A Tale of Two Buildings: African Literature at Yale

When Yale professor of English and American Studies Wai Chee Dimock opined about the sudden, unexpected emergence of African literature and Africanist literary scholarship, she made a lot of people unhappy. I’ll let Aaron Bady’s response speak for itself:

It’s not surprising that African literature is read as emerging: In the long emergency that seems to define Africa in the eyes of the rest of the world—in which “Africa” is a place of starving children, warring clans, and technological backwardness—the idea of African literature can seem positively utopian. It can be a delightful discovery when it seems to emerge. But that discovery says everything about the person making it, and nothing about the literature, which emerged a long time ago. And as long as critics and publishers frame African literature as always on the cusp, it will continue to be an emerging literature whose emergence is infinitely deferred.

Bady makes several very smart, stinging critiques of Dimock’s piece, but also of higher education’s English departments’ willful ignorance of African literature in general, and I encourage you to read the whole thing. Some passages I was particularly drawn to:

If you can name only three African writers and two of them are white South Africans, you have a very odd sense of the literature. But this myopia is also general: English departments do have a very limited sense of what African literature is.

And on recent shifts to see American literature as global literature:

[I]f American becomes a “world” literature, what happens to all the literature that used to occupy that space? Is the globalization of American literature a growing cosmopolitanism or a new kind of Eurocentrism? If American literature becomes a world literature, then is world literature just a new name for the old canon?

And:

For a shift from “English departments” to departments of “Anglophone World Literature” to mean anything, structural change would be required, but I suspect only superficial change is on offer, at best. For anything to change, a ratio of 10 professors of 19th-century British literature to one Africanist would have to seem like a damning and embarrassing (and essentially colonial) hierarchy of value.

The absence of an Africanist at Yale English is something that was part of my (and others’) broader critique of Yale’s lackluster performance in Africanist scholarship, but Yale is an interesting site for this conversation for another reason.

Not a quarter mile away from the Yale English Department is the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. This library is filled with rare artifacts, a vast majority of them from Europe and America. Working at the library for two years, I saw more German magazines and bibles than I did anything from the Global South. The only thing that ever passed my desk that mentioned Africa was the occasional piece of political ephemera from radical black groups in the U.S. (although it is worth noting that the Beinecke’s African American collections are wonderful, though I digress).

The Beinecke Library, a five minute walk for any Yale English professor, is also the recent home of the Windham Campbell Literary Prize, a huge new prize that recently announced its third set of winners. In 2013, the inaugural nine prize winners included two South Africans, Jonny Steinberg and Zoë Wicomb. The following year Aminatta Forna was a recipient. This third round of winners, announced last week, includes Teju Cole, Helon Habila, and Ivan Vladislavić. In addition, 2013 non-fiction winner Jeremy Scahill’s work has included extensive reporting in Somalia, and 2015 drama winner Jackie Sibblies Drury’s work includes a play about Namibia.

All this to say, a stone’s throw away from the Yale English Department, a prestigious literary prize has been awarded to six African writers (five of them fiction writers), out of only twenty-six recipients. While Yale’s English Department is still looking for African literature, the library down the street has found it and awarded it six times in three years. That a full quarter of Windham Campbell recipients have been African, that over half a million dollars have been awarded to African writers by the library next door, and still people like Wai Chee Dimock are not sufficiently aware of the existing vibrancy of African literature, is a shame. When the department held its job talks a little over a year ago, several of the faculty in attendance were apparently (according to others I’ve spoken to) completely unengaged – some did not seem to understand the importance of the applicants’ scholarship. This is a sad fact for an English department trying to hire its first Africanist.

I am not saying that we should pay attention to African literature because it’s started winning Western prizes. But this fact, on top of the diverse and exciting amount of writing going on in and about Africa and the increasing scholarship about writers from Africa and the diaspora, should make it clear to English Departments across the country that African literature is more than a forgotten step-child not worth studying. It should be seen as part and parcel to the canon. But it isn’t. And, as Aaron says, “the result is predictable. Ignoring a field normalizes ignorance of it, and this kind of ignorance of African literature continues to be utterly normal.”

