The gentrification of African studies

Displacing African Studies outside of Africa and emptying it of transformative potential, obscures its revolutionary legacy. The result: an impotent, banal field.

Mike Gibson, via Flickr.

It is now routine for major conferences that focus on disseminating new research and findings on African cultures and societies to take place in Western countries such as the United States, England, or Germany. African Studies is the only academic field where its two most important conferences, the African Studies Association (ASA) annual meeting and the annual conference of the African Literature Association (ALA), are systematically held at North American venues, barring few exceptions. This reality has generated numerous difficulties for Africa-based academics and scholars who are now forced to pay exorbitant, non-refundable visa fees in foreign currencies not always available to them and struggle to secure international travel funding. The resulting displacement and exclusion of continent-based Africanists have undermined the true purpose and identity of African studies; a pathological process commonly identified as gentrification.

But exactly how can an academic field be gentrified? The term “gentrification” was coined by the Marxist sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964 to examine the forced displacement of working-class occupiers by middle-class residents—the gentry—in parts of inner London and the resulting changes in the social structure and housing markets. More recent definitions have broadened the denotation of the term to include neoliberal urban policies that have supported the displacement, exclusion, and exploitation of the marginalized.

The description of the economic, demographic, commercial, cultural, and physical character of gentrification as “neoliberal” is fitting to our discussion of the fate of African Studies. Without limiting it to a provocative analogy, gentrification as a complex phenomenon demonstrates how the displacement and, at times, exclusion of continent-based Africanists reflect a disastrous process of gentrification similar to what has been taking place in such urban cities as Brooklyn, London, and Cape Town. Central to this issue is an uneasy and uncomfortable debate over what Glass calls “the social character” of a community: that is the ontological, ethical, and political rights of those who actually reside in the continent. Bringing together of “all individuals and institutions with a scholarly interest in Africa” should not be promoted at the expense of the exclusion of Africa-based scholars.

The gentrification of African studies has altered the social character of its community and generated a new set of problems such as visa issues, academic hipsterism, and restricted access to critical research, which risks to permanently exclude continent-based scholars, undermine their crucial contributions, and eventually converts African studies into another impotent, banal field.




Displacement and the visa problem

Africa-based academics face insurmountable difficulties to attend important African studies conferences, which are often held in western capitals of New York, London, or Berlin. These challenges include issues of air travel funding and registration fees, the dreadful process of visa application, and the rise of hostile immigration policies, which made it frequent for requests of academic visas to be denied.

The issue of visa denial has become a standard exclusionary and discriminatory policy for Africa-based academics. After visa refusal in the UK and US, the Canadian Association of African Studies (CAAS) reported that “every year, African scholars are denied visas to travel to Canada. 10 individuals, from South Africa (1), Ethiopia (4), Cameroon (2), Nigeria (2), and Togo (1) were refused visas” to attend its 2018 annual conference. Sakine Ramat Grena, a Chadian academic, spent $600 CAD on a visa application in 2016, only to find later that visa was refused on the grounds of insufficient funds. Despite a little support for calls to relocate international African studies conferences, it is unlikely for these demands to materialize. As with the launching of new conferences such ASAUK, the trend is toward organizing more conventions in every major western capital.

The displacement of Africa-based academics as a direct outcome of visa denial can only further their isolation and exclusion. Attending these international conferences is not only about presenting and discovering others’ work but also, and most importantly, has its crucial value in the opportunities for in-person, formal, and informal socialization and networking. To deny these prospects for continent-based scholars is to exclude them from significant opportunities to make themselves heard and their work appreciated.

Black corpus, white works cited

The desirability of African studies as a scientific and academic field of research and inquiry has expectedly attracted generations of new scholars from outside the continent who have sought to study the continent’s social, political, and economic issues. This results in shifting the content and form of Africanist academic inquiry into what accommodates the tastes of a group of researchers I call academic hipsters. Because of the open and penetrable characteristics of African studies, they inhabit a complex space since, on the one hand, they contribute to its development in new and interesting directions; on the other hand, they shape the trajectory of African studies as a result of their strong institutional support and abundance of available funding. An obvious example of these hipster tastes is a neocolonial division of Africa into strange categories like sub-Saharan Africa, Maghreb, black Africa, etc. Moreover, the unparalleled quantity of their publications determines the corpus to be analyzed and the methodology to be used. This leaves Africa-based scholars struggling to find valuable opportunities to publish their work and stressing over issues of research excellence and employability. The idea of reciprocity in terms of academic exchange and collaboration seems like a distant dream.

