Woodson Symposium: Final Day & the Future of Africana Studies

I made it to only one panel today, but it was a good one. Texts and Methodologies of Africana Studies explored current challenges in African and African American studies and offered intriguing glimpses of the future of these evolving fields. I found two presentations particularly interesting.

Jemima Pierre of Vanderbilt University gave a paper entitled “Writing Ghana, Imagining Africa, and Interrogating Diaspora,” in which she discussed the complexities of race relations in postcolonial Ghana, and then offered an insightful analysis of the intellectual gaps that Africana studies must bridge with regard to diasporic and African experiences. Pierre notes, for instance, that the separation between African and African American studies means that scholars of Africa often ignore race and blackness, while those who study race and blackness tend to overlook Africa. She calls for a new theorization of diaspora that is able to synthesize the processes of globalization with postcolonial formations of race.


W.E.B. Du Bois

Lawrie Balfour of the University of Virginia shared research from her new book on W.E.B. Du Bois, and spoke about the need for new ways of thinking about race that can fruitfully connect past and present injustices. Du Bois, Balfour argues, believed that remembrance of past wrongs must be accompanied by a commitment to redress of continuing harms associated with slavery and racial inequality. In her beautifully chosen words: “the constitution of the past is itself a political question,” and we must be wary of the “inauguration of a ‘postracial’ era.” A premature “colorblindness . . . renders us insensible” to too-frequent “violations” of our democratic ideals.


Wikileaks, GMOs, and Kenya

One of Kenya’s main newspapers, the Daily Nation, published an article this week highlighting a Wikileaks cable that sheds light on the passing of the contentious Biosafety Act of 2009, which provides a framework for governing “modern biotechnology” (ie, Kenya will finally allow the production and sale of Genetically Modified Organisms). Unsurprisingly, USAID (the US Agency for International Development) used financial and technical support to “speed up and overcome opposition to the Bill.”

The Biosafety Act was being negotiated during the years that I lived in Nairobi, Kenya, and rumors were constantly swirling about Monsanto’ financial support of key Parliamentarians, of America’s strong arm tactics, etc. What has been brought to light through this cable is not particularly cloak-and-dagger – USAID created linkages among national institutions and helped sponsor a conference. Exactly the sort of thing its Programme for Biosafety Systems was meant to do.

Nonetheless, it was detailed in a Wikileaks cable, and that makes it news. And I have to admit, this makes me happy. Investigative reporters across Africa have been mining the Wikileaks diplomatic cables for American perspectives on the dirty secrets of African governments – Pambazuka.org has done a great job encourgaing and compiling these reports.They may not make the news in the US, but these revelations on internal African affairs have produced a constant stream of unsettling, nettling reports. On the whole, it seems like it’s often things everyone knows – yes, the ANC is a complete mess; yes, overseas aid money is often stolen by corrupt regimes – but the cables give these stories focus and a weight they otherwise wouldn’t have.