Weekend Reading

Careful management, good management, is the full and sole justification for the administration class that has bloated so entirely over the college landscape since the 1980s (and whose growth is still accelerating, even in the face of permanent cuts everywhere else). Simply put the promise of the management class was that they could manage colleges better than faculty. Even by their own estimation they have completely failed at this task on every possible level. Thirty years of running it like a sandwich has every college in the country living admission cycle to admission cycle, cutting budgets and services and wages every year, careening from supposed emergency to supposed emergency without any stabilization or improvement.

Even bracketing endowments and donations altogether, generally speaking colleges have a built-in client base, already own all the land and buildings, can borrow freely, and don’t pay taxes. I could devise a harder test of management acumen. So it seems to me the approximately 100% of college administrations that are now claiming emergency and desperation year after year need to cop either to their own incompetence, or else their dishonesty, or else their active malice.

Canavan’s Razor would tell us that permanent crisis is a management strategy, the unacknowledged goal of every plan. But whichever precise combination of incompetence, dishonesty, and malice best describes a particular university administration is irrelevant. The management class simply has no reason to exist at all if their interventions in the university produce not stability but crisis, after crisis, after crisis, after crisis, after crisis…

Weekend Reading

The thrill of clicking on links, and watching readings appear, can never be replaced.

In the first days of the Great War, Britain intended only to detain suspect enemy aliens as prisoners of war. Pressured by Parliament to arrest all enemy aliens, British Home Secretary Reginald McKenna resisted, saying he would proceed under the Hague Conventions, in which the military was responsible for designating enemy aliens for arrest. Internment, he noted, was reserved only for enemy aliens who were military personnel or seen as dangerous to the nation. After the Lusitania’s sinking, however, the political resistance vanished, all military-age enemy aliens were rounded up, and civilians were transformed into prisoners of war.

As declarations of war multiplied across the globe between signatories of the Hague Conventions, a complex bureaucracy of detention began removing groups of civilians en masse from society…. In November 1914, Germany moved to arrest all British, French, and Russian men between the ages of seventeen and fifty-five, and by war’s end held more than 111,000 enemy aliens. During the same period, France interned 60,000 German and Austro-Hungarian civilians; Bulgaria rounded up more than 14,000 Serbian and Croatian noncombatants; and Romania held 6,000 civilians, mostly Germans and Austro-Hungarians.

[…]

In an era of widespread conscription, any male of fighting age was a potential soldier. Generals worried that able-bodied foreigners deported to their home countries on one day might show up on the battlefield the next, further discouraging any desire to make distinctions between civilians and combatants. Internees knew that compared to life in the trenches, a concentration camp offered relative safety, but internment had its own price. Even where they had spent decades as part of a community, foreigners’ businesses were ransacked or shuttered, or their assets seized by governments. Internees were not soldiers, but instead a new kind of low-grade hostage. Not expected to fight or die, they only endured.

Boko Haram’s relentless attacks against individuals tied to the Kanuri establishment demonstrate its antipathy toward the northeast’s existing hierarchy. In areas it has captured, Boko Haram has allegedly seized the property of local notables and allocated it among its followers. The contours of a vicious class struggle within Kanuri society are readily evident.

In addition to the northeastern elites, Boko Haram’s worldview is at odds with rural Kanuri communities. Salafism – both its peaceful and violent varieties – remains primarily an urban phenomenon in Nigeria’s northeast. Cities tend to have a higher concentration of youths bereft of established kinship networks and therefore attracted to the universalist message espoused by Islamic revivalists. Conversely, the countryside serves as a bastion of traditionalism, with many Muslims practicing syncretic forms of Islam that incorporate elements of indigenous religions.

Boko Haram’s transition to a largely rural-based insurgency has placed the Salafi-jihadi movement in an operational environment where the majority of inhabitants regard it as an alien interloper. Rather than adjust its messaging to appeal toward the wary peasantry, Boko Haram appears to have elected to pursue a strategy of armed coercion in order to secure local compliance. This approach helps account for the surge in civilian fatalities as well as Boko Haram’s seemingly growing reliance on conscription and monetary compensation to replenish its ranks.

