American Studies in Africa
Session type: 

Reflecting on the 2018 inauguration of The African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) at Wits University in Johannesburg, Achille Mbembe succinctly observed, “The knowledge produced in Africa about foreign lands and cultures is almost non existant [sic]. The time has come to reverse this trend.” Indeed, ACSUS has the potential to be an important site of indigenous knowledge production about the United States, but also an institutional space in which new transcontinental and transoceanic solidarities might be forged. There is, of course, a longer trajectory for what might be described as American studies in Africa going back to the 1980s, with the establishment of the African Association for the Study of the Americas, the first American Studies in Africa Symposia in Lesotho, and the founding of the Colloque sur les Etudes Americaines in Senegal. In Nigeria, where I currently teach as a Fulbright Scholar, comparativist American studies has a complicated history that begins around 1990.

Describing the state of the field in the journal American Studies International in 1992, Edward O. Ako, then a professor of American, English and comparative literature at the University of Yaounde in Cameroon, lamented that it was doubtful that “American Studies in Africa shall experience any growth in the next decade or two.” While it remains true that American studies has largely remained marginal across the continent, there is some evidence that the field has potential value for some African scholars. Even Ako was optimistic, observing that “one way to assist the development of American studies in Africa is to intensify student and faculty exchange programs between African and American universities.” Eight years later at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association in Detroit—on the theme “American Studies in the World/The World in American Studies”—a roundtable featuring nine members of the American Studies Association of Nigeria reflected on the state of American studies in their country. Yet, while this roundtable was remarkable, subsequent annual meetings of the association failed to build on its foundation. African perspectives—minus “-American” or “Diaspora”— continue to be absent from the annual program of the American Studies Association.

In response to the ASA’s call for papers addressing grounded and indigenous approaches to American studies—“situated ways of knowing and doing”—this proposed roundtable session will bring together scholars, activists, and others from across Africa whose work draws from and can contribute to decolonizing formations of American studies. Beyond simply gathering together Africans to reflect on the state of American studies in Africa, this roundtable takes seriously Amina Mama’s warning that “colleagues based in the relatively well-endowed and -resourced U.S. academy have an ethical responsibility to support, facilitate, and participate in this engagement, instead of just disseminating their own ideas, as if Africa had no intellectuals, no knowledge to contribute.” Indeed, American studies has many local contexts and it is crucial for scholars in the United States, whose work addresses issues of continental relevance, to listen and reflect on how they might “name specific challenges, whether of translation, legibility, or historical depth, and rework methodologies instead of handing them off or limiting themselves to discursive claims,” as Ebony Coletu and Ira Dworkin advised in their 2015 special issue of Comparative American Studies on the stakes of American studies in the Middle East and North Africa.

Some questions and topics that roundtable participants might consider include, but are not limited to:

  • How have scholars in Africa defined “American studies”?

  • How have African feminisms shaped approaches to the study of the United States across the continent?

  • What do American studies methodologies look like in Africa?

  • How do scholars and centres negotiate the need for funding with their commitment to knowledge production not shaped by nationalist or neoliberal agendas?

  • What are the ethical responsibilities of scholars working between US/American and African studies?

  • How have Africans responded to increasing militarization of US policy across the continent and the rise of AFRICOM?

  • How have modes of LGBTQ+ activism in the United States helped or hindered queer individuals and communities in Africa?

  • What can scholars and activists in the United States learn from their African counterparts. E.g. student and academic staff agitation against structural adjustment programs in Nigeria in the 1980s and 1990s.

  • What kinds of outcomes can comparative studies of the United States and African nations produce?

  • Reflections on US efforts urging African nations to follow its lead in terms of democracy, governance, and civil society.

  • Identity politics.

  • What might “American studies in Africa” look like outside of formal institutional settings?

  • How have the trajectories of American studies in Africa varied from the trajectories of American studies in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, Japan, or elsewhere?

Short Abstracts (300 words or less) and abbreviated CVs should be submitted via email to ericcovey1974@gmail.com by January 10th.

Participants will be notified of the outcome of their proposals by January 14th.

Limited funding may be available to defer costs of visa fees, registration, travel, and lodging. In the absence of adequate funding, it may be possible for panelists to participate via video (i.e. Google Hangouts, Skype, WhatsApp).

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