History class

Frederick Cooper

What might Black Lives Matter learn from Africanist scholars who have studied inequality outside the US, especially in Africa?

March on Tillary Street in New York. Image credit Doug Turetsky via Flickr CC.

Interview by
Lisa A. Lindsay
Moses E. Ochonu

Frederick Cooper, who recently retired from the history department at New York University (NYU) and for many years taught at the University of Michigan, is one of the giants of African studies, history, and qualitative social science. Since the mid-1970s, he has produced ten single-authored books, numerous co-authored and edited books, and more than 115 articles and chapters, many of which have been translated into a number of different languages. The quality and originality of Cooper’s work has shaped not only African studies, but also the theory and methods of the social sciences more broadly. Furthermore, through his commitment to mentoring PhD students, Cooper has played a distinguished role in producing new generations of Africanist historians, anthropologists, and scholars in other fields.

The influence of Fred Cooper’s work has extended far beyond the academy. As he rose to prominence in the 1970s, he became a forceful and influential contributor to debates about African economies and strategies for economic development. In his famous 1981 essay “Africa and the World Economy,” Cooper argued for reaching beyond smug assumptions of teleological economic change by which Africa might eventually move toward European-style industrialization and “modernity,” while at the same time taking issue with radical stances that blamed African poverty on the continent’s subordination to and exploitation by the world economy. His insistence on the primacy of African actors, and on respecting and documenting the reasons they chose to pursue particular strategies, has influenced scholars as well as development practitioners, economic planners, and public spheres in Africa. Similarly, the power of his work on empire has been a critical counterweight to successive waves of apologists for European colonialism, who not only sanitize the brutal history of empire but argue for reimposing it on countries deemed “failed states.”


In the age of Black Lives Matter, scholars and the general public are paying renewed attention to historical systems of oppression and exploitation—slavery, colonization, racism—and their memorialization and preservation in institutions and structures. What might BLM activists learn from Africanists and other scholars who have studied inequality in different contexts?


There is a real tension between the importance of addressing the pain that comes from the history people of African descent have faced of enslavement, colonization, and racism, and addressing issues of inequality across time and space. This tension can be a source of fruitful exploration.  The histories of enslavement, colonization, and racism are not “out there” but right here; one cannot understand the United States or France any more than Nigeria or South Africa without a focus on these subjects. We live in a day and age when most thinking people will not defend, as was possible until a startingly recent time, these structures, but the way they shaped the institutions we live with remains profound. It is important as well to keep our attention on how political actors have engaged with unequal structures and tried to change them. Revolution and oppositional solidarity are essential parts of the story, but not the only ones. That is why I am drawn to Senghor’s insistence on conjugating horizontal and vertical solidarities. Unequal relationships are still relationships and they can be pushed and pulled on. Studying history gives us instances where small cracks in an edifice of power can be forced open, as well as instances where there has been no realistic alternative to all-out struggle. Studying history doesn’t tell us what strategies should be pursued in the present, and historians should be aware of both the value and the limits of what they have to offer to new generations of activists. But studying history does give us examples of different forms of engagement and their consequences. Right now, the need for political engagement even within deeply flawed structures is particularly acute.


As a white American historian of Africa who early in his career had a foot in African American history, how do you interpret the racial politics of our field, which has gone through several phases and tends to resonate differently with different generations of Africanists?


African Americans have been interested in Africa since the 19th century, and African American scholars were among the pioneers of studying Africa in the 20th century. As Jean Allman showed in the Presidential Address to the ASA in 2018, some of the pioneers of African studies in the United States, including Melville Herskovits, worked to marginalize African-American scholars as they sought to make African studies respectable to elite universities. By the early 1970s, when I was in graduate school, the ASA was among the institutions whose failure to address the situation of African Americans in the profession and the particular meanings that Africa had to people of African descent was coming under fire. The relatively few people of color in senior positions faced burdens that their white colleagues did not; they were likely to be put on every committee studying any question having to do with race, and to embody themselves universities’ slow repudiation of decades of discrimination. At that time, African American graduate students were more likely to focus on African American than African history, and the presence of African Americans in the field has only slowly improved. The field of African history is more inclusive than it was then and tensions are less, but there is nothing to be complacent about. African American students I have worked with have certainly challenged me on many questions, but none has challenged me on the basis of my race. Perhaps there were students who didn’t take my courses for that reason, and I think it is important that students see that there are white scholars who have interesting things to say about African history and that there are African American scholars who are contributing to French, British, German, or American history.

One trend that has greatly affected African history in the United States is the relationship of American scholars to our African colleagues, both here and in Africa. When I went to Kenya as a doctoral student in 1972-73 and returned in 1978-79, I found at the University of Nairobi an intellectual atmosphere far more inspiring than anything I had encountered in the United States or England. The debates in seminars were intense, the level of scholarship very high. There were annual meetings of historians and a lively journal. In the 1980s, Kenyan historians suffered a dual blow, the repressiveness of the government of Daniel arap Moi and the loss of resources following the global recession, exacerbated by the arrogant and cruel policies of structural adjustment. These factors pushing the most critically engaged scholars out of some African countries were added to the fact that African scholars, like those anywhere else, responded to opportunities in an academic community that crossed continents. The American academy has been greatly enriched by this Africa connection. When I started doing research in Senegal in 1986, Dakar was still the place to be. I encountered there a group of historians who were both extraordinarily talented and welcoming. I remember a particular evening when Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch happened to be in town and I went to a dinner in her honor. Catherine and I both sat spellbound as we listened to a dialogue between members of the younger and older generations of Senegalese historians, a dialogue that was both respectful and challenging. Some of the people I met then have since found the conditions for teaching and research to be too constraining for them to exercise their talents and they too have enriched the American academy, while others have stayed the course in Senegal. African scholars have benefitted from the efforts of CODESRIA to develop intra-African networks for research, debate, and publication.  I just participated in a seminar for graduate students in Senegal organized by Babacar Fall of the Université Cheikh Anta Diop—virtual because of COVID—that discussed some of my work on labor and citizenship and in which more than 50 people joined the Zoom. Taken together, these stories underscore the importance of institutional support for African institutions and exchanges linking Africa with other parts of the world. The talent and the interest are there. What are lacking are resources and well-functioning institutions.


What are you working on now, and why?


Jane Burbank and I have been thinking for some time about writing a sequel to our empires book, but the project might be taking a new direction. We’re working on what began as a talk, turned into an attempt to write an article, and may end up as a short book to be called something like EurAsia, EurAfrica, and AfroAsia: Reimagining Political Space. We’re interested in how people, in different political contexts, thought of futures that crossed continental divides, addressed head-on histories of unequal power relations—particularly the hegemony of western European states—and sought to reduce inequality through thinking of new forms of mobilizing connections. The project is in part inspired by Senghor’s writings about vertical and horizontal solidarities, the very different trajectories of the three forms of political imagination, and the consequences of so much of the world being unable to transcend conventional political boundaries. We’ll see how far we go along these lines.


What big questions do you think should shape the field in the future?


I don’t think it’s the place of a 72-year old Africanist to answer that question. It’s for younger scholars to figure out.

Further Reading

The academic game

African Studies scholars write for the gate-keepers, to prove our own legitimacy, for the stimulation of conferences and the relief of rising recognition by algorithms.