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Review of The African Diaspora and the Disciplines


By Osita Okagbue

The African Diaspora and the Disciplines. Tejumola Olaniyan and James H. Sweet (Eds). Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2010. Pp. 363. ISBN. 978-0-253-22191-9 (pb). $27.95.

A book that focuses on the subject of the African Diaspora within the various disciplines is indeed welcome. The scope of The African Diaspora and the Disciplines is impressive, with contributions from many subject areas within the arts, humanities and the sciences. The editors, Olaniyan and Sweet, are correct when they write that although ‘[t]he African diaspora has become a most vibrant area of research and teaching interest across the disciplines in the past two decades in the American academy… [t]here is a glaring lack, however, in our existing body of conceptual and definitional knowledge’. The reason, they argue, is that most of the scholars/researchers are handicapped by their training in specific disciplines whereas their object of study transcends the boundaries of individual disciplines. Thus this book’s aim, they claim, is to begin ‘a serious conversation on the intersections of African Diaspora Studies and the disciplines’ (2).

African Diaspora is divided into four parts. Part One, ‘Histories’, has five essays which look at the African Diaspora in history, anthropology, genetics, geography and archaeology respectively. In the first essay, ‘Clio and the Griot…’, Butler argues that the ‘African diaspora is perhaps the most complex of all diasporas’ (33); a diaspora of multiple destinations and points of origin whose articulations of should not be restricted to the historical methods derived from Euro-American conventions.  Richard Price suggests that creolisation is key to an understanding of the ways in which ‘enslaved Africans and their descendants conceptualised their identities as [“Ibos”] or “Congos”…’(60). He argues that creolisation is that ‘“miraculous” contestational process that took place as the first generation or two of Africans re-created lifeways in each New World colony, [which] quickly led to fully formed cultural institutions’ (67); thus, in Anthropology, it is the creativity of the Africans in the diaspora rather than the continuities of respective African ethnicities and corresponding cultural practices which helps in understanding the African diaspora.  Fatimah Jackson and Latifah Borgelin explore how genetics can provide informative detail and essential depth to the trans-Atlantic African Diaspora; however, they caution that although genetic ‘data have long been used successfully to explore population history…there are limitations to these techniques when interpreted in isolation of the historical, ethnographic, linguistic, and archaeological data’(86): Judith Carey’s  ‘Landscapes and Places of Memory…’ argues that Geography which is at the ‘interface of culture and environment… uses a unique perspective to examine a past whose witnessing remains obscured by centuries of European triumphalist documentation’ (101). For her, a grain of rice, for instance, is a metaphor for and symbol of so much that is contained in the African diaspora experience. Cultural geography, therefore, she suggests, is the one field of study that rightly establishes the significant contribution of enslaved Africans to the domestication and transformation of the biology and landscape of the New World, achievements which Euro-American historiography and science have written out. Singleton’s essay points out the fact that African Diaspora Studies in Archaeology seems to be preoccupied with those diasporas that emanated from slavery – trans-Saharan, transatlantic, Indian Ocean or domestic slave trades – and of these the focus has been mainly on the transatlantic slave trade and its impact on West and Central African societies, although work has now begun on other parts of Africa. A key  point made by Singleton is that there is a need to develop a unique research methodology for the archaeological study of the African diaspora, one which utilises the concept of diaspora at its core, rather than continuing to use diaspora ‘merely as a descriptive term’ (131).

Part Two contains three essays from Sociology, Political Science and Philosophy. In ‘Caribbean Sociology, Africa and the African Diaspora’, Paget Henry is of the view that the end of the cold war in the 80s and a turn to models of market-oriented growth brought the convergence of American sociology and Caribbean sociology to an abrupt end and led to an Africana perspective underpinned by a ‘theory of cultural creolization’ in Caribbean sociology. However, Henry believes that inherent contradictions in this new Africana perspective such as ‘the privileging of whiteness and a devaluing of blackness’ within ‘this framework of racial and cultural mixing’ (148) compromises Caribbean sociology’s ability to adequately represent Africa and its diaspora. Henry suggests ‘an Africana solution to this representational problem’ (145) based on an indigenous Caribbean intellectual tradition. Fratton Jr’s contribution points out that American political science ignores the study of the African diaspora or subjects related to it; instead, it displays a ‘determined bias against inquiries related to these very subjects. It either downplays them, or ignores them as they are simply considered to be “out of bounds” in today’s mainstream political science’ (161), whose exclusive focus is on ‘the Pan-European world’. African diaspora studies, on the other hand, ‘transcends the narrow confines of American political science… [and as such] calls for thinking about rethinking an unthinking political science’ (169-70). Olúfémi Táíwò asserts that the ‘“concept of the African diaspora” is problematic in philosophy’. While it is easy to spatially locate the African diaspora, he argues, it is not as easy to conceptualise this as an object of study. However, Táíwò feels that current theorisation of the African diaspora must move away from the previous conceptions which saw the diaspora only in terms of enslaved Africans and their descendants, whereas, the diaspora as presently constituted with new influx of immigrants whose intellectual exertions have significantly infiltrated many disciplines including philosophy.