Acholi Opinions of Ongwen’s Arrest

I’ve written a little bit over the last month or so about Dominic Ongwen’s arrest and the charges he faces. There are a pair of recent publications that shed light on the heated debate over his arrest and trial.

For background: Dominic Ongwen was abducted by the LRA as a young boy and inducted into the rebel group, where he gradually rose in ranks to become a high-level brigade commander. As many have noted, he may be the first conscripted child soldier to be charged with conscripting children, a status that makes his case controversial.

Beyond all of this controversy, many in the Acholi community have long pushed for reconciliation rather than prosecution or military action as a means of ending the war. The radio programs I studied over the last couple of years are just one example of efforts to encourage rebels to demobilize and return home without punishment. The national Amnesty Act is another, and the mato oput traditional reconciliation ceremony is another. There have been numerous efforts at reconciliation that don’t follow the usual retributive justice model. This isn’t to say that these efforts don’t have their own set of critics – they do – but that the question of whether or not Ongwen should face trial at the ICC is complicated.

At the end of January, two pieces were published that speak to the complexity of Ongwen’s arrest on the ground in Acholiland.

First, the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, an interfaith group that was created in northern Uganda to address the LRA conflict, issued a press release on Ongwen’s trial which puts the rest of the world on blast:

The question we all need to ask ourselves, is, how did Ongwen Dominic, in the first place, end up in the hands of the LRA? We have been informed from the most reliable sources that Ongwen Dominic was abducted, by force, at the age of ten years old, by LRA. In this context, we believe that there was, of course, some negligence, on the part of the government of Uganda, which had failed to protect numerous unfortunate children of Northern Uganda for years. On the other hand, the LRA that abducted Ongwen Dominic at tender age, and destroyed his humanity completely, by making him to becoming a mere killing machine in its hands, should be held both accountable and responsible for all that Ongwen Dominic did during the LRA captivity all these years. We also think that the international community did not take immediate action to arrest the unbearable situation of the LRA in time. A lot of mistakes have been made even by the international community, who did not have an eye to see us, as human beings here in Northern Uganda. Instead, we have all become ‘invisible people’ in the eyes of the international community.

The press release also argues for Ongwen to undergo traditional reconciliation in Gulu instead of facing trial at the ICC. This statement includes a strong critique of the retributive justice system:

Ongwen Dominic, as a victim of circumstances, should not be punished twice, by humanity. Ongwen Dominic, as a victim of circumstances should not be taken to the Hague in the Netherthelands in Europe. As a matter of course, Ongwen Dominic should have been brought back home, in order, to go through the rituals of ‘Mato Oput’ (Reconciliation), as a cleansing mechanism to all that he went through during his time in the LRA captivity. The cultural justice system of Mato Oput is pro-life and holistic in every respect in life. Unlike the Court system in the world, it brings restoration of the broken human relationships. It also brings a complete transformation in the lives of the two communities involved into violent conflict.

It creates a healing process in the hearts of all those who have been wounded, by the war of insurgency. But above all, it brings new life to all the communities who have been affected by violence and death. In the truth-telling process, there are no denials, no lies, and no deceptions, as it is the case in the Court system. Surprisingly, the Court system, which is punitive or retributive, promotes polarization that only leads into ultimate alienation on both sides.

A week later, the Refugee Law Project, a think tank affiliated with Makerere University, published a report on Ongwen’s trial and leading perspectives [pdf] in Gulu. It includes similar indictments of the Ugandan government for allowing LRA violence to continue unabated in the north:

Most participants argued that Ongwen is a victim and will remain so because it was the Government that failed in its responsibility to protect him, prior to his abduction. Ongwen was abducted in Gulu in 1990, at the age of 10 while on his way to school. Sheikh Musa Kilil said, “It was the responsibility of government to protect such a child, a pupil who was going to school”. Reflecting on who a victim is in the context of the LRA, a former abductee noted, “Victims in LRA conflict are all those who were abducted, those who lost their property, body parts, their lives, loved ones and others who have been forced to kill”. Another participant argued that Ongwen is a victim because; “Ongwen was abducted, destroyed and ruined. He was made a teacher of a system whose motto value is, kill to survive”

These opinions are just a few more examples of how complicated and potentially divisive this trial, which begins in August, will be.

