The first text that shaped my arguments in Students of the World, might be Angela Davis’s An Autobiography. I read it in French translation as a teenager in the early 1990s. This was years before beginning the research project that led to my book, but I still remember the surprise I had, to find out that in Los Angeles in the 1960s, Davis belonged to a section of the Communist Party called the Che-Lumumba Club. As a young reader, this discovery caused a striking moment of realization that Congolese decolonization had a global resonance. I wrote my book to understand how a generation of Congolese activists responded on their own terms to this global resonance, and also because this kind of historical narrative had not been made available to me when I initially became interested in histories of activism.
V.-Y. Mudimbe’s Les Corps Glorieux des Mots et des Êtres (The Glorious Bodies of Words and Beings), yet to be translated, is another autobiographical text that drew me to the history of Congolese student activism. This sophisticated, and at times mischievous memoir has beautiful pages which illuminate how the Congolese experienced colonial missionary Catholicism and its project of radically separating laymen from educated colonial subjects, a chosen elite set apart “from the world.” The student movement emerged against this colonial vision and was driven by a desire to connect to the big questions of the time.
Though Mudimbe did not play a prominent role in the student movement, he was marked by the intellectual and political milieu at the University of Lovanium in Kinshasa and he immersed himself in Marxism while studying and working there in the 1960s. Marxism is by far not the most significant thread running through The Invention of Africa and the other books that Mudimbe wrote after moving to North America, but it was transformative during his student years. Marxism dramatically reshaped his apprehension of the world and his perception of the stakes of decolonization.
Mudimbe’s fiction—in particular Between the Tides and The Rift—also made me more curious to explore the specific horizons encircling young educated Congolese in the years after their country’s independence. Akin to Pius Ngandu Nkashama’s La Mort Faite Homme, which is one of the most important novels about the Congolese student movement, Mudimbe’s fictional work explores the existential anxiety of characters living in the fault lines of the post-independence era. Students of the World is based in great part on conversations with former student activists. Their experience did not always reflect the torment of Mudimbe’s characters. Yet, his attention to the singularities of individual trajectories inspired the emphasis on biographical refractions of political passions in my book.
But still to mention another novel, Sony Labou Tansi’s Antipeople left a strong impression on me regarding the early postcolonial years and its shifting political sands. The story follows the tribulations of a young man who, at the start of the novel, oversees a girls’ school in Kinshasa.. Labou Tansi is unmatched in his evocation of the multiple passageways that funneled people to and fro between radically contrasting worlds on both sides of the Congo river at the end of the 1960s. In my book, I attend to the many unexpected connections, detours, and dead-ends that characterized the trajectory of a generation of students and young intellectuals. Early on, I decided to not confine my narration of the history of student politics to one locale: that is, a university. I also chose not to cordon my work solely in the genre of movement history. The structure of my book reflects these choices. It moves between micro- and macro-politics, student activism in Congolese universities and abroad, colonial childhood memories, and reflections about the politics of the present. The book makes space for the many asides, parentheses, and digressions that punctuated the stories which former student activists shared with me.
As a historian of decolonization, a desire to grasp shifts in ways of being and thinking about the world drives my writing. I am interested in the materiality of the intellectual and cultural mediations that shaped students’ worldviews in the 1960s, and my work is heavily indebted to the contributions of historians who have outlined how to creatively sift colonial and postcolonial Congolese archives. This includes the books of Nancy Rose Hunt, Didier Gondola, and Bogumil Jewsiewicki.
Reading texts in adjacent, and in some cases much more distant fields, also helped me conceptualize the structures of Congolese political imagination, which I approach in great part through the lens of postal communications. Different books became instrumental here: Isabel Hofmeyr’s exploration of Ghandi’s understanding of the possibilities of print communication; Delinda Collier’s study of information colonialism and artistic remediation sin Angola; Jennifer Roberts’s theorization of the material impact of distance on visual innovation in 18th and 19th century American painting; Pascale Casanova’s early conceptualization of the logic of world literature; and Alejandra Dubcovsky’s history of the circulation of information and news items in the early American South. These eclectic readings sometimes impacted my work only indirectly, but they each proved generative as I searched for how to best capture the agency of the written word, and the productivity of distance and time on late colonial and early postcolonial Congolese politics and activism.
I will conclude this reading list with Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking after Empire. I read Getachew’s brilliant contextualization of the political thought of key pan-African thinkers in the 20th century whilst finishing my manuscript. I was pushed to revisit the political mediations Congolese students were holding in the wake of their country’s decolonization. Reading it not only made me reconsider this, it also made me analyze the murder of Patrice Lumumba as a form of worldmaking. Getachew’s dialectic approach to Black intellectual history also inspired me to observe more closely,to the hegemonic constructions that the students opposed.
As I argue in the book, the significance of the Congolese student movement of the 1960s lies in the attacks it mounted on multiple fronts. Its revolutionary cosmopolitan imagination clashed with colonial constructions that sought to seclude Congolese within narrow mental confines. Students reacted to cold war infringements by developing international connections which gave an alternative to the one-worldedness of American imperialism. Finally, their activism defied President Mobutu’s hegemonic ambitions. As the book lays out, Mobutu perceived the student movement as an existential threat. He used both cooptation and sheer violence to ensure its definitive destruction.