The Nation-State, Pan-Africanism and Biosocial Claims to Knowledge

This past week, I participated in the second biennial conference of the African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) on “African Studies and Global Politics.” The ASAA seeks to promote the study of Africa from an Africanist perspective, and as such, much of the discourse at the conference was related to pan-Africanism, decolonizing the mind/knowledge, and promoting an African-centered epistemologies and education.

One of the key things I realized from the conference is a continued underlying question about what it means to be African. Is it a blood-based / phenotypical notion or is it based on culture/nationality/level of understanding of a place/history? Or something else entirely? How does the question of identity intersect with claims for authoritative knowledge?

The ASAA conference made this question particularly apparent because those in attendance did not just easily fit into normative categories of Black Africans and White Americans. Conference participants included Black African Americans from the US, Black African Americans who have immigrated to Ghana (some who have become Ghanaian citizens); White Africans; White Americans; Asians who live in America; White Europeans, White Brazilians, White Ghanaian residents, Black Africans who reside in African countries that they do not call “home”, etc. etc. I’m obviously tacking here between different scales of nationality and flattening identity into race, but I use this to simply point out the very obvious diverse racial positionalities embodied at the conference (not to even mention the other subject positions). Walking around you couldn’t “place” someone – Black Ghanaian citizen with American accent; white women with South African accent; Ugandan living in South Africa; Swedish woman married to Ghanaian; Kenyan studying in UK; the list goes on. The rich diversity of backgrounds, colors, histories, situations, made it very hard to say who was “local” and who was not – complicated further by a question of which categories are to determine that. If you have lived in a place for a long (define long?) time, does that make you “African”? If you know the histories and key historical figures, does that make you “African”? If you have citizenship, does that make you “African”? If you are Black, does that make you “African”? Given that several members of the diaspora Africans have recently been granted citizenship in Ghana, what appears to be a clear-cut question of who is African, is in fact more complicated than face-value.

In one ASAA panel I attended, a question was raised about the growing mantra of “Africans [are the only ones who should] produce solutions to Africa problems.” You can see this mantra similarly echoed in a picture I took during my fieldwork this summer of the entrance to a Kenyan technology enterprise:


What is the significance of scaling from “African” to “Kenyan”? What is the significance of moving from “Black Lives Matter” to “Afrikan Lives Matter” to “Luo Lives Matter (a recent hashtag used by Kenyan on Twitter to denounce state violence against a particular ethnic group in Kenya)”?

In response, a panelist asserted that the perspective that it is only “Africans” who can solve “African problems” was a naïve one since African problems are in fact global:

“We are not buying into the nativist perspective. There is no one who is ‘true blooded’ African, whatever that means. What we must be concerned with is an issue of democratization. Will it be fine if everyone else in the world could put their view-point on the table and Africans are absent? No! So, it has nothing to do with us being the most innovative people or us knowing something more than others because we are ‘pure blooded’ or anything. Rather, it is a question of equality and democratization.”

This question of the intersection between global politics of race and knowledge is extremely important as more and more decolonizing movements across the continent gain momentum and simultaneously, countries like the US increasingly take an isolationist stance. How do our biosocial bodies and socially constructed ideas of racial belonging (mis/)align/clash with nation states and boundaries? How do these claims align with idea of epistemology and claims to authoritative knowledge?


More info on ASAA:

The conference (held at the University of Ghana, Legon from October 12th – 14th) included keynote presentations by Elizabeth Ohene, Ghanaian; Nana Kobina Nketsia V; Professor Jacob Gordon; Professor Seth Asumah; Professor Takyiwaa Manuh; Professor Jean Allman; Dr. Yao Graham; and Dr. Wangui wa Goro. For those interested in learning more about the conference, you can find a summary that I wrote here. You can also find the final program here and more about the ASAA here.

5 responses to “The Nation-State, Pan-Africanism and Biosocial Claims to Knowledge”

  1. Hi Angela,
    This is my understanding of your problem in a nutshell: There are different groups that claim authority on knowledge based on ideas about their bodies.

    Now, I am curious about the questions of why and how they choose to do so. Why are some scholars/intellectuals claiming to posses a “native” bodily knowledge? Is this part of a new iteration of post-colonial thought? Why is this essentialist anchoring important to buttress their claim? In short, what is their political and intellectual history?

    By the same token, what is the backstory of scholars such as the one you quoted. What challenges are they facing as (public) intellectuals in a global academic environment? Do they have to make themselves legible to the latest post-modern trend in Europe? Do they have to be interlocutors to Foucault, like Achille Mbembe? What does that say about power relations within academia and the institutions that it has in place?

    I am guessing you are writing on some of these answers already. I can’t wait to read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your comments Juan! Indeed, these are questions I am thinking about and will hopefully continue to write on over the course of the quarter (and beyond)… stay tuned 🙂


  2. Hi Angela and Juan, Great conversation about identity, histories, and the ongoing politics of decolonization. I find it useful to remember that even while unravelling histories of colonization (that necessarily draw on metropolitan archives, tracing British, French, Dutch, German, and other imperial records), if we pay attention to local histories and inequalities (eg how did gender, race, ethnicity, region inflect anti-colonial activism?) as well as inter-regional histories (eg how did de-colonizing African societies relate to each other?), we get a rich palette that overcomes some of the limitations of single-nation, single-issue, single-method scholarship. Pan Africanism is a great example of how all these historical questions intersect with contemporary anthropological investigations. I look forward to seeing how this plays out for your work! Next week, Jeff Wasserstrom, Emily Baum, and I are talking with visiting scholar Arunabh Ghosh about comparative histories that avoid centering the “West” – in Jeff’s Global Crises class, on Tuesday from 5 – 6pm.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Kavita! Is this an event that might possibly be open to sit in? Sounds like it will be a really good discussion…


  3. […] Studies Association (ASA) in Chicago from Nov. 16 – 18 in part because I recently attended the African Studies Association in Africa (ASAA) in Accra in October 2017. I was keen to observe the differences and possible similarities. Right off the […]


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