Weekend Reading

Read a few links to celebrate Arizona’s statehood, Frederick Douglass’ birthday, or the latest Hallmark holiday:

Not only do we bend the natural world to mathematics and science, then, but we also bend mathematics and science to political ends as well. No calendar is innocent, no temporal system is neutral…

Nationalist attempts to remake the date aren’t new — in perhaps the most famous example, the French Republican Calendar not only reorganized the days and months around a ten-day week called a décade, but also restarted the entire thing at Year I. At the time John Quincy Adams decried it as “superficially frivolous” and “coarsely vulgar,” not to mention “irreligious” — but this was of course the point: the de-Christianization of the calendar, and a temporal arrangement of time with an entirely new set of symbolic compass points. A calendar that was no longer based on saints’ feasts and religious holidays towards one named after the progression of the seasons and the plants and vegetables of nature, where September 22 (the date of the founding of the French Republic), not January 1, was now the beginning of the year, and the year itself was no longer 1792.

Twitter’s trending hashtags suggests that Americans can bring themselves to talk about the #ChapelHIllShooting but they can’t utter their names. They can’t be these people. While it is clear that we don’t need another parade of hoodie-clad white people claiming #IamTrayvon it is striking that there isn’t even an attempt to do so. White America can immediately identify with a racist French satire magazine they’ve never heard of, but can’t possibly stand in solidarity with fellow Americans that also happen to be Muslim.

The straight-forward narrative that makes #JeSuisCharlie so legible to so many people is inaccessible to the marginal. The causes of violence perpetrated by white men is exploded by white supremacist patriarchy’s insistence that each instance of white terror is actually the confluence of psychological illness, the availability of guns, video games, or anything else that doesn’t threaten the racial order or patriarchy head-on.

When uprisings occur, when people that are systematically denied the preconditions of solidarity ––the ability to continually meet each-other unharassed, a common language, the material support to mobilize against one’s oppressors–– find them through perseverance and creativity, the invisible background radiation that maintains their oppression suddenly becomes opaque and solid. The sustained and largely invisible strategies of hegemony are temporarily traded in for the tactics of swift and immediate police violence. To those not paying attention it might seem to come out of nowhere, but for everyone else it is utterly predictable.

Weekend Reading

Just add water.

[T]he prevailing consensus endorsed liberal education. A presidential commission chartered by Harry S. Truman recommended in 1947 that colleges strive to more fully realize democracy “in every phase of living,” promote international understanding, and deploy creative intelligence to solve social problems. College wasn’t a way to get a job or make a buck.

For a long time, the pushback to that philosophy was productive. It forced higher education to be dynamic, to respond to conditions beyond campus, says Mr. Roth, who is president of Wesleyan University and sits on the AAC&U board. People understood that liberal learning served individuals, regardless of their jobs, as well as society at large. That’s no longer true, he says.

A farmer reading the classics or an industrial worker quoting Shakespeare was at one time an honorable character. Today’s news stories lament bartenders with chemistry degrees. “Where once these ‘incongruities’ might have been hailed as signs of a healthy republic,” Mr. Roth writes, “today they are more likely to be cited as examples of a ‘wasted’—nonmonetized—education.”

External “assistance” in Africa proved limited in effect, created debilitating forms of aid dependency, and suppressed the creation of organic movements that can aptly respond to struggles of their time. Therefore, the search for a sovereign consciousness, which when found will give birth to new forms of grassroots activism, must begin with a repudiation of existing arrangements of power between Western donors and their NGO handmaidens in the South. Such a refusal would no doubt be met with resistance and punishment in the form of aid withdrawal by the West, if not worse. But that is the essence of the redemptive battle at hand.

We can only sing our redemption song and emancipate ourselves if we deny the white saviour industrial complex its ideological hold on us, and to do this we must collectively rethink our civil society relations and consciousness as Africans.  Failure to do so will result in us being continuously “chained to the obligation of gratitude” that Madonna implicitly expects. And it will result in Africans losing possession and control of their histories and memories, even if they reside in the form of something as seemingly unimportant as an autopsy report.

