Andrew Apter, an anthropologist among the historians*
UCLA Professor of History Andrew Apter. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

Andrew Apter, an anthropologist among the historians*

Anthropologist-historian Andrew Apter, interim director of the African Studies Center, hopes to oversee a period of much greater undergraduate student involvement in its activities.


“I seek to bring anthropological methods to history, to excavate the repressed histories, the unheard voices that get silenced by official academe.”

UCLA International Institute, January 16, 2019 — UCLA’s Andrew Apter, a faculty member of the African Studies and International Development Studies programs of the International Institute, is heading the UCLA African Studies Center (ASC) through June 2020. Apter stepped into the role of interim director this past summer as ASC Director Steven Nelson departed for a two-year research fellowship.

Apter joined the faculty in 2003 with a joint appointment in the Institute and the history department and is no stranger to African Studies at UCLA. The scholar previously chaired the African Studies M.A. Program (2003–2007), directed the African Studies Center (2007–2010) and was a founding member of the Atlantic History Cluster at UCLA.

UCLA, he says, approaches African history as “‘Africa in the World’: it is a continent, but it goes beyond the African continent,” he says. “We really see the Black Atlantic as one dimension of the trans-regional oceanic, global reach of Africa,” he adds. “The others are, of course, the dimensions between East Africa and the Indian Ocean and between North Africa and the Mediterranean.”

Working at the confluence of culture, anthropology and history

Trained as a sociocultural anthropologist, Apter uses ethnographic research to bring the power of ritual and cultural practices to bear on the historical record, uncovering what he calls a “hidden archive” of primary materials. His work to date has focused on Yoruba culture in both Africa and the Caribbean, as well as the historic “Gold Coast” of West Africa.

The UCLA professor, who won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2010, is the author of four monographs and numerous articles, book chapters and edited volumes. Among those works are: “Oduduwa’s Chain: Locations of Culture in the Yoruba-Atlantic” (Chicago, 2018), “Activating the Past: History and Memory in the Black Atlantic World,” co-edited with Lauren Derby (Cambridge Scholars, 2010), “Beyond Words: Discourse and Critical Agency in Africa” (Chicago, 2007), “The Pan-African Nation: Oil and the Spectacle of Culture in Nigeria” (Chicago, 2005) and “Black Critics and Kings: The Hermeneutics of Power in Yoruba Society” (Chicago, 1992).

Apter’s interest in Africa dates to his childhood. His father, David Apter (1924–2010), was a well-known Africanist, political scientist and sociologist who taught at UC Berkeley and later at Yale for close to 40 years. Andrew spent his first years at Northwestern University, where one of the pioneers of African Studies in academia, Melville J. Herskovits (1895–1963), more or less became his unofficial godfather.

Herskovits is known both for founding the first African Studies Program in the U.S. (at Northwestern University in 1948) and for his book, “The Myth of the Negro Past” (1940), which rejected the idea that enslaved Africans in the New World had been deracinated from their cultures and historical memories. Instead, Herskovits argued that many Africanisms were apparent among displaced Africans in both the Caribbean and the United States.

“He made African Studies legitimate in terms of western social science,” says Apter. “That is, many African American scholars, some of whom were autodidacts and others, such as W.E.B. DuBois and Carter Godwin Woodson — who got degrees from Harvard and studied abroad — had already done this work,” he explains. “But, of course, the established social science world in the U.S. didn't really recognize their work at that time.”

Rethinking culture in anthropological inquiry

Apter sees his work on the Yoruba cultural legacies in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Americas as helping rebalance the anthropological critique of Herskovits. Beginning in the 1990s, the latter’s work was harshly criticized by U.S. anthropologists for its echoes of colonial paradigms, rigid “tribal” classifications and failure to recognize the fluidity of ethnic identities. Yet in Apter’s view, the result has been a regrettable deconstruction of African cultures in anthropological inquiry.

“As an historical anthropologist working on the legacies of African cultures and societies in the Americas that make up the Black Atlantic,” he says, “I've tried to find ground that, on the one hand, recognizes that the almost mythic claims of tribal purity made by Herskovits as the baseline of diasporic movements are overdrawn. At the same time,” he continues, “I want to recognize that one can use a critical notion of culture — a dynamic notion, one that acknowledges change over time and sub-variation within it and acknowledges inter-ethnic identity.

“As someone who studied the Yoruba fairly intensively in Nigeria, when I did fieldwork in the Dominican Republic and Cuba — and when I look at the literature on the African legacies in the Americas — I see a lot of Yoruba patterns,” remarks the scholar.

