By Toyin Falola
(This concludes the interview series with Ken Harrow)
What is your view on the decolonization in universities and the idea that African knowledge should be at the center?
If you mean in African universities, it is long overdue. If you mean in universities outside Africa, I don’t quite get the question. If you mean in black studies departments in the U.S., they have been Afrocentric since their inception. But the larger question turns on how we understand the term Afrocentric. I reject the Temple University older fashioned use of the term, with Egypt providing the point of origin for the African identity. My own predilection is for thinkers like Stuart Hall or Edouard Glissant, or as I mentioned often, Gikandi or Diawara, who find diaspora studies enriched by the powerful intellectual traditions that have been creolized or hybridized or multisystemic. Not-centric as such. But if you stand on the leg of mixing, the other leg says, you can’t understand anything that is Africa from a distance. That the perspective that requires seeing without distortion relies on being on the ground, looking from the place of those whose world is one about which you write. On the other hand, texts are not simply realistic transmissions of external realities, but constructions and creations like ourselves, not simply fixed models. And we go back and forth swearing on the one hand Eshu’s hat was black and on the other it was red, while it was never something you could ever see altogether at any time. To return to your question, decolonization: it is, like the question about refugees, the question for our times. I take seriously the work of the Comaroffs in placing direct blame for the exploited and dominated order of our times on the powers that control the globalized economies, the neoliberal globalization that touches all our lives, as Akin Adosekan so well described in his book Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics. It is a call for arms, but not for decolonization in the old-fashioned sense in which a neocolonial order prevails. Simply consider the mineral extraction issue in the East Congo, where millions died in the fighting, and where a shifting pattern of outside countries, from Malaysia to China to East Europe to Israel, all grabbed whatever coltan or diamonds etc they could, and enabled the arming of desperate militias to destroy the social order and lives of many millions of people. That “decolonization” is part and parcel of the crisis over displaced persons and refugees, and we have to address it to our uninformed students.
There have been countless discussions launched about the need to teach the historically accepted literary pieces included in the canon. What do you think about the rethinking of canon in literature?
It is very hard for me to accept the rationalization for canonization of any body of works. Especially nowadays one finds that the economics that determine what good books get promoted into the category of “great” or “hits,” to be disseminated on a global scale—like movies to be seen on airplanes—are run by major publishing houses or distribution platforms. We need to attend less to the few lucky films that get into Netflix, like Mati Diop’s Atlantique, than those that are viewed in film festivals, and that more modest distributors pick up. I can really like Adichie’s novels or Mati Diop’s films, but yearn for something that is not written or filmed so much in conformity with standards expected by the global ordering authorities. I know it is not as absolute as that sounds, but in the case of film, it is really true that independent films only stand a chance when they succeed in festivals. Novels can start off, like Teju Cole’s first novel Every Day Is for the Thief, as a good Nigerian novel, and after the success of Open City, be transformed into major literary events when republished by American publishing houses like Random House. African literature never needed a canon. It needed a tradition, a body of works that might shift over time, but that inspired new generations to become writers or filmmakers. To become African writers, meaning, grounded in African literature itself.
You are a leading theorist of feminism in African literature, can you speak to the changes in black feminism in the course of your career?
There is no feminism in Africa outside of African writers and theorists, and the feminist questions they have always posed turned on how African women could face their struggles and overcome them. The earliest issue I wrote about had to do with films concerned with women forced to marry against their will. You will find that in the earliest writings and films of Sembène (like Xala, in fact in almost all his works) and many if not most of the writers of his generation, the 1960s and 1970s. Consider the film Finzan by Sissoko, 1989. You can go back to Dikongue-Pipa’s films of the 1970s, Muna Moto on that theme, and Le Prix de la liberte as well. It was a key theme because the independence of Africa was tied to notions of modernization or modernity, as Une si longue lettre by Mariama Ba indicated. The woman had to be free. And eventually, the fight over free from patriarchy turned into gender politics, a tough issue for African womanists who resisted anything suggesting lesbianism could be African. That has become a key question for our day, as is the struggle over homosexuality for men as well. But it refuses to go away, and the latest succès de scandale is the film by Wanuri Kahiu about two girls falling in love with each other, Rafiki (2018), a film the Kenyan govt did its best to stop—to their shame. Is this another issue from the west imported into Africa, or is Africa not a fixed location of origin, centered in the ethnic identities grounded in time and soil. Are the people who become men and women and trans determined by the rules of their genes, or free to make themselves, and does that have to be a question for the west and Africa to turn into one of influence? Again I turn to Hall for whom history cannot be ignored when we consider the “being” which defines who we are; and yet which cannot determine the “becoming” with which we shape ourselves. Free and fixed, open and closed. Bekolo’s films, like Naked Reality or Aristotle’s Plot, will not allow us to point a finger and say, here we are, this is who we are, rather than, here is where we are transformed into the ghosts or imaginary figures of our dreams.