This process of gentrifying African studies calls into attention the shift toward an intellectual hegemony that marginalizes the academic presence and input of African scholars. To use Fanon’s words on the colonial framing of the black subject as “a product of cultural situation,” I want to suggest that African studies has become “a constellation of postulates, a series of propositions that slowly and subtly—with the help of books, newspapers, schools and their texts, advertisements, films, radio—work their way into one’s mind” (Black Skin 152) or field of knowledge. African studies is now a thinking machine whose postulates and propositions are largely defined outside the continent.

The aftermath of such a terrible situation is a familiar issue in African studies. First, the analysis of African corpus or data is almost always performed through the exclusive use of Western, i.e. white, theory. Whenever you read an academic article about famous African literary figures like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Alain Mabanckou, there is little engagement with important voices in literary criticism or social sciences from Africa, except for the usual names of Achille Mbembe, Kwame Anthony Appiah, or Mahmood Mamdani. My concern here is not about authorial choices dictated by research argument and hypotheses, but the understanding that there is a curious lack of diversity and flagrant absence of consideration for valuable research input produced by prominent Africa-based critics. Second, continent-based scholars, and even African academics working in Western universities, are often excluded from public intellectualism. In the news or in public venues, there is an embarrassing preference to invite white Africanists to comment on every single topic, ranging from women’s oral culture all the way to electoral violence, and anything in between. The contention here is that they usually promote mild, if not flawed, arguments with the confidence and power of those who have disciplined knowledge for centuries.

This leads us to another important concern over canonization and renewal: if the same scientific sources are cited time and time again and most of the works cited belongs to white Africanists who are based in Western universities and research centers, one is purported to wonder about the fate of new academic work and input made by continent-based scholars. In the context of an aggressive neoliberalization of the university, the commodification of scholastic work into neoliberal market values would entail that the academic contributions by Africa-based scholars are largely excluded from major publications. In turn, these scholars become victims of predatory publishing journals because of the constant pressure to “publish or perish.”

Decolonization will cost you US$129.99 per year

Decolonization has become a neoliberal concept, a radical chic term, that has lost its inventive and revolutionary forms of thought and action. Shouting “decolonize this” or “decolonize that” in neoliberal spaces will not advance the African cause but contribute to a new grammar of reified identity politics. The gentrification of African studies has insidiously altered the revolutionary potential and goals of knowledge’s decolonization.

The monetization of decolonization discourses promotes prejudice and discrimination against Africa-based scholars and forces them to accommodate to academic precarity and risky dependence on open sources. There is a need to face the terrible reality of Africa-based researchers who are constantly faced by paywalls, ruthlessly expensive access, and publication fees. While Africanists in western universities benefit from their institutional subscriptions, the rising costs of scientific journals are unsustainable even for Canadian universities, let alone for under-funded African academic institutions.

What makes it worse is the rehearsed reaction of putting the blame on Africa-based academics and their governments. Sioux McKenna finds it fitting to surmise that “Africa contributes very little to international knowledge creation… because the most common means of disseminating such knowledge is through academic publication and countries in Africa have not focused on developing this capacity.” Of course, McKenna supports her take by citing the obvious go-to example of South Africa, while obscuring the inherent and too-big-to-overcome challenges faced by other universities in other African countries as a result of economic and cultural problems caused by neocolonial and neoliberal forces.

Denying access to Africa-based scholars generates a crisis of representation and diversity in African studies. Similar to urban gentrification, the displacement and exclusion of these academics have real consequences, because it leads to a significant deterioration and impoverishment of the quality and value of the social and political of the field’s contributions. This phenomenon of epistemic violence denies the possibility of a nuanced and deeper understanding of African issues.

African studies have always been for Africans and about Africans. By writing this commentary, I want to engage our responsibility as academics, writers, and activists toward the re-ownership and re-institutionalization of an important academic and cultural field of African activism and emancipation. The gentrification of African studies is a threat to the field’s social and political contributions and therefore requires an urgent and thoughtful intervention.

Further Reading