A Tale of Two Buildings: African Literature at Yale

When Yale professor of English and American Studies Wai Chee Dimock opined about the sudden, unexpected emergence of African literature and Africanist literary scholarship, she made a lot of people unhappy. I’ll let Aaron Bady’s response speak for itself:

It’s not surprising that African literature is read as emerging: In the long emergency that seems to define Africa in the eyes of the rest of the world—in which “Africa” is a place of starving children, warring clans, and technological backwardness—the idea of African literature can seem positively utopian. It can be a delightful discovery when it seems to emerge. But that discovery says everything about the person making it, and nothing about the literature, which emerged a long time ago. And as long as critics and publishers frame African literature as always on the cusp, it will continue to be an emerging literature whose emergence is infinitely deferred.

Bady makes several very smart, stinging critiques of Dimock’s piece, but also of higher education’s English departments’ willful ignorance of African literature in general, and I encourage you to read the whole thing. Some passages I was particularly drawn to:

If you can name only three African writers and two of them are white South Africans, you have a very odd sense of the literature. But this myopia is also general: English departments do have a very limited sense of what African literature is.

And on recent shifts to see American literature as global literature:

[I]f American becomes a “world” literature, what happens to all the literature that used to occupy that space? Is the globalization of American literature a growing cosmopolitanism or a new kind of Eurocentrism? If American literature becomes a world literature, then is world literature just a new name for the old canon?

And:

For a shift from “English departments” to departments of “Anglophone World Literature” to mean anything, structural change would be required, but I suspect only superficial change is on offer, at best. For anything to change, a ratio of 10 professors of 19th-century British literature to one Africanist would have to seem like a damning and embarrassing (and essentially colonial) hierarchy of value.

The absence of an Africanist at Yale English is something that was part of my (and others’) broader critique of Yale’s lackluster performance in Africanist scholarship, but Yale is an interesting site for this conversation for another reason.

Not a quarter mile away from the Yale English Department is the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. This library is filled with rare artifacts, a vast majority of them from Europe and America. Working at the library for two years, I saw more German magazines and bibles than I did anything from the Global South. The only thing that ever passed my desk that mentioned Africa was the occasional piece of political ephemera from radical black groups in the U.S. (although it is worth noting that the Beinecke’s African American collections are wonderful, though I digress).

The Beinecke Library, a five minute walk for any Yale English professor, is also the recent home of the Windham Campbell Literary Prize, a huge new prize that recently announced its third set of winners. In 2013, the inaugural nine prize winners included two South Africans, Jonny Steinberg and Zoë Wicomb. The following year Aminatta Forna was a recipient. This third round of winners, announced last week, includes Teju Cole, Helon Habila, and Ivan Vladislavić. In addition, 2013 non-fiction winner Jeremy Scahill’s work has included extensive reporting in Somalia, and 2015 drama winner Jackie Sibblies Drury’s work includes a play about Namibia.

All this to say, a stone’s throw away from the Yale English Department, a prestigious literary prize has been awarded to six African writers (five of them fiction writers), out of only twenty-six recipients. While Yale’s English Department is still looking for African literature, the library down the street has found it and awarded it six times in three years. That a full quarter of Windham Campbell recipients have been African, that over half a million dollars have been awarded to African writers by the library next door, and still people like Wai Chee Dimock are not sufficiently aware of the existing vibrancy of African literature, is a shame. When the department held its job talks a little over a year ago, several of the faculty in attendance were apparently (according to others I’ve spoken to) completely unengaged – some did not seem to understand the importance of the applicants’ scholarship. This is a sad fact for an English department trying to hire its first Africanist.

I am not saying that we should pay attention to African literature because it’s started winning Western prizes. But this fact, on top of the diverse and exciting amount of writing going on in and about Africa and the increasing scholarship about writers from Africa and the diaspora, should make it clear to English Departments across the country that African literature is more than a forgotten step-child not worth studying. It should be seen as part and parcel to the canon. But it isn’t. And, as Aaron says, “the result is predictable. Ignoring a field normalizes ignorance of it, and this kind of ignorance of African literature continues to be utterly normal.”

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Strengths and Weaknesses on Africa at Yale

It’s been a few weeks since my article on the Yale Africa Project went up. I tried to make it as comprehensive as possible in discussing Yale’s African Studies program and what has gone into it, but I also had a word limit that I had thoroughly destroyed already. Since I have a blog and that’s what blogs are for, I’m going to dig a little deeper into what’s going to happen at Yale moving forwards.

One promising point in Yale’s future is the creation a senior faculty position in the English Department that will be focused on African literature. Yale has one professor who specializes in Francophone African literature and has never had anyone in English – this new position will rectify that. Yale has a pretty conservative English department overall, something I don’t know enough about to talk about at length, but it’s clear that this position – which has been in the works for many years and included encouragement from the Council on African Studies – will be the department’s foray into world literatures. Hopefully it’s a change that they will continue to expand into.

