Jean Allman on Race and the Politics of Knowledge Production in African Studies

Historians in the News
tags: 1968, Race, Africana studies, Jean Allman

Marius Kothor is a PhD student in the Department of History at Yale University. She received her BA in African and African American Studies from the University of Rochester and an MA in History from the University of Iowa. Her current research focuses on the role of market women in the construction of national identity in Togo and the construction of African identity among Africans living in the United States. Follow her on Twitter @AfrikanaPress.

In the United States, African scholars are conspicuously underrepresented in the field of African Studies. For years, Black scholars have called attention to the racial politics that make this situation possible. This issue took on renewed urgency during the 61st annual meeting of the African Studies Association (ASA) in November 2018. On the second day of the meeting in Atlanta, Jean Allman—an eminent historian and president of the ASA—gave a lecture titled #HerskovitsMustFall? A Meditation on Whiteness, African Studies, and the Unfinished Business of 1968.1 Allman’s lecture chronicled the historical and continuing marginalization of Black scholars in African Studies and revealed how the field became dominated by white men. The talk was designed to open the door for the following day’s sessions, led by Black African and African American scholars, on what can be done about the persistent problem of racism in African Studies. Still, the enthusiastic reception of Allman’s talk highlights the fact that even the work of calling attention to the racism within African Studies is racialized.

Allman began the lecture by highlighting how the first leaders of the ASA intentionally established African Studies in the United States as a white man’s dominion by undermining the work of Black scholars. For example, Melville J. Herskovits—the first president of the African Studies Association and after whom the ASA’s annual book prize is named—once boasted that he was responsible for ensuring that W.E.B. Du Bois did not receive funding from the Carnegie Foundation to support his work on the Encyclopedia Africana.2 Although he was unable to complete the project before his death in 1963, Du Bois envisioned the encyclopedia to be a comprehensive work on Africa and African descended people that would challenge the prevailing enlightenment idea that Black people were incapable of developing civilizations. The hostile treatment of Black scholars by the ASA’s first leaders contributed to the rift between the fields of African Studies and African American Studies that is still palpable today. Thus, despite the fact that African Americans were amongst the first scholars in the United States to study the peoples and cultures of the African continent, African Studies became a field controlled by white, mostly male scholars who branded themselves as “Africanists.”

Read entire article at Black Perspectives

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