“Oduduwa’s Chain,” for example, documents what Apter calls “enduring Yoruba cultural legacies in the Caribbean that not only survived in the Americas, but actually shaped the historical trajectories of African American communities themselves in response to new patterns of inequality that are based more on race rather than on lineage.”

For example, cabildos (“co-fraternities” or “mutual aid societies” associated with the Catholic Church that were created by enslaved Africans and freed blacks in the Portuguese and Spanish Americas) took on African ethnic names and had particular subcultural identities. Cabildo initiation rites, explains Apter, enabled practitioners to establish ritual kinship relationships in the Americas that replaced the social and biological kinship relationships that had existed in West Africa.

Current research

At present, Apter is working on a study of “fetish contracts” and local shrines associated with slave forts in West Africa. “What I'm discovering is that these shrines were essential to structuring the business relations between Africans and Europeans,” he explains, “first in the gold trade, and then in the slave trade…. Fetish oaths were not just mechanisms for rubber-stamping an economic deal,” he says. “They established the very framework and laid out the very pathways through which those transactions were shaped.

“Rituals and religious systems seem to have surrounded the hot spots of Atlantic slavery, where the very spaces of incarceration and exchange were located,” says the scholar. “These rituals and systems have been around for a long time and have not really been acknowledged as relevant historical resources,” he adds. “We can unravel a history of slavery from these shrine complexes in terms of their ritual paraphernalia — whips, chains, money forms — and in terms of the characteristics of the gods who possess their devotees.”

Moreover, he argues, the ritual archive will shed light on how capitalism was created. “The relationship between Atlantic slavery and the commodification of human labor into capital was actually much more central to the rise of industrial capitalism in the West than has been appreciated,” reflects Apter. “It’s no coincidence that the leaders of modern capitalism in Europe — the Dutch and the British — were the main players in the slave trade in West Africa at that time.”

New horizons for the African Studies Center

The African Studies Center is celebrating 60 years at UCLA this academic year. It continues to fulfill its mission to provide a hub for the study of Africa, as well as language support and cultural instruction; house projects related to/on the continent; and conduct research and support Africanist students, faculty and staff.

Apter is brimming with ideas for potential initiatives and activities at ASC. He particularly seeks to engage undergraduate students at UCLA more broadly in its activities, including members of the African Activist Association (and its graduate student journal, UFAHAMU) and African student associations such as the Nigerian Student Association, the East African Student Association and the Ethiopian and Eritrean Student Association. At the same time, he aims to expand opportunities for the study of African languages, travel study participation and fellowships.

Finding ways to expand student and scholar exchanges with Africa is another major goal. The interim ASC director is also deeply interested in learning from and working with African scholars and activists on projects of mutual interest. His ambitions are refreshingly high, balanced by the recognition that partners and funding will have to be secured. Among the collaborative projects that he hopes to facilitate with African and U.S. scholars, activists and graduate students are:

  • Cooperation in climate change and sustainable development (of which many creative African-designed and -implemented versions already exist).
  • An ethnographic mapping of the major refugee camps in Africa by means of oral histories and the creation of camp typologies. “You can’t alleviate the suffering of refugees in these places if you don’t understand the camps,” remarks Apter. “Camps are not just collections of displaced people, they become communities very quickly, social systems.”
  • Partnerships with global health actors that incorporate African cultural contexts into the design of health interventions on the continent. According to Apter, many HIV-AIDS prevention interventions ran into problems because they were launched without any sense of African cultural understandings of blood, gender, reproduction and sexuality.
  • Conducting an historical archaeology of slave forts and castles in Ghana, together with the traditional shrines associated with them. “It's an ideal project for partnering American students with Ghanaian students to collect oral histories and do anthropological work on local religious systems, as well as conduct archaeological research,” he remarks.

Finally, Apter is keen to have the UC system, and UCLA in particular, invest more significant resources in Africana (African and African diaspora) Studies, a policy that would achieve the twin goals of greater diversity in the faculty and the student body. It is a recommendation that he and his colleagues in the UC multi-campus research group, "The Crisis of Diversity in the Multiversity: Rethinking African and Africana Studies,” believe is essential for recruiting larger numbers of African American students to UC campuses. “There is a systematic relationship between a more diverse student body and faculty and a greater investment in African and African American Studies,” he observes.

*See Bernard S. Cohen, "An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays" (Oxford, 1990).

To read more on Andrew Apter’s latest research, download the article, “History in the Dungeon” (see link at top of this page).

Published: Wednesday, January 16, 2019