Academic journal article African Studies Review

"A School in the Interior" African Studies: Engagement and Interdisciplinary

Academic journal article African Studies Review

"A School in the Interior" African Studies: Engagement and Interdisciplinary

Article excerpt


This article explores the intellectual traditions of African studies, focusing on the central principles of interdisciplinarity and commitment to social and racial justice. Tracing the origins of the field to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Africanist intellectuals such as Edward Blyden, it investigates these traditions historically and in the context of contemporary practice. Against the backdrop of concerns for the future of area studies, the author finds a vibrant field-both inside and beyond its traditional boundaries.

Résumé: Cet article explore les tradtions intellectuelles du domaine des Études Africaines, en se concentrant sur les principes clés de l'interdicsciplinarité et de l'engagement sur les principes de justice sociale et raciale. En retraçant les origines de ce domaine d'études aux intellectuels de la fin du 19ieme siècle et du début du 20ième siècle tels que Edward Blyden, cette étude examine ces traditions d'un point de vue historique et aussi dans la perspective des pratiques contemporaines. Dans le contexte de la mise en question des domaines d'études à identité géographique délimitée, l'auteur découvre un domaine d'étude plein de vitalité, de même à l'intérieur qu'à l'extérieur de ses frontières traditionnelles.

Editors' note: The following article is a slightly revised version of the Presidential Address delivered at the fifty-third Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association in San Francisco in 2010.

On June 26, 1903, Edward Blyden, the preeminent intellectual of the Black Atlantic, presented an address to the African Society in London titled "West Africa before Europe" (Blyden 1905:127-28). By Blyden's own account this was a momentous occasion. In the third year of the Society's existence, he was the first person of African descent invited to speak to a meeting of the members. At this annual meeting the African Studies Association, which is dedicated to the theme of diaspora, it is particularly appropriate that we should return, after more than a century, to Blyden's words and to the circumstances of his lecture. He was, after all, quintessentially a person of the diaspora. In the introduction to the collection of Blyden's lectures that includes this 1903 address, the Ghanaian barrister and scholar Casely Hayford describes Blyden as almost uniquely "universalist" in the sense that he truly spoke for Africans everywhere and that in contrast to most of the black intellectuals of that era had developed an "African school of thought" in which the measure of progress was derived not from white culture but from African culture (Blyden 1905;ii).1

Blyden was at that time a very well-known figure in opinion-making circles. As most Africanists are aware, he was born in the West Indies, and in 1850, at the age of eighteen, in search of advanced education, he immigrated to Liberia. During the course of a remarkable career as a clergyman, teacher, government official, diplomat, journalist, and writer in Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, he traveled widely in West Africa, the Middle East, America, and Europe.2 Blyden had been among the founders of the African Society and served initially as a vice president. Given that he was also the author of one of the best known studies of African societies, Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race, first published in 1887, as well as numerous articles on a range of African topics, it was therefore predictable that Blyden would be invited to speak.4 But it was also somewhat surprising. He was, after all, an African man, asserting his intellectual authority during a period of rapid imperial expansion and of intensifying racism. In his remarks he alluded to this contradiction - noting that the Society was very much a part of Britain's imperial impulse while repeatedly invoking his own impressive resume and network of contacts.

The First Africanists

What, then, did Edward Blyden have to say to the African Society in 1903 that would be of interest to us today? …

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