Remembering James Smoot Coleman

Remembering James Smoot Coleman

David Apter of Yale University delivers one of four tributes to Coleman.

Colleagues, family, and friends gather to honor the UCLA African Studies Center's generous, humble, brilliant founding director.

Jim's insights and ideas about nationality, nationalism, and tradition were as deep as any scholar of his time. —Richard L. Sklar, UCLA

Almost as much as they miss him, friends of the late James Smoot Coleman expressed in various ways at an Oct. 6 tribute, they miss a past that he incomparably observed and in some ways shaped. Coleman, at 66, died in 1985 after a career as a university teacher and administrator in Africa and the United States.

In Coleman's day, it emerged from the remarks of four distinguished speakers, a scholar could paint theories broadly, eliminate red tape to help the talented or needy, marry disciplines gracefully, transcend institutional and national rivalries among scholars, make Americans appear cosmopolitan, win respect in Africa and the West, stop generalizing when it did no good, secure federal education dollars, and always shift the conversation away from himself. Either that, or James Coleman could.

The speakers honoring Coleman at UCLA's Royce Hall were Africanists David Apter of Yale, a political scientist and sociologist; Joel D. Barkan of the University of Iowa in Iowa City, political scientist; Merrick Posnansky, historian and anthropologist; and Richard L. Sklar, political scientist. Posnansky and Sklar are UCLA professors emeriti. The speakers were introduced by Allen Roberts, director of the James S. Coleman African Studies Center (ASC), which put on the event jointly with the UCLA Department of French and Francophone Studies. Coleman's wife, Ursula Coleman, and son Jim Coleman Jr. were guests of honor. The public event was followed by an open house for the ASC.

Coleman's credits include two books viewed as classics of scholarship, Nigeria: Background to Nationalism and Education and Political Development, and a total of 13 years (1965–1978) as a university administrator in Uganda, at Makerere University College; in Nairobi, Kenya; and in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. In addition to directing the UCLA African Studies Center, the job he held prior to the long period abroad, he became in 1984 the first director of UCLA's International Studies and Overseas Programs (ISOP), later renamed the International Institute.

Coleman also initiated an important exchange of American and African professors and brought, in Posnansky's words, a "critical mass" of students from Africa to America. The U.S. professors who participated, including Roberts, traveled to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) to take part in a social sciences program.

Missionary, 'Chief'

One theme of the tributes to Coleman was sheer awe at his ability to take on work. Among individuals with a remarkable drive to learn and achieve, Coleman's required and still requires explanation.

In his remarks, Apter noted that Coleman, born in 1919 in Provo, Utah, was brought up in the Mormon church. "The key to the man's drive, to that energy, to that commitment, goes back to that lapsed Mormonism," he said. Apter described Coleman as a "missionary in the best sense" whose "only church was belief in Africa itself."

According to Apter, Coleman had been told, before such racist theories were abandoned by mainstream Mormons, that "the sons of Ham are cursed." The biblical curse of Ham's descendants by Noah has sometimes been used to justify conquest and enslavement of Africans. Apter said that Coleman's conscience had been shocked by the injustice of the teaching.

Sklar and Posnansky also offered personal remembrances of Coleman, speaking to his generosity and, a related trait, his receptiveness to ideas. Sklar said that Coleman had made the African Studies Center the "intellectual home of pluralism" and that "Jim's insights and ideas about nationality, nationalism, and tradition were as deep as any scholar of his time."

Posnansky said that Coleman had shaken Makerere out of a "colonial mindset" while greatly softening resentments that British academics felt towards their American counterparts. His work was admired not only by Westerners but also, and "universally," by African scholars, Posnansky said.

A former student of Coleman at UCLA, Barkan remembered Coleman as an "awesome individual, larger than life," who made up for forgetting graduate students' names by calling them all "chief." They dubbed Coleman "the chief."


Evaluating the durability of Coleman's ideas about African politics, Barkan argued that "modernization theory" as espoused by Coleman and others could be recast as a "theory of democratization." Viewed narrowly as a set of predictions, modernization theory had been too optimistic, Barkan said, in its vision of a course of African development that would "emulate or parallel the course of the West." However, Barkan said, Coleman had gotten the key points of political development for emerging democracies right. He had gotten them right for a wide variety of cases, including those of India, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, and South Africa. And he had accomplished this in a bolder age of scholarship, when caution, though valued, did not stifle grand claims.

Roberts said that Coleman's example was a motivating force not only for scholarship at the ASC but also for broader education and outreach efforts. He recognized partnerships with three people who attended the Oct. 6 tribute: Marcia Thomas of USA for Africa, a Los Angeles-based non-governmental organization that co-sponsors events with the ASC; Patrick Burke, a usability analyst for the UCLA Office of Information Technology, who is himself blind and is helping the ASC to develop a program of outreach to provide sight-impaired Zimbabweans with brailled AIDS-awareness materials; and Ray Carlson of the Altadena Rotary Club, who is working with the ASC on a series of initiatives to encourage small-business development in Africa.

Published: Tuesday, October 11, 2005