Waiting to Inhale: The Moral Economy of African Trade

By Steiner, Christopher B. | Anthropological Quarterly, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Waiting to Inhale: The Moral Economy of African Trade


Steiner, Christopher B., Anthropological Quarterly


Money Has No Smell: The Africanization of New York City. Paul Stoller. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. 215 pp..

"Africa, whatever it is, is everywhere." So begins a recent review in The New York Times of an exhibition of African art at P.S. 1 Contemporary Arts Center in Queens. "It's far more than just a continent," the review continues. "It's a global diaspora, an international culture, and a metaphor with fantastical associations for the West" (Cotter 2002). This enthusiastic review offers evidenceif any evidence was needed-of the expanding presence and high visibility of Africa in New York City. It also bears witness to a swelling interest among New Yorkers in the arts, fashion, film, music, and cuisine that trace their roots (or is it routes?) to the African continent. Yet, while the products of African cultures have been celebrated and consumed across the city, there has been remarkably little interest in coming to know African people themselves, whose numbers continue to grow rapidly among the ranks of New York's multi-ethnic population. In fact, one could argue, it was not until the widely publicized case in 1999 of Amadou Diallo-an innocent Guinean man gunned down by NYPD officers who incorrectly thought he was armed-that many New Yorkers even took notice of African immigrants living in their midst. Interest in that too has passed.

It is curious to note that what has captured the imagination of many New Yorkers is the material culture of Africa which is kept generally behind closed doors or locked in secure museum cases; while African people, whom New Yorkers see daily walking their streets, driving their cabs, or pressed up against them on a crowded subway car, hold little or no interest. Although it would be possible to never see African art nor sample African food in New York City, it would be nearly impossible to avoid encountering African traders engaged in the bustling mercantile economy of city life: a well-dressed Senegalese hawking "Rolex" watches out of an open briefcase on the corner of 41st and Lexington; a Hausa in flowing damask robes transporting a bag of kente-cloth caps on the Lexington Avenue Line heading uptown; a Guinean art dealer selling replica masks and statues outside the Museum of Modern Art; or a Songhay trader peddling music tapes and videos along Canal Street. But while New Yorkers may see these men (and sometimes women) carrying out their daily activities, and might even on occasion purchase goods from them, African immigrants remain anonymous and unknown. As Paul Stoller writes about one such African trader: "Most people who talked to him at the market knew little about his family, his past, his culture, his values, aspirations, or dreams. Although he worked daily on the streets of New York City, he remained, like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, an unseen person" (p.6).

Making the invisible visible is certainly one of the goals of Paul Stoller's engaging and insightful new book, Money Has No Smell: The Africanization of New York City. At the very least this book brings to light a community of men and women who blanket New York City, yet somehow remain hidden in its shadows and creases. of course this is nothing new to anthropology. After all, much of the history of the discipline has been concerned with rescuing from the margins those societies whose cultures and existence were either unfamiliar or misunderstood. In the 1900s, for example, Franz Boas brought back his knowledge of the Kwakiutl to New York City where he wrote and published his massive ethnographies. In the 1920s, Margaret Mead introduced Americans to Samoans through her publications and, later, museum exhibitions. Yet unlike the Kwakiutl and Samoans of these early anthropological endeavors, studying the African traders who are the subject of Stoller's new book does not require distant travel outside of New York City-in fact many of the traders are within a stone's throw of the Upper Westside offices where Boas and Mead worked.

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