Who Sets the Intellectual Agenda for African Studies?

Dr. Wheeler Winstead July 27, 2016

“Who sets the intellectual agenda for African Studies?”

Am I hearing that right?  I look around the room.  None of the others at the roundtable appear perplexed at this question.  We are here in Zambia to discuss “Disciplines, Perspectives and Theories from the South: Setting the African Studies Agenda.”  The discussant puts the question on the table: “Who sets the intellectual agenda for African Studies?

I refuse to believe that we do not all, innately, know the answer to that question.

Is this question rhetorical?  I look through the lens of intellectual inquiry.  Has anyone asked about who should set the intellectual agenda for studies of European women?  How preposterous would this question sound at a conference in China: “Who sets the intellectual agenda of Chinese Studies?”

I am shaking my head.  This question could only gain traction at a conference on Africa in Africa.  Why is this question legitimate in Africa?  The answer lies among the dynamics of power: military, economic, and financial.  African intellectuals are marginalized by western control of global intellectual publications and institutions.  After so many centuries, we can still barely hear the voice of African intellectuals above their wealthy western colleagues supported by benefactor educational institutions.

Indeed, the discussant raises this point:

We are all complicit, and African Studies’ ‘crisis of legitimacy’ demands a much more profound kind of ‘levelling’ than writing workshops,  shared  funding  and  resources,  and  inter-continental,  cross-institutional partnerships could ever afford.

Admitting that African intellectuals do not set the agenda in global publications and conferences may bring us closer to a more equitable solution.  To start, we non-African scholars must acknowledge our privilege. We must be aware that at times our sincere comments can be hypocritical and arrogant.  We, therefore, must be open to our African peers’ criticism.  As peers and colleagues, we must voluntarily subjugate our opinions to our African peers, offering them as collegial suggestions, not authoritative mandates.

We tiptoe around this question today, without the formal vestiges of colonial rule but with the majority of the continent dependent on philanthropic aid, overwhelmed with foreign debt, and lacking academic institutions to produce a cadre of intellectuals who can compete with their colonial counterparts.

The fact that many African intellectuals are products of Western institutions illustrates this point. While African countries no longer are the exploited supplier of raw materials and labor, they are still economically dependent, producing wealth for the former overlords and the new gentry.  We in African Studies must admit that our political, economic and intellectual agendas do in fact reproduce and maintain and improve these exploitative relations.

This question becomes clearer for us when the word “should” is added: “Who should set the intellectual agenda for African Studies?”  

African Studies

The answer to this question was clear and simple one hundred years ago when the intellectual agenda of and about any group supported the agenda of national sovereignty.  European colonial powers dominated and controlled African countries by military force.  African conquests served as colonies for their European motherland.  As colonies, their purpose was to enrich the bounties of the conquering country and particularly their nobles and gentry.  All agendas, including the intellectual agenda, were in line with this supporting role and had nothing to do with improving the welfare of the colonies, especially the peasantry.

Each of us is an agent in intellectual colonialism.  Our positions are all the more ironic and tragic as we all celebrate the freedom and independence of Africa.  We celebrate our superiority over the racist, arrogant imperials.  Those feelings are self-deception.  We must acknowledge our powerful presence in this field, our overwhelming, silencing loudness.  Together, African and non-African intellectuals must acknowledge that Africa is sitting on another goldmine: the African intellectual.  Let us work together to support our African colleagues who are mining these resources.

One concrete step, we propose, is to cease holding African Studies conferences outside of Africa.  The lucrative conference industry partners with the American hospitality industry and diverts institutional funds away from Africa.

 The system puts the African scholar again in the position of beggar, hoping to hit the lottery of “travel assistance” from the academic association and its member institutions.  The African scholar must travel far, at great expense, for the convenience of the, mostly white, domestic traveler.  Thus these conferences are often a sea of white people, again and again.  

We must say, as Pogo Possum did in his April 22, 1970 comic strip: “WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY AND HE IS US.”


Note: This article was given as a talk by Dr. Wheeler Winstead, who was a participant at the Journal of Southern African Studies First Biennial Conference, “Southern Africa beyond the West: Political, Economic & Cultural Relationships with the BRICS Countries & the Global South,” held in Livingstone, Zambia, August 7-11, 2015.

Submitted July 27, 2016 by Dr. Wheeler Winstead, Assistant Director, Center for African Studies, Howard University and Dr. Kathryn Barrett-Gaines, Director of African American Studies, University of Maryland Eastern Shore.


Last Edited by:Sandra Appiah Updated: July 27, 2016


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