Term Paper: African Studies and Multiculturalism

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African Studies and Multiculturalism

An article by Mineke Schipper, titled "Knowledge is like an ocean: insiders, outsiders, and the academy," has as its focus the discussion the "unequal power relations that persist" between Africa and the Western world. The piece, published in Research in African Literatures, also points to the fact that African scholars who wish to participate in the discussion vis-a-vis those "power relations" are for the most part shut out due to "a continued marginalization and inequality in access to information and dialogue."

Schipper uses several analogies to make the point that "various kinds of people" have been kept out of sciences and also kept "outside the boundaries of 'civilized mankind.'" And in the process of making the point that Africans, in particular, have been isolated from the global intellectual and scholarly community, Schipper quotes from David Hume (1748) who suspected (in "Human Understanding") that "...the negroes and in general all the other species of men...to be naturally inferior to the whites." Hume insisted there "never was a civilized nation of any complexion than white," albeit he neglected to mention the many uncivilized acts of colonial violence that the British visited upon innocents worldwide.

Still, though that racist passage by Hume was penned 258 years ago, Schipper goes on to suggest that not much has changed in the world in terms of opportunities for African people of color in science and scholarship; "...the majority of people have no say..." In the writing of history, or the development of science and literature, according to Schipper, author of several books and Professor of Intercultural Literary Studies at the University of Leiden.

It is true, as Schipper claims that "written texts" tend to "dominate oral history and oral literature" and they take on a life "of their own." And it is also true that researchers' writings "effectively mold reality according to their own will," although that does not prove in any way that researchers' "wills" are necessarily or generally speaking evil, racist, necessarily biased against any culture or limited in their range of ideas. So, in assessing Schipper's contentions, one needs to keep an open mind and understand what it might be like to be a person of scholarly skills who lives on a continent that is constantly being pushed away from the world of respected scholarship.

She connects writing with freedom, and suggests that "white domination and prejudice" have effectively blocked African writers and poets from expressing their rebuttals to Western scholarship on African affairs. Historically, the colonized are "by definition doomed to remain an outsider," according to Albert Memmi (quoted by Schipper), because there can be no assimilation between the colonial culture and the colonized. And worse yet the histories written about the colonized by the colonialists - whether during the period of colonization or after the colonialists go back home - tend to be bigoted piety.

For example English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, in a BBC radio lecture, made the claim that Africa had no history and that there was "nothing to be found in Africa" other than "...unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe." This racist diatribe was replied to by Kenvan Ali Mazrui, according to Schipper's article, because "there had been enough history of barbarians and savages" and it was time for a new take on African history.

It now becomes important that the mere accumulation of extra information does not perpetuate the Trevor-Roper myth," Mazrui wrote in 1970. Only a "process of counter-selection can correct this, and African historians have to concentrate on those aspects which were ignored by the disparaging mythologies," Mazrui continued. Another African historian, Henk Wesseling, quoted by Schipper, had this to add to the subject: "Anyone who reconstructs the African past in terms of the present [political] state structure, actually reconstructs nothing, for that structure is a product of a very recent colonial past." The history of Africa "has been discovered," Wesseling continues, "But how is it to be written?" That is precisely the issue that Schipper's article addresses. "Us" versus "them" is not a new theme, but it more than aptly applies when it comes to the cultures of Africa trying to offer a legitimate, unbiased, objective theme to its history.

Meanwhile, the problem of representing Africa in literature and history also relates to the field of anthropology; the "colonial behavior pattern" of many anthropologists, unfortunately, has not been helpful in telling the real story of Africa. But Schipper notes that anthropologist Johannes Fabian, in his book Power and Performance, constructs "a dialog" that embraces a "reversible relationship between anthropologists and what used to be called their objects." Fabian "seeks to avoid the allegation of an unequal and manipulative relationship between subject and object, between researchers and informants, for which a previous generation had been blamed," Schipper writes.

In Fabian's approach to anthropology, the construction of knowledge about a given culture is based on a scenario in which "nothing of what really happened is hidden" and everybody involved participates "on an equal footing"; however, as fair as Fabian's approach may seem to be, Schipper continues, it "cannot succeed," simply because his "performance partners are not in the academic circuit of which he is a part and for which his research results are finally intended."

Indeed, sociologist Genevieve Bolleme writes that the concept of "the people" is "always political, or a result of some specific 'political policy' that occurs from the moment 'the people' are declared marginal or held at bay." The "specialist" (e.g., the anthropologist) looks at "the people" from the "outside" and makes "the people" the object of research, the subject of the literature to be written; but, and here is the million dollar question, after "continuous fiddling" and readjusting of the "image" of "the people," do "the people ever recognize themselves in what others write about them." Do indigenous people ever get the floor "to speak and write on behalf of their own groups"? Not very likely, the answer has to be, and when they do get to speak, is anybody listening to their voices?

Meanwhile, an editorial by Jean-Francois Fourny and Marie-Paule Ha, published in Research in African Literatures, called "Introduction: The history of an idea," takes a deep dive into the definition of "culture" and into "multiculturalism." The authors assert that the "idea of multiculturalism" as the "coexistence of different cultures within a different community has in fact known a long and tortuous history." To back up that bold offering, the authors point out that in many instances, the attempt to blend several diverse cultures in one setting has been "by turn tolerated, condemned or promoted" according to "specific political imperatives of a given period."

The oppression of the colonized by the colonialists is, in words used historically, the "denial of culture" - be it ethnic, linguistic, social or economic - to the "way of life of a given community." When the historical literature is written, according to the authors of this editorial, too often the "uncultured group" is subject to the "domination and oppression" of the "cultured group" - and that is the same as the "uncivilized group" becoming "civilized" by the oppressor.

The history of the word "culture" itself is interesting; its first meaning was, according to the editorial, "the tending of something, basically crops or animal"; and from the 16th Century onwards the word was used to describe human development; in the 18th Century is came to be interchangeable with "civilization"; later, Herder's writings influenced "culture" further, into "nations, periods, or even social and economic groups within a nation," the editorial continues.

The modern sense of the word "culture" is used in three ways; a general process of "intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development"; a "particular way of life, whether of a people, a period, or a group"; and three, "the works and practices of intellectual and artistic activity such as music, literature, painting, theater, or film," Fourny and Ha explain. And so, with those careful descriptions of what culture has meant in the past, and what culture does represent today, the first and third descriptions, Fourny and Ha explain, are "often perceived (rightly or wrongly) as pertaining to the purview of the social elite classes." The middle, or second, description is the anthropologist's view of culture: they put forward that knowledge, rules, behavior, belief, myth and codes all combine to define a group or "a people."

And moreover, those nations in Europe and elsewhere that were colonial powers at one time or another in Africa, for example, now find that individuals from the very "cultures" they once ruled over have "made their way into the metropolitan centers" of their homeland in Europe. But for France, as one example, the word "multiculturalism" causes discomfort, now that folks from the former French colonized nations of Africa are living in Paris and elsewhere; after all, the right wing in France believes that their nation is only for "real" French men and women, not for these interlopers from African countries France once… [END OF PREVIEW]

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