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:

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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?

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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.

Update from the classroom

After my first class meetings for HIST 290 and ANTH 289 this week, I am looking forward to the opportunity that I think both classes will allow for – namely to further develop my own lines of research inquiry but with some facilitation, guidance, feedback and support from the faculty and peers in a class structure. Both Kris and Kavita appear to be approaching their classes more like reading groups which suits my purposes perfectly since in the Anthro department, this year (Year 3) is supposed to be largely dedicated towards developing one’s own project and orals documents (more on that in future posts).

As part of Kavita’s HIST 290 course, we are expected to post weekly on what we are reading (related to science, race, gender, and empire) and to share annotated bibliographies and thoughts pertaining to these topics. As such, I’m roping off a corner of this blog for these regular posts and I invite both my classmates and also those who are not in the class to review and offer feedback and any suggested additional readings!

Next steps: I’m working on a first draft of my proposed reading list for the rest of this quarter and will post that shortly. I will also post the annotated bibliography at the end of the 10-week quarter together with a short document that hopefully has some synthesis on the literature and its relation to my project (i.e. a basis for one of my orals docs!)

I hope to do the same for the ANTH 289 class (although that is not an explicit requirement of the course). I’ve therefore also roped off a section of the blog for that, although, time pertaining, I may not post as regularly there…

And just like that, we are off: the start of a 10 week quarter begins! (for those of you who haven’t experienced the quarter system… it feels like doing a marathon at a sprint!)