Erasing the intellectual divide between African American and African Studies
Jemima Pierre, UCLA professor of anthropology and African American Studies. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

Erasing the intellectual divide between African American and African Studies

Jemima Pierre views slavery and colonialism as two sides of the same coin: a global process that intentionally flattened African identities into the racialized categories of “black” (in the Americas) and “native” (in Africa).

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, October 16, 2017  — Many people make a distinction between African American Studies and African Studies. UCLA sociocultural anthropologist Jemima Pierre is not one of them.

“The intellectual approach to Africa and its diaspora bifurcated in the 1960s,” she explains. At that time, an explosion of U.S. government (and foundation) funding for area studies led to the creation of many African Studies centers in American universities. Before that, African Studies was primarily carried out by historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). With the exception of Howard University, these schools were not initial recipients of U.S. government funding. “The two fields are not necessarily distinct because of the historical continuities between Africa and its diaspora,” she observes, “so this split was a political as well as an epistemological issue.”

Pierre joined UCLA in 2014 with a dual appointment to the anthropology and African American Studies departments. In summer 2016, she became the chair of the African Studies M.A. Program of the UCLA International Institute, where she is also associate director of the African Studies Center.

A city dweller who has lived all over the United States — in Miami, New Orleans, Austin, Charlottesville, Washington, DC, and Nashville — she loves Los Angeles. “We’re very happy to live here,” she says of her family. “Los Angeles reminds me of Miami [where she grew up] — except it's not hot and humid — it cools down every night,” she remarks.

Race, “racialization” and the colonial enterprise

Pierre completed her B.A. at Tulane University and her Ph.D. at the University of Texas-Austin. She began her doctoral research focused on the experience of postcolonial African immigrants in the United States — who, she points out, are among the country’s most educated immigrant groups. When interviewing these immigrants about their experiences, she repeatedly heard, “I didn’t know I was black until I came to the United States.”

So Pierre set out to see if that was true by exploring how race shapes the identities of Ghanaians in West Africa. She conducted her ethnographic research in Ghana because she knew the country well, having spent a semester there in a study abroad program as an undergraduate, and then close to a year on a fellowship after graduation.

“Part of the problem is that Ghanaians — and many others — see ‘race’ as meaning U.S.-style segregation, racism and police brutality,” remarks Pierre. “Race is confused with blatant Jim Crow racism.

"But similar to most people, including those who live in the U.S., they don't see race as a historical process, as ‘racialization,’" she continues, "where people are continuously differentiated based on presumed biological and cultural differences, and treated accordingly.”

In “The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race” (University of Chicago, 2012), the UCLA anthropologist and Black Studies scholar argues that race is significant and that processes of racialization are ongoing even in a place such as Ghana. Her research attributes their continued significance to the long history of the European-led slave trade in Africans, followed by colonialism. Both helped create ideas about racial difference, that is, about "blackness," "whiteness," etc.

The book examines how everyday Ghanaians associate whiteness with intelligence, education and development; link light skin to ideas of beauty and enhanced success; and practice skin bleaching. The Ghanaian capital Accra was even restructured by the British colonial government using strict Jim Crow lines of segregation, with white areas and “native” areas complete with their own hospitals (and attendant unequal resources).

At the same time, the book shows how identification with people of African descent is another way that racialization occurs in Ghana. Ghana is known as one of the Pan-African centers of the African continent, with its first president, Kwame Nkrumah, asserting a Pan-Africanist nationalism at independence. Nkrumah linked the freedom of Ghana to the struggles of blacks on the African continent and in the African diaspora.

“I'm not saying race is the same everywhere,” comments Pierre, “but there are processes of racialization on the African continent and in the Americas, and these histories are related and continuous. This is why African immigrants are treated a particular way — they're treated like ‘black’ people unless they are otherwise [identified].” As an exchange student in Accra, she notes, she did not receive the preferential treatment given to her white peers because people thought she was Ghanaian. As a Haitian immigrant to the U.S., she herself encountered a different kind of “blackness” for the first time. “Throughout my childhood, I thought that all black people were Haitian,” she laughed.

“What I've found out by traveling to Ghana — first of all, by being from Haiti and coming to the U.S. as a black immigrant, then traveling in different spaces as a black person and seeing the way I was treated in Africa, in Europe, in South America — is that racialization is a historical process and it is global,” comments Pierre. The process of racialization erased all the cultural and ethnic nuances of the identities of enslaved Africans in the Americas, she explains, and assigned them a race: black. Colonialism is simply “a continuation of slavery,” she continues. “It's a racializing project that creates ‘the Europeans’ against ‘the Native’ [African].”