Weekend Reading

Weekend Reading forecast says 74% chance of weather happening. Also sports I guess. Have at it:

The constitution was put to a popular vote in the state in 1857 and included two referendums that were to be voted on independently. The first was whether they should reject slavery. Roughly 75 percent of voters opted to reject the adoption of slavery. The second measure was whether or not to exclude black people from the state. About 89 percent of voters cast their vote in favor of excluding black and mixed race people from the state. And thus, the exclusionary aspects of the state constitution were adopted.

[…]

The voters who overwhelmingly embraced this exclusion rationalized it not as blind hate, but as a progressive move that was simply keeping their new land “pure.” Utopia often means starting from scratch, and just as often it means excluding undesirables.

Since 1987, the police department has shot at least a hundred and forty-six people. The shooting of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, looked almost routine to people in Albuquerque. They had seen such incidents many times before. Few people protested, and no one paid much attention. Police violence appeared to be a matter of concern only to Albuquerque’s underclass: those who are mentally ill, addicted to drugs, Native American, or Hispanic and poor. David Correia, a professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico, told me, “There’s this myth here of tri-cultural harmony—indigenous people, Mexican-Americans, and Anglos—but this precarious arrangement is built on a long history of violence against Spanish-speaking and indigenous people that still plays out.”

The city has hired a succession of experts, a new research team every few years, to analyze the police department’s use of force, but officials seem to have viewed the act of commissioning a report as a proxy for doing something about the problem. Samuel Walker, an expert in police accountability who was hired in 1996 to co-author one of the reports, after the police killed thirty-two people in ten years, said, “When we gave an oral presentation to the city council, I had a very strong impression that many city-council members were not interested.” He described his conversation with Martin Chávez, the mayor, as one of the most hostile interviews he’s ever conducted. He said that the police chief would not look him in the eyes when he briefed him. One city-council member refused to meet with him or return his calls.

Ongwen’s Indictment and Lukodi

The ICC has released the un-redacted version of Dominic Ongwen’s indictment [pdf] for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It appears that the incident at the center of his indictment was the Lukodi Massacre in 2004.

Members of civil society from the DRC and CAR say a prayer alongside people from Lukodi at the memorial for the massacre. June, 2013.

Members of civil society from the DRC and CAR say a prayer alongside people from Lukodi at the memorial for the massacre. June, 2013.

As Ledio Cakaj tweeted yesterday, this will bring attention to the tragic situation of IDP camps in the history of the war – Lukodi was but one of many “protected” camps that the military forced civilians into, then provided little to no protection. Some have even called the camp policy one of genocide. (If you want to read up on this, Chris Dolan’s Social Torture is a thorough analysis of the camps, and Adam Branch has written on the humanitarian complicity [pdf] in the program).

The Justice and Reconciliation Project published a report on the Lukodi Massacre in 2011 which you can access here [pdf]. The trial of Dominic Ongwen will raise a lot of interesting issues, not least because of his unique status as both victim and perpetrator of child conscription. The JRP report also doesn’t name Ongwen as the commander in the attack. I’m not familiar enough with this incident, but it is yet another question that will come up as to Ongwen’s responsibility for the massacre.

Here are a few photos from when I was in Lukodi in 2013. While I was researching radio interventions in northern Uganda, I observed a conference of Congolese and Central African civil society members who were hosted by Invisible Children in Gulu. One day, everyone took a bus to Lukodi where they met members of the community in Lukodi and heard testimonies of what had happened there. A victim of LRA violence from CAR also spoke to the audience about her experience. Later, a group of school children performed before the group headed back to Gulu.

Members of the conference gather to hear people from Lukodi speak.

Members of the conference gather to hear people from Lukodi speak.

Survivors, many widowed, were recognized by the audience.

Survivors were recognized by the audience.

Speaker telling her story to the audience.

Speaker telling her story to the audience.

DSCN8117

Students performed dances to Christian songs.

