ASWAD and the younger generation of scholars

There was an impressive talk by Jim Downs about both the African contribution to epidemiology and its forceful elimination from the Western historical record. Apart from its own matter of interest Jim Down’s presentation thoroughly reveals a serious issue with contemporary Black scholarship.

Many of the presenter’s at ASWAD talk of themselves as the first of a new generation of Black scholars inhabiting the halls of the Academy. This is a serious matter. It conceals two great and profound errors and misconceptions. 

Even if we restrict discussion to the 20th Century Black scholars have been part of ‘the Academy’. Eric Williams was a serious historical scholar of his time as was DuBois. Fanon, Cesaire, Senghor, Soyinka were/are all serious scholars. Britain’s foremost Shakespeare scholar credits Soyinka with inspiring through discussion his re-interpretation of Shakespeare as a dramatist. Cesaire was recognized and acknowledged by France’s leading poets and scholars. Cheikh Anta Diop had a similar following among France’s academics. These scholars’  importance is not created or confirmed by this acknowledgement. I only mention it because it flies in the face of the self-delusion of many young African and Diaspora scholars.

Several times these younger academics mentioned that in effect they were card-carrying members of ‘The Academy’. This is appalling. I have written elsewhere about the capture of the Africana Academy (Note 1). I also explained in that article how even their apparent dissent can be evidence of complete capture,  especially where that dissent has been channelled into ‘acceptable areas’.

Jim Downs’ work was dependent on his getting ‘down and dirty’ with the data.  Previous generations of African and Diaspora scholars had to get ‘down and dirty’ with the data. Cesaire , Fanon and in the 19th century scholars like Firmin, had to get ‘down and dirty’ with their data. Professor Gomez entire opus is dependent on his getting ‘down and dirty’ with the data. We have the spectacle today that it is non-African scholars who are making discoveries through access to raw data, because our younger generation are betraying the traditions of scholarship.

So pleased are they with themselves and their ‘acceptance into the Academy’, they forget the duties of scholarship.  In the eyes of the top Western academics, they must look pathetic and unthreatening. Perhaps the younger generation are happy with this profile?

It is ‘white’ scholars who discovered that Adam Smith altered his draft and changed his example of primitive from India to Africa in the Wealth of Nations, (Bernasconi) that the history of management accounting had deliberately ignored its slaveholding origins, that Locke made handwritten manuscript amendments to the Virginia Constitution (Bernasconi). Similar discoveries were made by Wulf D Hund.  

What is the relevance? You cannot check what you already trust. During the presentation by Jim Downs, one of the panellists described the difference between African perception (myth, superstition) and science. Her description of the difference came out of undergraduate classes.  This is appalling that she should be still trusting what she was taught as an undergraduate!!! Her description is not closely credible at the level of scholarship. Isaac Newton and many of his contemporaries were devoutly religious and spiritual. Newton was a practising alchemist and spent more time on alchemy than physics. Newtons’ third law clearly comes from the world of alchemy – as above so below- every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The source can be traced back through Socrates to ancient Egypt. It can be seen in the concept of the dialectic. Newton took a spiritual law and mapped it onto earthly physics. At any serious level firmly distinguishing between spiritual and scientific can be meaningless. Two centuries ago conceiving multiple universes and multiple dimensions would have been seen as wild superstition by many scholars – but such ideas were commonplace among spiritual researchers. Today they are commonplace among physicists. How can a scholar who takes a kindergarten view of science know what to search for and check in the history?

There is a fundamental protocol in serious research …do not rely upon what you cannot yourself either prove or show extremely high-level endorsement. Had these scholars first sought endorsement from a historian of science or any serious scientist they would have been warned about ‘over simplifying’. To teach undergraduates and kindergarten children we tell them water is H2O. For serious scientists, we tell them something different. It is not a lie (they say) but a simplification to make the courses teachable.

For these young scholars, the only thing to check is what they are studying and researching now. For a serious scholar, every step on the way to where you are has to be reviewed. If you cannot check it can you find a way not to rely on it? On many occasions, I have found the original article has a much narrower scope than the later reports and all the caveats of the authors have been stripped away. Any subsequent work that relies on these simplifications can be immediately ignored or discarded and the author taken off one’s database.

As a young student at Cambridge University chatting with my science colleagues, they told me how any reference to the papers/data produced by an unrecognised lab (not among a small elite set of labs) was treated as a disciplinary offence. “You can read these papers  and take the data  away and see if you can replicate it in ‘our lab’!!!! If you can, you may refer to your replication in the Cambridge lab”.

In my field at that time, any paper that refers to a philosopher and does not critically reference his actual text can be immediately ignored.