Accra at night. Photo: <a href="">Ian Muttoo</a> via Flickr, 2012; cropped. <a href="">CC BY-NC-SA 2.0</a>. In the course of research for her book, Pierre also examined how racialized categories influence economic life in Ghana. Her conclusion: decolonization in Africa has been political, not economic. The colonial economic structures remain in place and perpetuate a racialized system of economic power and opportunity in West Africa, particularly in the extractive industries.

These three interrelated topics — the ways in which ideas of race inform African and African diaspora identities, African immigrants in the U.S, and the racialized structure of global capitalism — have become the central focus of Pierre’s research. At present, she is conducting research on separate books on the latter two subjects, while finishing a manuscript on the ways in which the concept of race has shaped the external narrative about Africa.

Commissioned by Routledge, this third book (expected out in late 2018) looks at such topics as how Europeans constructed a “white” identity for Egyptian civilization following Napoleon’s invasion of the country, the use of “Sub-Saharan Africa” as a racialized epithet for “Black Africa” and the repugnant Hamitic Hypothesis of C. G. Seligman (which attributed the more developed civilizations of North Africa to the influence and assistance of white people).

Teaching students to think “out of the box”

“Uprising of the Negroes in Jamaica in 1759,” taken from <a href="">Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760–1761, A Cartographic Narrative</a>, Professor Vincent Brown, Harvard University, principal investigator and curator. “What I try to do as a professor is to pull different historical experiences together to get students to think about racialization and white supremacy in counter-intuitive and non-commonsensical ways," she explains. “They don't know what King Leopold did to the Congo or how the Europeans sat in Berlin [at the Berlin Conference of 1884–85] and carved up the African continent,” she comments.

The professor’s “Introduction to African American Studies” course starts with an African component because, as she observes, “History does not only begin with slavery. You need to ask, ‘Where were people coming from?’… To me, African American Studies is African Diaspora Studies because there are black communities throughout the Americas: in the U.S., South America, North America, the Caribbean…. African American is all of that — that's the diaspora,” she explains.

“So if I teach about slavery and slave revolts, I'm going to talk about slavery in Cuba, slavery in Brazil, slavery in the U.S.,” she continues. “And if I talk about civil rights, I'm going to talk about civil rights in the U.S., the struggle for racial equality in the Caribbean, Afrodescendant movements in Brazil and Colombia. The subject is never nation bound.”

Pierre approaches courses about Africa in a similar manner. The first few classes of "Global Africa," for example, are devoted to debunking standard stereotypes about Africa, which she says is standard practice for scholars who teach about the continent. Her students are surprised to learn that the longest slave trade was not across the Atlantic, but across the Sahara desert to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The Trans-Saharan slave trade, she explains, lasted 1,000 years and led to a particular form of racialization of Africans in the MENA region.

After addressing the history of the slave trade in Africa, the course shifts to colonialism on the continent. “By the end of the class, students will make connections that they would have never thought of previously,” she says. “I have had students who said, ‘We didn't know there was slavery in Cuba’ or ‘We didn't know that Brazil has the largest black population outside of Nigeria.’”

Bust of Zumbi dos Palmares, Brasilia. A major figure in Afro-Brazilian history,
Dos Palamares fought for the independence of settlements established by escaped
slaves in Brazil (quilombo). Photo: Elza Fiúza/ Agência Brasil, 2006; altered. CC BY 3.0 BR.

Seeing Africa for itself

At the master’s degree level, Pierre seeks to open up the idea of Africa beyond the development paradigm. “I want this master's program to be an intellectual project that takes Africa seriously,” she says, “and thinks about the continent as a space, an idea, a geopolitical concept— a place that has people with vibrant, modern issues and projects beyond the NGO industrial complex.” (Teju Cole, among others, has been eloquent on the latter subject.)

Making Africa an object of study in its own right – its multicultural cities, music, literature, history, cultures, economy and politics — is the long-term goal. In addition to critiquing the development approach, Pierre faults her own discipline of anthropology for, with few exceptions, its continued focus on narrow, village-based ethnographic studies in Africa.

Central Dakar, Sénégal. (Photo: Daouda6363, 2016/ Wikimedia Commons; cropped). CC BY-SA 4.0.

“Anyone who travels to Africa today lands in a megacity. Africa has huge cities with all kinds of people and multiple nationalities,” she says. “Accra doesn't just have Ghanaians. It has South Africans, Nigerians, Liberians, and many white people, Lebanese and Chinese. “So how is it,” she asks, “that one can write about Ghana and Africa and still focus on witchcraft and market women?”

Changing the ways in which people perceive Africa and its diaspora is no easy task, but Pierre is clearly up to the task. Her considerable warmth and charm aside, this scholar’s intellectual fierceness has already turned established ideas about race upside down. And she’s only getting started.