Part Three, Arts and Culture, contains four essays. In the first, Sandra Richards argues that although theatre studies and performance studies are often used interchangeably, these ‘two disciplines have distinct yet interdependent histories that differently determine their study of black cultural production’ (194). Richards contends that the dominance and over-privileging of the written text/script in and by theatre studies has negatively predisposed the discipline toward African Diaspora Studies’ (193) because the emphasis on the ‘written text …disadvantages the cultural production ‘of peoples of African descent whose texts are rather inscribed and realised through the body. Melvin Butler’s essay cautions against the undifferentiated essentialism of the theory of retention of African elements in New World cultures. The essay also provides a useful literature of significant ethnomusicology scholarship of the 20th and 21st centuries in mainland USA, the Caribbean and occasionally Africa. Moyo Okediji’s ‘Semioptics of Africana Art History’ asks whether we can ‘safely investigate meaning in the visual cultures of Africa and its diaspora with the asymmetrical tools of relativist traditional art history’(235). The essay proposes instead a ‘semioptics’ art history which is a ‘historical de-scribing and de-signing… to highlight the photic and phonetic importance of values and … the place of symmetry and balance in the search for meaning in art history’ (253). The last essay in this section is Grant Farred’s in which he argues that cultural studies ‘represents a perpetually dislocated or diasporic thinking’ and thus like a diasporic subject, it is both ‘in search of a space of respite and insurgent, at once tolerated and made to feel unwelcome’ (260); it borrows from but at same time enriches, poaches and ‘problematizes’ the other disciplines as much as it depends and makes use of them.

Part Four, Diaspora Contexts, has three essays beginning with Carolyn Cooper’s  which sees the African diaspora as ‘a long established concept in Jamaican popular culture’(279). She finds that ‘one of the most engaging sites of African diasporic knowledge and practice of African diaspora studies in Jamaica is popular music’ (280). For Cooper, the ‘dancehall bling aesthetic’ such as Marcus Garvey’s appropriations of Eurocentric military regalia, signals a ‘capacity to recognise the cultural continuities that are manifested in seemingly dissonant discourses’ and should underpin an ‘inventive African Diaspora Studies’. (292) Xolela Mangcu’s essay‘ uses key South African political leaders and intellectuals – Mphahlele, Biko and Thabo Mbeki – to explore South Africa’s problematic relationship with its African identity. South Africa’s multiracial society meant that a sense of an uncontested African personality and identity could not be applied to a collection of people who felt de-tribalised. Mangcu uses Mbeki’s pseudo-African renaissance project to assert ‘that our conception of ourselves as African has never gone beyond South Africa – we are Africans because we are geographically located on the African continent’ (306). Jayne Ifekwunigwe’s ‘Black Folk Here and There…’ argues that ‘African diasporas in Europe can be configured not simply as political spaces but also as processes and conditions’.(315) Using Hall and Gilroy – and traces of Fanon - she links the different histories and routes through which the African diasporas have come to be in Europe, arguing that ultimately, ‘the violent imprint of (post)colonialism leaves as indelible a psychic mark on African diasporic subjects in Europe as the transgenerational emotional scars of the Middle Passage’(316).

Overall, this collection is a very timely and useful contribution to the slowly emerging body of studies of the African diasporas. Its only limitation, in my view, is that it is predominantly American in its focus; there is no doubt that a recognition and inclusion of material from the many other African diasporas around the globe – there was only Ifekwunigwe’s essay on the African diasporas in Europe – would have greatly enriched what is presented here.


[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 73 (December 2011), pp. 89-93]

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