African liberation and African scholarship

The Sixth International Congress of African and African Diaspora Studies in Accra in August 2023 foregrounds the struggle against African Studies as a form of knowledge production located, for the most part, outside Africa.

Photo by Jeffrey Ofori on Unsplash

On five different occasions, from 1962 to 1985, African studies scholars from across the globe convened on the African continent for the International Congress of Africanists (later renamed the International Congress of African Studies). The first of these was convened in Ghana in 1962. Organized by Nigerian historian Kenneth Onwuka Dike and featuring prominent keynote speakers Kwame Nkrumah, W.E.B. Du Bois, Alioune Diop, and several others, the first Congress portended the end of African Studies as a colonial form of knowledge production located, for the most part, outside of the African continent.

“The past few years,” Dike announced in his welcome address, “have seen the accession to independence of the majority of African States; today, with great pride, I welcome you all to what I hope may prove to be a landmark in our efforts to regain our intellectual and cultural independence.” In his opening address, Nkrumah made clear the responsibilities of everyone in attendance:  “it is incumbent on all Africanist scholars, all over the world, to work for a complete emancipation of the mind from all forms of domination, control and enslavement.”

Subsequent Congress convenings in Dakar (1967), Addis Ababa (1973), Kinshasa (1978), and Ibadan (1985) built on the momentum generated in Accra, drawing scholars from across the continent and across the globe. The Addis Ababa meeting, which occurred on the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Organization of African Unity, was chaired by Samir Amin, the Egyptian-born economist whose work on dependency theory, world systems, underdevelopment and neocolonialism is arguably without parallel. (Amin would become the founding Executive Secretary of CODESRIA in that very same year.)

During Amin’s tenure as Chair, the Addis Ababa Congress passed several critical resolutions. The name “International Congress of Africanists” was replaced by the name “International Congress of African Studies” because delegates believed that the term “Africanist” implied the perspective of an outsider. Another resolution affirmed “the necessity of commitment to African liberation on the part of scholars engaged in the study of Africa,” while others called for intensified research on “natural catastrophe and economic dependence” and for the increased participation of women scholars.

Although subsequent congresses were convened after the Addis Ababa meeting, momentum toward the full decolonization of knowledge production about Africa and its recentering on the African continent dissipated dramatically, as state systems collapsed, as the stranglehold of structural adjustment tightened its grip, and as Africa-based scholars struggled with massive underfunding of higher education. No congress meeting has been convened since 1985.

In 2019, the African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA), the African Studies Association in the US (ASAUS), and the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora (ASWAD) began discussions aimed at reinvigorating the extraordinary transformational momentum in African studies globally that began in Accra 60 years ago. Early in 2020, the three associations agreed to work together toward convening a sixth congress. In 2022, Africa Is a Country became part of the organizing core, largely to aid multimedia communication globally. Affirming the necessity of including the global African diaspora in any forum dedicated to African Studies, the ASAA, the ASAUS, and ASWAD jointly agreed to convene a Sixth International Congress of African and African Diaspora Studies to be held in Accra in August, 2023—thereby marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Organization of African Unity and the 50th anniversary of the Third International Congress—in the city that hosted the very first congress.

Coincident with the African Union’s creation of a Diaspora Division, the 2023 ICAADS Congress will bring together African and African Diaspora studies to formally mark the intellectual and political unity of Africa and the African diaspora and to reflect on the broadly shared histories, contemporary realities, and future destinies of continental Africans and African-descended people across the globe. This International Congress is intended to serve as a forum to affirm the shared social, political, and economic challenges among Africans on the continent and people of African descent in the diaspora.

Building on the work of the five previous congresses, the 2023 ICAADS Congress in Accra will continue the intellectual and political project of decolonizing knowledge about Africa. The “congress” format facilitates the dual purpose of an academic conference with policy implications addressing urgent contemporary issues impacting Black communities across the globe.

Since our preliminary discussions three years ago, we have witnessed a dramatic increase in anti-Black violence globally, an escalation in environmental and public health disasters, which disproportionately impact Black people and other historically marginalized communities. At the same time, from Black Lives Matter to Fallist youth movements, from demands for reparation and repatriation, to women’s and LGBTQI+ mobilizations, we are inspired by new forms of politics and new forms of organizing across the continent and the diaspora.

We convene this Congress with the intent of grappling with a set of key issues at the forefront of many of these current struggles for a more just, equitable, and sustainable world: reparations; the repatriation of African artifacts; neocolonialism and Pan-Africanism; re-engaging the sixth region; gender and sexuality; citizenship; policing and the state; environment and public health; the status and treatment of African migrants inside and outside of Africa; and Africa’s positions in international conflicts.

Moving toward the Congress in August 2023, organizers are planning three preliminary headliner events: at the Ghana Studies Association conference in Tamale, Ghana in July 2022; at the annual ASAUS meeting in Philadelphia in November, 2022; and in Washington, DC in March 2023 for a symposium co-hosted by the Moorland-Spingarn Center of Howard University and the Carter G. Woodson Center of the University of Virginia. All three of these events will be extensively covered by Africa Is A Country.

Further Reading