2019 African Studies Association annual conference

The theme of the 2019 African Studies Association annual conference is “Being, Belonging, and Becoming in Africa.” While Africa is not and never has been homogenous or unitary, the existence of the ASA is predicated on the idea that there are things that distinguish “Africa” and “Africans” from other peoples and places in the world, and that those distinctions are worth studying. In a world increasingly preoccupied with tensions over localism, nationalism, and globalism, in which so many forms of essentialism are under existential attack (and fighting back), we hope that this theme will spark scholarly reflection on what it has meant and currently means for people, places, resources, ideas, knowledge, among others to be considered distinctly “African.”

As scholars have grappled with the conceptual and material effects of globalization, the various disciplines of African Studies have also embraced transnational, international, and comparative approaches in recent decades. Despite these efforts to imbricate Africa with its elsewhere, and to emphasize our blurred boundaries and intersected identities, there are still significant debates, values, and consequences associated with what belongs in Africa, and what it means to be “African,” in a world of uneven power dynamics, extensive resource and knowledge exchange, and ongoing battles for sovereignty, representation, and inclusion. The blurring of boundaries and intersected identities need not always imply flattening of structural antagonisms or disregard for abiding cultural differences. The challenge is to find ways of talking about subnational and transnational cultural currents in ways that incorporate broader connections, in ways that speak to local circumstances as well as global circuits. In proposing “Being, Belonging, and Becoming in Africa” we do not seek essentialist definitions, but rather engagement with how public discourses and our various disciplines explicitly or implicitly approach who, what, and where is distinctly “African” in light of these recent trends.

Who belongs to or in Africa? The history of the continent has long recognized inflows and outflows of people, as well as internal migrations, as significant factors in the relation of African peoples to each other and to the wider world. Such migrations have led to the exchange of genes, materials, cultures, and knowledge over many centuries.  The long history of interchange between Africa and its elsewhere -- the Indian Ocean and the Black Atlantic worlds, for example -- may be key to articulating different ways of being and belonging. In recent times, forced and voluntary migration into Europe and North America, as well as the movement of goods and ideas between these spaces, have continued to shape Africa’s relationship to the rest of the world. Recent discourses around African immigrants, especially in the Western media, have continued to reinforce the image of Africa as epitomizing the intractable, the mute, the abject and indeed the other-worldly. But they have also exposed the tropes of mobility, travel, nomadism and flexibility in postcolonial critical theory.

How do discourses on the nature and meaning of Africa constrain, enable, or otherwise shape possibilities of being and belonging for human bodies? African governments have continued to manipulate categories of belonging and citizenship to serve political ends. And just as often, social movements have sought to challenge or redefine the boundaries of political inclusion by advocating not just for material goods but also for broader participation in policy making or principles.  As current efforts to repress the rights of homosexuals in some parts of Africa demonstrate, this boundary making is not always progressive: it can also restrict and exclude, and can affect international and intergovernmental relationships in a variety of ways.

What ideas, resources, and artifacts belong to or in Africa? At the level of institutions, cultures, knowledge and beliefs, we know that diverse African mythologies and philosophies frequently share foundational features with each other as well as with non-African cultures. Africans have historically contributed significantly to the development of scientific and humanistic knowledge that is apocryphally considered to be “Western” today, and elements of African cultures – language, music, foodways, religions, artistry and knowhow – have influenced each other and cultures beyond the continent for hundreds of years. African musicians, artists, and filmmakers produce “African” art for increasingly global audiences, even as consumers in Africa have increasing access to and fondness for the art forms disseminated by global consumer culture. The emergence and use of modern technology and, more recently, social media, have transformed the growth and dissemination of the creative arts economies locally and internationally. In light of the long history and contemporary dynamics of such exchanges, how do we distinguish African creativity, and what is the specific value in doing so?

The exploitation of African resources, environments, and cultures is well known. This exploitation has fostered debates and discourses about whose ownership rights should supersede: individuals, indigenous communities, national states, private enterprise, humanity in general. We therefore need to better understand how the ownership of resources, environments, artifacts and other cultural content have developed and changed over time, and how ownership disputes can be resolved.  At the core of these debates is how the things that belong to Africa can be protected, preserved, and used to and for the benefit of African peoples and places.

We invite scholars to explore a wide variety of questions interrogating what it has meant or currently means for people, places, ideas, or things to be African or belong to Africa.