Lecture Notes: Africana Studies and Ayi Kwei Armah… and Africana Studies

In Africana Studies, methodological concerns need not precede research projects; they might have to be pursued in tandem. One of the more salient concomitants in the quest for disciplinary space has been the need to as Greg Carr states “work out methodological issues” in “pursuit of one’s research agenda” (See his “African Philosophy in the Contemporary Era,” Temple Phd Diss., 1998). This belies the standard research process that has been labeled the “scientific method,” the normative, assumed universal standard for intellectual rigor that goes something like this: “Choose a topic, find a theory, test it in order confirm or disconfirm it.” Africana Studies is not so simple. Yet, the fear of being branded non-rigorous or un-academic has seemed to stifle the conversations necessary for defining what we do as unique. (No one ever mentions that Academus, the Greek Muse for whom Plato named his (in)famous grove, is perhaps a God, we should not be serving anyway). We exist in a contradiction. The norms and standards that allow us space are also the norms and standards that disallow us to be us in that space. A bargain some of us readily embrace, and one others of us recognize and intend to subvert. This impasse can only be cleared once we understand and fully conceptualize those norms and standards in order to take the later tack of subversion, if not outright disengagement. (Recent works to be consulted on this phenomena include Roderick A. Ferguson’s The Reorder of Things (Univ of Minnesota Press, 2012) and Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons (Minor Compositions, 2013). But each generation, because of the failures of the last, has had to confront these challenges anew. (Or perhaps because of each generation’s failure to engage the ideas of the last).

As scholars like Ronald W. Walters remind us, research projects that engage subsidiary “problems” will never get to that core. Though this does not mean that such problems are not valid; it simply means there are more long-term remedies that are lodged in systemic and deeply contextual research designs that expose and displace the aforementioned core–the ultimate source of our miseries. Such concerns may  lack “rigor.” But rigor is indeed connected to external standards and measures that would be exposed by getting to this core. And it even fails to pass muster on its own terms. These standards called “rigor” have more of claim to social and/or “natural” control and idea management than they have to unflappable truth.

Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Eloquence of the Scribes (Per Ankh Books, 2006) offers us an explicit rendering of what may indeed be useful and applicable standards for thinking about ourselves as Africans in the modern world. Naturally, such standards do not derive from the modern (or Lyotard’s postmodern) condition. “Modernity” cannot at once be the source and the epistemological location of the resolution of our issues. Such resolutions arrive from a deep engagement with the active past, Amadou Hampate Ba’s “living tradition.” This for me, is a useful response to Winston Van Horne’s necessary query into the “measures of intellectual stringency” that might animate (not discipline, not impose) what we do in Africana Studies (See his “Africology: A Discipline of the Twenty-First Century in Nathaniel Norment, Jr.’s The African American Studies Reader (Carolina Academic Press, 2007). Eloquence offers potential resolutions to the following queries raised both implicitly or explicitly by Van Horne and other pioneers of Africana Studies:

  • Can we extract normative inquires, tools for sharpening methodological concerns, from the extant forms of African literatures?
  • What are the proper ways of going about this form of “recovery” beyond rationalizing it and how do we model it?
  •  What kinds of first-order questions animate African literatures across time and space?
  •  Are these kinds of questions still relevant? Still pertinent? Useful for solving contemporary social and human problems?
  • Are there “universal” ethical and moral considerations that can be derived, extended, and marshaled from African literatures?
  • What are the forms that these considerations have taken in the modern era and how might they be connected to their ancient origins?

Recent historiography has reduced theoretical concerns such as these to relative unimportance when it comes to the creation of Africana Studies departments (See particularly Chapter Six of Fabio Rojas’ From Black Power to Black Studies (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and Chapter Eight of Martha Biondi’s The Black Revolution on Campus (The University of California Press, 2012.) A quick perusal of the documents concerning curricular development during this period or a conversation with these elders, quickly will reveal that they were central. Perhaps these works are evidence of the incorporation of this discipline gestured to above. Armah represents a certain form of Africana Studies– one that is formulated and cultivated in what Leonard Jeffries calls “The Great Black Awakening.” (One is reminded of Armah being invited to spaces like Cornell’s Africana Studies and Research Center and other “Black” spaces). The project Armah has developed at Per Sesh is a project similar to the impulse that forced Africana Studies into the universities. An impulse we cannot afford to abandon. An intellectual reckoning that will expose fakers and frauds…and pimps. The type of cats in Blackface that Armah impugns near the end of Eloquence.

Yet even if it has been delimited in academic spaces, the position represented by Armah, continues to enliven discussions that occur in extra-academic spaces, which sustain these battles. These spaces (Armah’s Per Sesh, The Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations, The Kwame Ture Society) continue to “resist the rejection of Africa as equal” (Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks, 292). By embracing the imperatives suggested by The Eloquence of the Scribes, Africana Studies from within and without can also answer in the affirmative, that there are intellectual and moral foundations for human knowledge that do not privilege Western power and knowledge. And indeed, ones that do not privilege any form of hierarchal power. 

the-eloquence-of-scribes         AYI-KWEI-ARMAH


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