Dear Dr. Tukufu Zuberi,
I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your initiative in arranging the conference on Transcending Traditions: African, Afro-American and African Diaspora Studies in the 21st Century to be held at the University of Pennsylvania on the 20th and 21st of April 2000 and co-sponsored by the African Studies Centre and the Afro-American Studies Programme. Such an intellectual undertaking can only heighten our understanding of the significance of the global African presence, and of its historical context. I am, however, immeasurably distressed to note that amongst the many distinguished scholars from various institutions who are to be part of this two-day event, African scholars are so starkly under-represented as to be, in effect, absent.
Indeed, it would appear, judging from the very attractive pamphlet advertising this event, that Africans are to be represented by the grand total of one scholar, one mask and one door. This remarkable absurdity is only worsened by its context: twenty-two scholars from seven institutions gathered over two days to discuss "the intersections between African and African Diaspora Studies." The term "African" appears twice in the title of this conference. This event is taking place under the co-sponsorship of the African Studies Centre. Moreover, it is the genealogy and trajectory of African peoples and cultures that are at issue here. Given these factors, the virtual omission of authoritative African voices from this conversation is troubling on several levels.
Firstly, such is the importance of an African contribution to the matters under discussion that it would have been a moral and intellectual imperative to arrange for transport for African scholars from Africa, if necessary. However --and one would have thought, fortunately, in this instance--it is hardly a matter of debate that many of Africa?s most renowned intellectuals live and work in the United States. Without undue reflection, I could list a number of important African intellectuals living within a few hours of travel from the University of Pennsylvania; with some little thought and research, the list lengthens significantly. In point of fact, some of these Africans work in the very same prestigious institutions as your currently invited participants.
Secondly, these conspicuously absent Africans are scholars who have made major contributions to the theorisation and analysis of the African condition. They are scholars who have expended considerable intellectual energy toward articulating the significance of the?to use your own admirable formulation?"identity formation, hybridity, syncretism and creolisation" generated from the interaction of Africa with its global context. The process by which you appear to have managed to attract their colleagues to this conference whilst pointedly overlooking African scholars and their potential contributions thus has disquieting implications. It suggests either that you are unaware of the presence and achievements of these African scholars or that you do not consider African intellectual participation essential. The first of these propositions is flatly untenable for a director of an influential African Studies Centre, and the second is so acutely shocking as to be inconceivable.
Finally, your exclusion of African scholars from an intellectual event that uses Africa as its leitmotif is yet another example of the astonishing facility with which Africa is reduced to the inarticulate, infinitely symbolic and infinitely productive condition of radical alterity. Although Africans are weary to the point of exhaustion of repeating this assertion, it appears once more necessary. Here, again, is an Africa gesturing always to other than itself, existing only as the antithetical reference by which others identify themselves, spoken into being and spoken of only through the narratives and articulations of non-Africans. Here, still, is an Africa desired empty of Africans, whose contradictory existence is treated merely as an inconvenience to be overlooked or overcome. Here, again, still, is an Africa mutely available for the fantasies and multiple projects of extraction of those who theorise it into existence.
It is a dual and doubly offensive irony that the organisation of a conference which so exuberantly deploys "Africa" is the latest confirmation of a deeply embedded tendency to instrumentalise Africa and Africans and further that this iniquity is being sponsored by a flagship African Studies Centre. Far from "transcending traditions" then, this state of affairs would seem to be reaffirming the very worst of intellectual prejudices against Africans. To borrow once more from your own persuasive prose, these indeed "reflect a continuum or retention of elements" of a certain intellectual culture. It is a culture that disrespects and disregards Africa and Africans whilst at the same time using them to build reputations, careers and profits. It is a culture that disempowers and disembodies Africa and Africans and then selectively represents their past and continuing contributions to world history. It is a culture that sees no ethical or intellectual contradiction in the use of de-contextualised, fragmented "African" images?a Senufo door here, an unidentified mask there?to adorn the very process of effacing and silencing Africa. It is, in the end, a culture at marked odds with any possibility of intellectual integrity or moral responsibility.
Department of Political Science
University of Pennsylvania
Dean Samuel Preston
Dean Walter Licht
African Studies Centre Executive Committee
African Studies Consortium Faculty
African Studies Graduate Group
Akil Khalfani and Amson Sibanda Defends the Institutional Position, April 13, 2000
We recently received your "Open Letter" to Dr. Tukufu Zuberi. We find the tone, intent and timing of your letter to be offensive and quite suspicious. It is clear by the format through which you have chosen to express yourself that your concerns are not truly about the conference to which you refer, but related to larger issues surrounding the formation of an Africana Studies Graduate Group at the University of Pennsylvania.
If your concerns were, in fact, genuine you would have attempted to approach Dr. Zuberi and/or the planning committee for the conference to address this matter directly.
Moreover, had you attended today's African Language Teachers Association Conference, or any number of events sponsored by the African Studies Center this academic year-such as the Fall 1999 Lecture Series and the Wharton Africa Economic Forum, to name a few-it would have been readily apparent to you that these stimulating forums included no shortage of thought-provoking contributions from numerous intellectuals born on the African continent.
Nonetheless, we are particularly dismayed by your suggestion-even though you were reluctant to say it directly-that you only consider recent migrants or those born and still living on the African continent to be Africans. We, as people of African descent, take serious offense at this assertion. Furthermore, by buying into such a notion you are espousing the very Eurocentric ideology about Africa and African people that you claim to find so disturbing. This contradiction suggests that your statement is nothing more than a political initiative to undermine the endeavor to establish an alternative intellectual approach at the University of Pennsylvania to analyze the interrelations between Africans around the globe.
The mentioning of the Transcending Traditions conference in your letter is a mere side note to the underlying issue you have attempted to address in a thinly disguised manner. This type of deceptive, political maneuvering typifies precisely the "disempowerment" and/or "disembodiment" of Africans to which you alluded. Your tactics, in fact, attempt to further alienate and divide African people and our intellectual, political and social communities.
We suggest, however, that your alleged concern about African participation in this conference is completely baseless since, by our count, the number of African scholars involved is more like 17, rather than the one you claimed. You have apparently decided to utilize a European interpretation of African identity. By doing so, you have accepted a European view of history that disassociates Africans in the Diaspora from Africans living on the Continent. Fortunately, if you attend the Transcending Traditions conference, you may no longer hold such a misconception. Instead, you may gain a greater appreciation for the historical and future interconnections that bind Africans around the world.
Department of Sociology
African Studies Center
University of Pennsylvania
Dr. Amson Sibanda
Population Studies Center
University of Pennsylvania
Chidi Anselm Odinkalu Points out the Dishonesty in the Defenders' Logic, April 14, 2000
Subject: RE:OPEN LETTER TO WAMBUI MWANGI
I find this response below to Ms Mwangi's concerns both intellectualy dishonest and ludicrous. Without going into the details of the numbers of Africans who were or were not there (and in what capacity they attended or spoke) the conference after all was titled "Transcending Traditions: African, Afro-American and African Diaspora Studies in the 21st Century." Implied in this framing is a recognition of the fact that "Africans", "Afro-Americans" and the "African Diaspora" inhabit different even if related realities. How can we you "transcend" these differences if scholars of African studies are not prepared to even recognise them? To dismiss what she has to say as espousing a eurocentric ideology of African identity is, if I may say so, the employment of negative labelling as an expression of intellectual intolerance.
Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
Senior Legal Officer
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