness. And that’s why I want to echo Ta-Nehisi Coates, who tweeted about the disappointing New York Times obituary, “Not really an honor to Frazier to start an obit claiming he was a ‘better man’ than Ali.”

Of course, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier are inextricably linked. But the obituary’s author dwelled too much on comparing Frazier and Ali as fighters and as men, while completely ignoring Frazier’s political and historical significance. He notes that Ali called Frazier “a gorilla” and “stupid.” As this far better Christian Science Monitor tribute notes, Ali also called Frazier an “Uncle Tom,” while Frazier called Ali “Cassius Clay,” his “slave name” that he renounced upon joining the Nation of Islam and changing it to Muhammad Ali in 1964.

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier represented the most important theme of African American history, the struggle between separation and integration. When Frazier and Ali first fought, in 1971 (clip above), African Americans had overcome slavery and Jim Crow, but Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, and Black Power was on the rise. Ali was a member of the Nation of Islam who had been stripped of his title while in prison for refusing to serve in the military  during the Vietnam war. He represented the spirit of Black separatism. Frazier, on the other hand, was the establishment fighter, the “white man’s” champ.

When the lighter-skinned Ali called the darker Frazier an “Uncle Tom,” the moment was rich with irony. Frazier, a descendent of share-croppers, was one of 12 children born in rural South Carolina. As the NYT obit notes, he grew up “picking vegetables for 15 cents a crate when not helping his father, a handyman who lost his left arm in an auto accident.” He brought $200 with him when he took a Greyhound Bus to New York to find better opportunities. He then went to Philly, and found occasional work in a meat locker, where he punched hunks of meat like a heavy bag, inspiring Sylvester Stallone to include a similar scene in Rocky.

The NYT piece fails to mention Ali’s upbringing. Though hardly wealthy, the Clays lived a relatively comfortable and secure lower-middle class life in Louisville, Kentucky. Both of Ali’s parents were regularly employed, and he graduated from high school before heading off to the Olympics. Nonetheless, he became a symbolic hero to Blacks in America and Africa, as demonstrated in the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings. The movie chronicles Ali’s trip to Zaire in 1974, where he upset then heavyweight champion George Foreman. Though now more famous for his grilling machine, the Houston-born Foreman was once a ferocious fighter. Like Ali and Frazier, he was also an Olympic gold medalist, and like Frazier, had grown up in poverty, yet he could not seem to win his people’s hearts the way his charismatic opponent could. Indeed, many of the Zaire locals thought Foreman was white before he showed up. Perhaps this degree of detail on Ali would have been too much for a Frazier obit, but some contrast of Ali and Frazier’s background helps place their historical significance.

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Written by David Weinfeld

November 8, 2011 at 12:17


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by Bronwen

There is a new, serious crisis in East Africa.  I recently saw a facebook meme that expressed what is officially referred to as ‘aid fatigue’ or ‘crisis fatigue’.

BREAKING NEWS: We need to send money to the following country: USA. There are many without food, shelter, and clean drinking water. Residents are going without heat for the winter, no a/c for the summer. Millions are without jobs. Need health care for the sick. Stop sending money overseas. We have people here that lack basic human needs. Do you have the guts to re-post this?? AMERICA FIRST!

In a time when life is uncertain for so many Americans (see Peter’s post on this blog last week), it’s not surprising that this should emerge.  Middle class life is perceived to be (and could very well be) perched on the edge of a steep decline.

So these Americans would probably be delighted to know that they do not have to carry the whole burden by themselves.  The Daily Nation also has an interesting, and a number of letters to the editor that point out a side of the crisis which will probably not make it into the US or UK news:  Kenyan contributions to the relief efforts through a variety of initiatives, like Kenyans for Kenya.

A number of recent projects have been dedicated to stories about the emergence of an African middle class.  This one is particularly good, although its choice of sample countries is perhaps a bit odd.  The blog Africa is a Country focuses on ‘everyday’ Africa.  The FT has also recently started a quarterly magazine, This is Africa, which brings business and investment stories and interviews from the continent to readers in the US and Europe.