I look at your question again. Bell hooks inspired the inevitable answer to that question for me: a feminism that leaves out the question of race, in the United States, is distorted and class driven. On the larger scale, a feminism in Africa will spring from the desires and demands of women on the continent; and when it turns to countries where race becomes a factor, like Europe or the United States or the Caribbean, then the approaches taken in Africa begin to become relevant factors. Consider a novel like NoViolet Bulawayo whose protagonist begins in Zimbabwe and winds up among the black girls of Kalamazoo Michigan (where, incidentally, Teju Cole was born). They are of two worlds, not one, and the feminisms of each have to take the other into account. We no longer live in a segregated world of the past colonial or apartheid era, and the white girls in the high school can no longer ignore their black schoolmates. The feminisms will intertwine like the music and language and clothing styles, and clash with those from other locations.
Lastly, the very large body of writings by African women feminists has obliged us to redefine the term, as was true when Alice Walker and black American feminists insisted their lives and perspectives not be ignored. African womanism presents a strong and positive take on gender identities in Africa, and that has reshaped much of the scholarship.
What are your current interests and how have you been able to keep them going despite retirement?
You might find this a bit strange, as I do myself. The last two years I have been reading physics books dealing with relativity and quantum mechanics. I am determined to bring the astounding discoveries about the laws of our universe, about the nature of our universe, to the questions posed by African cinema. Crazy, but I’ve now basically written enough material to be envisioning, in the near future, presenting the manuscript to publishers. I hope to argue that our understandings of time and space, especially as presented and seen and imagined in African films, can be rethought along lines that preoccupied physicists since the time of Einstein, in the early 20th century, and Bohr, from the mid-century on—that is, relativity and quantum. There is no fixed, objective, external time or space, as Newton had thought. Time is being created, and when we think about time, what we imagine in terms of, say, what our watches measure is only one version of one of many kinds of time, ways of thinking time, that are possible. Time is created in African films, along with notions of space. We can open the possibilities of understanding many different notions of time and space, and the quandaries they pose for us like the Uncertainty Principle, through African cinema, especially as that cinema has developed relatively independently from the fixed, scripted, narrowly imagined dominant western forms of cinema with their notions of what is real.
Covid has locked me in, and I had to read and write without leaving my little chair here in the corner of my family room. I have lost the time to be with friends and family as I would have liked, but I have been forced to turn in on myself to read and write, and the result will be this book, one I hope will compel those working in the field of cinema studies to imagine a new demand to be placed on their analyses. It will come from their relationship to the thinking that has inspired scientists for the 120 years since Einstein invented relativity. Already some on the USA-Africa list, like Oluwatoyin Adepoju, are taking that inspiration seriously.
INTERVIEW ANALYSIS AND REFLECTIONS
BY TOYIN FALOLA
The process of studying decolonization involves the awareness that the Black identity requires radicalism as an instrument of preserving Blackness and navigating its world, even in environments where there is cultural-cum-racial pluralism. It is no longer limited to anti-colonial struggles to include broader responses to decolonization. Migrations, driven by economic reasons that have become the push factors in many countries of the world, and security challenges ranging from the rise of wars in different places, among others, have led to a mass exodus of people, especially Africans, away from their cultural and economic habitats to seek alternative living conditions and security in wealthy nations. However, it is perplexing that these migrants become the primary reason for the implementation and enforcement of a government policy in a bid to incorporate them, which admittedly, would affect domestic politics. In other words, even when it is important that schools in Africa be anti-colonial, it does not necessarily follow that schools in countries where a Black population surge will change their orientation to accommodate their august visitors.
Engagements with Black radicalism differ from one country to another. As a matter of historical necessity, places where slavery and the Atlantic slave trade occurred must confront their past. There are countries that were not part of this history that structure their internal politics differently. This is summed up in the conclusion that places where Black Studies have been established, other than in Africa, should continue to remain Afrocentric in their curriculum design. Knowledge about Africa should be the center of academic inquiry in Africa itself. Of course, due mainly to its current economic situation, Africa does not have large numbers of contemporary immigrants from other places, but it does not mean that they cannot create Hispanic Studies, Chinese Studies, or Spanish Studies, although they may be less prominent.
Perspectives on radicalism or Afrocentrism differ. Afrocentrism offered or envisioned by those early philosophers did not imagine or factor in foreseeable emergencies and, as such, attracted a lot of doubt about the need for the movement at all, even among intellectuals. There is a nexus between academic movement and political direction, as the latter usually motivates a step in the direction of the former. When Africans considered the reconstruction of their identity as domiciled in the home-bound retracement of their steps, they conceived Afrocentrism in a sense that all their political and economic activities would take the old order, forgetting the massive influence that neoliberalism would have on that decision in the contemporary time. For a world dominated by neoliberal globalization, contentious forces on people’s economic systems are inevitable, making internal contradictions that could potentially derail their determination and is unavoidable. Radical decolonization came with a cost. For example, some African countries, like Patrice Lumumba’s Congo, claimed to be socialist in orientation, but the reconstruction of their political ideology towards Afrocentrism birthed a series of internal struggles that gave room for external actors to take sides, wreaking unimaginable damage in the process.