But we have a scholar seeking to distinguish between African views and ‘scientific’ views using kindergarten categories. How can she check what she is saying when she does not understand what she is saying? According to her view, Newton would not be a scientist at all. So the first step in getting ‘down and dirty’ with the data is being sceptical about what you have been taught. These new scholars have been completely ‘captured’ and do not know it. Yet the personal history of Prof Gomez starts with his doubting what he was being taught and then being told by a senior professor at a critical moment that he needed to get ‘down and dirty’ with the data and as a first step learn Arabic!

A major complaint that the panel on ‚State‘ politics made is the separation between the intellectuals and the political class and the people of Africa and the Diaspora. Lenin would have been clear: when the intellectuals are divorced from the people DO NOT BLAME THE PEOPLE. But the question to be asked is: who is the actual audience for their papers and books? If they are writing for the approval of the Western academy why do they expect others in the African world to be interested? There is no evidence they are writing regarding the issues facing Africa and the Diaspora. There was no mention of ‚China‘ at all. This is a core issue facing anyone in politics in Africa. Nor did they mention IMF, World Bank, or Israel – all matters of great importance to people great and small, but all matters absent from discussion. I pointed out that at the level of theory they could be speaking in the 1980’s. They have not changed their analysis even though the world has changed massively.

But this leads to a more general failing of contemporary scholars. One of the most important scholars of the 20th Century for African and Diaspora studies is completely ignored: Raphael Lemkin (Note 2). His work today is ignored and misdescribed. There is no substitute for getting familiar with the original.  Modern summaries can be immediately put in the basket for recycling. It is Lemkin who outlines the distinction between cultural and physical genocide and contrary to ALL modern African and Diaspora scholarship emphasises that attempts at cultural genocide are far more serious and dangerous than attempts at physical genocide.

With no understanding of Lemkin’s work modern African and Diaspora scholars wander into ‘never never land’ assuming that modern-day members of Africa and the Diaspora are healthy representatives of ‘something’. They think they can ‘look at Africa’ and know what Africa thinks. Firstly, the Africa they look at is most often through the filter of the West (which for reasons beyond me other than that is how to get good grades as an undergraduate) believe it to be accurate. Secondly, it is like asking a  diseased man for his feelings, memories and attitudes and comparing that to a healthy man from another country. We, Africans and the Diaspora, are the victims of centuries of attempted cultural genocide. 

A sick man begins to identify the symptoms of his sickness with his identity! Dave Chapelle in challenging a ‘white’ person ‘s claim to be Black, asks if they have suffered discrimination and denial of opportunities.  Here are the classic symptoms of identifying the features of their illness (slavery, discrimination, denial of opportunities) with their identity. What is astonishing is that African and Diaspora scholars allow slavery to be identified with Black people. Before the Atlantic slave trade, Europeans sold ‘white’ people to North Africa in large numbers. The Vikings conquered Russia and sold the people to the Turks and North Africans of the Ottoman empire. Ottomans had a peculiar fetish for ‘white’ slave ladies. Venetians became notorious and wealthy as middlemen in this trade. Even in the early days of  America ‘white’ sea travellers would be captured and sold as slaves into North Africa. Then during the period of the Atlantic slave trade, Europeans were still being captured and sold as slaves into North Africa at an estimated number of 2 million. Kindly reread the first chapter of  Robinson Crusoe. Why have the younger generation allowed the identification of being Black and slavery to continue?

Twenty years ago I begged African and Diaspora scholars to visit Jersey while eyewitnesses were still alive. Nazi Germany introduced slavery on this island during World War 2. They worked the ‚prisoners‘ to death. I have seen the camps and they are no different to slave camps in the US. These slaves were badly housed, poorly fed, severely punished if they tried to escape and a death sentence (transfer to concentration camps) was passed on any local who helped them. The only difference with the US South was that the slaves were white. I had arranged with the foremost scholar on the island of Jersey to help any African or Diaspora scholar identify and meet eyewitnesses. Jersey is a tourist island (suitable for a family holiday) and a stopover on the way to or from a conference should have been easy to arrange. I am not an ethnographer. There were no takers. My respect for African and diaspora scholars plummeted. Why this lack of interest?

Maybe because the younger generation believe it when they are told ‘you are accepted into the Academy because you are better educated than your parents and grandparents, so welcome’. In reality, most of them do not come close to being equally educated as the best of former generations.

We have a younger generation of scholars that have a delinquent methodology that would make the best scholars of the Western Academy squirm with embarrassment ( I can hear them say ‘they are Black scholars, what can you expect!), they have no respect for or knowledge of the work methods of prior generations, and they apparently do not read what has not been put on their agenda by members of the Western Academy.

Can you call this scholarship?

NOTES

  1. O. A. Ladimeji:  ‘’African Academy and its Crisis: Conflicting Agendas and Institutional Capture’..in ‘Higher Education in Africa and the United States: The Black Experience’ eds Anyanwu, Forde and Otieno, New Forum Press 2019.
  2. Raphael Lemkin: ‘Axis Rule in Occupied Europe’ 1944

updated: 8 Nov21