However, in general there is both less interest in and a certain discomfort about the African middle class.  Why?  I think there are a couple of important reasons. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by apini

August 5, 2011 at 07:23

Posted in Academia, Africa, class

Underdeveloping a Libertarian Paradise

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by Bronwen

I’m currently on a research trip in Kenya, so have been following the news of the debt crisis from afar.  In a country, and a region, currently facing a real crisis of famine, in part caused by the inability or unwillingness of various regional governments to prepare for the third drought season in a row, the fake crisis manufactured by extremist politicians in the US does seem a bit silly (silly, but still with wide ramifications, as an article in the Kenya Daily Nation argues).  But in both cases, the unwillingness of governments to put governance before politics is marked, as this political cartoon reveals.

Not long ago, a blog I follow posted this video, a tourism video for a ‘libertarian paradise.’

When travelling or working in Africa, Asia, South America, and other parts of the so-called ‘developing’ world, the things that mark countries as ‘more’ or ‘less’ Read the rest of this entry »

Written by apini

August 2, 2011 at 11:47

An Unlikely Pair

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by apini

This week’s Economist and Weekend FT both feature articles about the newest candidate to enter the Republican nomination contest, Michele Bachmann. As papers that regularly point to the celebrity reality show nature of Sarah Palin’s past (and potential future) candidacy, the papers treat Bachmann remarkably seriously.  They refer to her polling numbers in Iowa, where she is only behind Mitt Romney by 1 percentage point in the Republican nominating contest.  They refer to her religious convictions, and although it’s clear that they are not shared by the authors of the pieces, the tone is markedly different from those aimed at Palin, or even Newt Gingrich.  ‘Authenticity’, ‘conviction’, ‘credentials’ seem to be the buzzwords surrounding Bachmann.   She is genuinely passionate about her religious convictions, the papers argue.  She’s the opposite of Romney’s transparent faux conservativeness, and therefore will appeal to real value voters, they say.  She is ideologically pure, as well, ridiculing the Republican establishment with as much vigor as she ridicules Democratic opponents.  But they also emphasize that she’s no lightweight.  Although she has a limited political track record, they are keen to highlight that unlike Palin, she’s smart.  Not just shrewd (though there’s that too: ‘And Mrs Bachmann certainly knows how to play Iowa;’ ‘She is a gifted public speaker, with a knack for rousing a crowd;’ ‘ her appetite for provocative stunts;’ etc), she is portrayed as genuinely smart, presidential material: The Economist says ‘ She replied, in a suitably dignified, presidential manner, that she deserved to be taken seriously.‘  The FT says that ‘In Republican circles she is seen as having the potential to outshine Palin by being a smarter and more disciplined candidate.’  Clearly the comparisons to Palin are easy for journalists: they are both ‘values’ candidates, they appeal to similar voters, and they are both women.

What is more intriguing about this coverage, though, is its potential for international comparisons.  A regular feature of the Economist (and its only regular Read the rest of this entry »

Written by apini

July 2, 2011 at 09:45

Aid and Intervention

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by apini

Humanitarian rhetoric has ramped up recently.  Do we have a moral duty to intervene on the behalf of those civilian populations in Libya being targeted by Qaddafi (or in Bahrain, or Yemen, or Egypt, or Cote d’Ivoire)?  Is it our responsibility to respond to the ‘humanitarian’ disaster following the earthquake in Japan (or New Zealand, or Haiti, or Chile)?

Accompanying this increased (over)use of ‘humanitarianism’ has been a growing reaction against it.  Pundits from Fox News to the Guardian who pointed to a humanitarian crisis before the intervention are now questioning its relevance – do we need to intervene because it is a humanitarian crisis?  Or is it a humanitarian ‘crisis’ because we need to intervene? And once we’ve intervened, what comes next?  State-building? Humanitarian relief? Regime change?

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Written by apini

March 24, 2011 at 05:17