The problem is not that the decolonization movement was inherently problematic or a needless expedition, but there was no synchronicity between the political class that intended to embark on it and the innocent academic community that wished to redeem the African image through education. For those in the former position, their greed and avarice continued to influence their political calculations, which made them conceive Afrocentrism not as a means of garnering home-based support but as a tool for self-aggrandizement. For the latter, however, they understand that the redemption of African identity at the global stage could only be done through the ideas and knowledge transmitted to the people.
Sandwiched between these two worlds is the instrumentality of power needed to achieve specific objectives. This means that the state’s control of resources, so long as it continues to generate conflict, should be reconsidered. Africans do not necessarily need to sacrifice their lives and economies as they seek to uproot European influence on their culture.
Can literary ideas on decolonization be canonized? I will address this borrowing a leaf from the understanding of decolonization as evinced in the essay of Donald Molosi, “On Decolonizing the Postcolonial African Classroom,” which stipulates that the transmission of colonial trauma has affected knowledge production in Africa and has helplessly driven African literary pieces away from the cultural environment that they are meant to represent. Coupled with the multinational company pressures, such as the one imposed by publishing houses or distribution platforms, the content of literature produced in the last years of the 20th century, spilling over to the current one, is dictated by the activities of globalization that trend more in neoliberal and capitalist-leaning economies than they do in Africa. This is because global readership is considered the contemporary goldmines from which every author seeks to tap. The relevance of market value is derived based on the involvement of the writers in these global activities, in which case, the cultural and political experiences of Africans are not given appropriate places in the literary pieces that dominate the global market. Therefore, how does one naturally feel when these literatures are canonized as true African literary pieces? If we incorporate them as African literary materials, does this not portend danger for future African educational institutions, knowing that the works are not reflective of the African experience?
For example, if well-read African literary writers, say Chimamanda Adichie and Teju Cole, among others, choose to write about transgender challenges in America and, in the process, impose African characters, how does this reflect the fact that a child in the far corner of a village in Nairobi is forced to speak a language that does not express his/her cultural identity; or that a Congolese is faced with environmental and political crisis as a daily experience, which naturally should remain within the framework of neocolonial experience? If our answer is negative, what, therefore, is the fate of canonized African literary pieces determined by the pressure of international organizations that do not reflect the African experience in relation to their actual decolonization agenda? Would Africans not be accomplices rather than agencies of (de)colonization? These are emerging issues that need corresponding critical engagement before the canonization of African works is attempted. With the apparent hands of these organizations in the determination of the content to be produced by these writers, especially when everyone is afraid of the cancel culture, it is difficult to adjudge the materials produced as African works, unless we are committed to doing injustice to African literary movements and traditions. African students deserve to be grounded in African experience through these literary pieces, and this can only be achieved through a literary tradition that prioritizes that experience.
Entwined in the contemporary global economy of education is the racialization of movement in which territorializing, bordering, and boundary fragmentation remain serious political issues. One of the most obvious cases is the feminist movement. Feminism in the Americas is tangible and intellectually virile only to the very extent that women from other races are not included or amplified in their struggles for equality. Therefore, it begs the question of how the African woman in Africa expresses the brand of feminism espoused in the Americas and their European allies? Even if there are fundamental issues raised in these countries in relation to the general experiences of women, would there not be distinctions caused by environmental and political differences? Again, there is the question of decolonization standing loosely at the intersection of emancipation and revolutions. How certain are we that the treatments to which the contemporary African woman is subjected are not exclusively linked to colonial and postcolonial politics or their challenges? These are cases and situations that make the construction of feminist ideologies in Africa nuanced in ways that cannot be easily understood by detached bystanders and onlookers. Perhaps in their discovery that the pre-colonial African woman was not subjected to this kind of marginalization even when societies were patriarchal, African women coined “womanism” because of its contextual import and cultural relevancy.
This is inspired by the thinking and resolution that their continental experiences cannot or should not be ignored. Specifically, they must be given a platform, perhaps through the womanism movement, to air their unique experiences and design their intellectual views in ways that generally reflect their sociocultural and sociopolitical experiences. This stands the possibility of strengthening their identity, knowing that the contemporary world operates differently from the previous time when distance, separation, and segregation were promoted against those considered as less privileged.
Womanism constructs an ideological conviction that blurs ethnic boundaries. Even amidst the fact of complex politics of identity, it stands upright for the establishment of the African woman’s agenda to freedom, based on the reality of their experience. Regardless, there is the need to emphasize the place of concession in the whole process. The African brand of feminism should not be insensitive to the environmental challenges of the people from whom the movement has broken the walls of patriarchy. Their music, their dress, and their political engagement should reflect hybridity, so much that when they come in contact, one does not negatively influence the other or seek to colonize it. It is incontestable that they are constructs of a common ideology that has different sociocultural focus or views. Some of the globalization of cultural experience is hard to achieve; one would not lose its legitimacy by being itself.