Regional Geographies of the U.S. Southeast and Sub-Saharan Africa: The Potential for Comparative Insights

Article excerpt

This article outlines how the study of Sub-Saharan African regional geography has the potential to inform scholarship on the U.S. Southeast and vice versa. The author describes two approaches to comparative regional analysis and then provides an example of how each form of analysis may lead to interesting and productive intellectual cross-fertilization. The first case is one of Africanist geographical scholarship informing southeastern U.S. studies that emphasizes actual historical linkages between the two regions. The second case is an example of how southeastern U.S. scholarship could potentially inform research in South Africa because of similar circumstances that the two regions hold in common. The article concludes by commenting on the two forms of comparative regional analysis.

KEY WORDS: Atlantic world, land reform, regional geography, southern Africa, U.S. Southeast

INTRODUCTION

In Outlining an editorial vision for Southeastern Geographer, Lecce and Alderman (2004) noted that studying the South does not necessarily mean analyzing the region in isolation of larger, global patterns and issues. Indeed, as a geographer and an Africanist scholar, I long have been struck by the comparative possibilities that exist between the U.S. Southeast and Sub-Saharan Africa. These possibilities range from common circumstances (some superficial and others more profound) to deep historical connections. The aim of this article is to outline why I believe the study of Sub-Saharan African regional geography has the potential to inform scholarship on the U.S. Southeast and vice versa. To illustrate such possibilities, I describe two examples of how comparative study of both regions can lead to interesting and productive intellectual cross-fertilization.

COMPARATIVE REGIONAL ANALYSIS

This essay is not so much about the nature or boundaries of the two different regions in question, but about the insights that may be gained through comparative regional analysis. This said, comparative work certainly may contribute to our understanding of regions, not to mention an on-going conversation about the nature of the new regional geography (e.g., Gilbert 1988; Pudup 1988; Thrift 1994). Comparative regional analysis may take on at least two basic forms. The first examines the basic commonalities of two regions and how processes operating in one region inform our understanding in another region. This involves making regional analogies about processes, phenomena or relationships that are similar in some respects, but evolved largely independently of each other. For example, how does our understanding of resistance to racial oppression in one region potentially inform our understanding of this process in another? We could also draw comparisons between two regions that are impacted by a similar global process, e.g., two regions that receive immigrants or capital investment from the same external source, such as the British Isles.

The second form of comparative regional analysis examines the actual historical linkages and transfers that occur between regions. This form of analysis has recently received a lot of attention because it has the potential to blur the boundaries between existing regions or even, if the connections are significant, lead to a reconceptualization of two or more conceptually distinct regions as one (e.g., Carney 2001; Taylor 2001; Gamble 2004). Of course, these two forms of comparative regional analysis are not always as discrete as I suggest above, an issue that will be discussed in the conclusion of this article.

COMPARATIVE POSSIBILITIES

In this section I begin with a simple summary of some basic commonalities and historical connections between the US Southeast and certain areas of Africa. I then examine two specific examples. The first case illustrates how Africanist research can shed light on southeastern U.S. studies. The second shows how scholarship on the U. …