Weekend Reading

On Sunday March 7, 1965, six hundred people, led by John Lewis, marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Just after crossing the bridge, they were met by Alabama State Troopers and local police. The men in uniform wore masks, and some of them were on horseback. They gave a brief warning, and then shot teargas and charged into the crowd with billy clubs. They rolled through undefended people with a sickening carelessness for human safety that the corresponding scene in Selma—Ava DuVernay’s necessary and otherwise fine film—failed to match. That’s the point, perhaps: that what we watch from the safety of a movie theater cannot, and should not, relay to us the true horror of things. For how would we bear it?

But watch the original footage. These Americans brutally beat unarmed women and men, thorough in their mercilessness, cheered on by other Americans, sending more than fifty Americans to hospital. The footage made the difference, and shocked the nation’s conscience. It accelerated the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

How not to link it all together? Selma and Ferguson, New York City and Cleveland, torture by the CIA and mass murder in Gaza, the police state and slave patrols: no generation is free of the demands of conscience, and no citizenry can shirk the responsibility of calling the state’s abuse of power to account.

This localist agenda is part of Mayor Spencer’s ambitious program to create a fairer and more sustainable local economy whose businesses stay put and where money spends more time circulating locally among networked enterprises. His administration is promoting worker cooperatives, energy efficiency, public banking, a local “food shed” and urban agriculture, remunicipalization of jobs (like the Socialists before them), and creating new jobs by reclaiming the city’s waste. No other current city administration in the United States, to my knowledge, is embracing such a broad range of “solidarity economy” strategies (although Spencer himself doesn’t use that specific term) to promote the well-being of its residents. And few other city administrations also face such steep challenges.

Weekend Reading

Different year, different list of links:

Though it’s a national phenomenon, Mississippi currently leads the way in turning school behavior into a police issue. The Hospitality State has imposed felony charges on schoolchildren for “crimes” like throwing peanuts on a bus. Wearing the wrong color belt to school got one child handcuffed to a railing for several hours. All of this goes under the rubric of “zero-tolerance” discipline, which turns out to be just another form of violence legally imported into schools.

Despite a long-term drop in youth crime, the carceral style of education remains in style. Metal detectors—a horrible way for any child to start the day—are installed in ever more schools, even those with sterling disciplinary records, despite the demonstrable fact that such scanners provide no guarantee against shootings andstabbings.

Every school shooting, whether in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, or Littleton, Colorado, only leads to more police in schools and more arms as well. It’s the one thing the National Rifle Association and Democratic senators can agree on. There are plenty ofsuccessful ways to run an orderly school without criminalizing the classroom, but politicians and much of the media don’t seem to want to know about them. The “school-to-prison pipeline,” a jargon term coined by activists, is entering the vernacular.

It was a measure of how dire conditions were in the South that the Great Migration continued into the 1970s. When it began, 90 percent of all African-Americans were living in the South. By the time it ended, nearly half of all African-Americans lived elsewhere.

Notably, however, high profile-cases of police brutality have recently come to be associated with the North rather than the South. And it is in the South that two recent cases of police shootings of unarmed black people resulted in more vigorous prosecution. Last month, as protests raged over the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri, Eric Garner in New York and John Crawford and Tamir Rice in Ohio, Randall Kerrick, a police officer in Charlotte, N.C., made his first court appearance on a charge of voluntary manslaughter in the 2013 death of Jonathan Ferrell. Mr. Ferrell was an unarmed black motorist who was shot 10 times as he sought help after a car accident. In September, Sean Groubert, a South Carolina state trooper, was fired after shooting an unarmed man, Levar Jones, during a traffic stop over a seatbelt violation. In a widely circulated video of the incident, Mr. Jones asked the trooper with humbling composure, “What did I do, sir?” Then: “Why did you shoot me?” He survived his injuries. The trooper was arrested and charged with aggravated assault and battery, a felony that carries a possible 20-year prison term.

The nation still has far to go, but this, at least, seems cause for hope. It suggests that the South, after decades of wrestling with its history, is now willing to face injustice head on. And it suggests that the North, after decades of insisting that it was fairer and more free, could eventually do the same.