It’s important to note that this position – which will make a huge mark on African humanities at Yale – is not part of the Yale Africa Project. That initiative, which is in its nascent stages but which has not (and will not, according to those familiar with it) prioritize faculty hiring, has a clear focus on Yale’s strengths. When it comes to Africa, Yale has huge strengths in three sectors: development economics, corruption and good governance, and public health. The Project aims to reinforce those strengths rather than build up new ones. In the front page of a fancy booklet that is being given to potential donors, Ian Shapiro writes:

Focusing on the pivotal areas of governance, development, and public health, we are interested in understanding and contributing to the ways in which business, the public, and the nonprofit sectors respond to Africa’s challenges and opportunities.

In regards to Africa, Yale has a small faculty in general. The humanities in particular need more focus on Africa. Music, art, theater, and literature are all barely represented. The anthropology department’s focus on Africa is currently very low. The language program won’t be able to offer three levels of language instruction without more support. The library collection is great but has been facing budget constraints that make the future more bleak. The Forestry School has one person working in Africa.

Yale has three pillars of specialization in Africa, and that is where the bulk of this new project is headed. While they are important, I see no reason why Yale shouldn’t put resources in parts of Africa where support is needed the most. Africa is the home of vibrant arts, prize-winning literature, diverse languages, endangered ecosystems, and innovative technologies. I can’t figure out why you wouldn’t want to encourage work on these topics.

The new English position will be a welcome addition to Yale because he or she will help support the humanities in African Studies, but also to work to fill a gap in English’s understanding of different literature. The Africa Project should take a note from this and seek to build up new foundations if it really wants to focus on Africa.

Shameless Self-Promotion: On Yale African Studies

Another brief interlude to link you to an article I wrote for Yale Daily News‘ magazine edition, entitled “Looking for Africa.” It’s perhaps the biggest piece I’ll write on the subject, but I don’t expect it to be the last. It’s only a part of a larger conversation which the Yale community has been having, which I’ve linked to before. I hope you’ll take a look, and of course I’ll continue to write about the issue, as it’s important directly to me but also to the conversation about Africanist scholarship (and area studies) in U.S. universities.

 

Cover art, courtesy YDN Magazine

The Yale Africa Project (as it is now known) can and probably will do a lot for Africanist scholarship at the university, but that’s not difficult given the small and narrow focus of the university’s Africa focus now, but many of us are hoping it will do more. After recent faculty departures and downsizing across the area studies, it is good to see a focus specifically on Africa, but I’m not yet convinced it will fulfill its potential. Unfortunately, a lot of this is dependent on donors rather than university governance, largely because Yale hasn’t committed as much to the campaign as it could. My hope is that, in a couple of years, I’ll be able to say that I was wrong.

I interviewed about a dozen people – professors, former professors, alumni, and students – and sent an e-mail survey to about a dozen African Studies students. I also worked tirelessly with two editors who took a 6,000 word statistic- and quote-ridden article and made it legible. The design team also put together a wonderful graphic for the magazine’s cover that essentially sums up why the piece needed to be written. I want to thank everybody involved for helping make it what it is, because they seriously deserve it. I also want to encourage everybody interested to continue to think about how Yale (or any university) can engage with the scholarship it promotes, and what it means to focus on Africa as a university.

More on Yale-Africa

Pardon the absence, folks. Hopefully this blog will be back up to speed soon, but in the mean time I thought I’d share news on the Yale-Africa front, in the form of two other op-eds in the college daily.

First, the editorial board at the Yale Daily News published an editorial which urges Yale to hire more faculty, which meshes with what most students have been saying:

If the University is to attract students and faculty passionate about engaging with Africa, its core program cannot remain in shambles. Before reaching out to African institutions, Yale must ensure that students have adequate resources to study the continent.

The most significant step is to increase faculty hiring. As a program, African Studies cannot formally hire professors and must lobby departments, such as History, for Africanist scholars. While two Africanist professors will begin at Yale next year, the program will still be reeling from last year’s losses.

Currently, many departments only hire one or two Africanists. Each should have multiple experts on Africa — ensuring that an entire field of scholarship will not be neglected due to the natural ebb and flow of faculty.

To ensure that Africanist faculty will be retained, Salovey should endeavor to find donors for endowed professorships devoted to African scholarship. An endowed chair would allow Yale to transition in new distinguished faculty whenever a position is left vacant.

A week after that, an undergraduate penned this op-ed, highlighting the exclusiveness of some Yale events. She also highlights problems with language study, which has been touched on before, but this bears quoting:

During my freshman year, I was shocked but excited to find a course in Igbo, my parents’ mother tongue and one of Nigeria’s three most widely spoken languages. I took the class, enjoyed it and left for the summer looking forward to continuing my study of Igbo in the fall. Over the summer, I received an email asking me whether I planned to take a course in Igbo my sophomore year. I responded that I did. The next thing I heard was that the Igbo class had been cancelled. I didn’t receive any explanation. I applied to take Igbo through the Directed Independent Language Study program. DILS rejected my application each time, citing the Selection Committee’s challenge of “limited funding.”

As I mentioned a while ago, we’re in the very, very early stages of the Yale Africa Initiative. These are just some of the voices that are chiming in, and we’re all eagerly waiting what else the university will announce.

Yale Looks to Africa, With Blinders On

In his inaugural address last weekend, Yale’s new president, Peter Salovey, talked about Africa at length when he discussed Yale’s educational mission:

 Eleven of the world’s twenty fastest-growing economies are African.3 With the growing influence of the African continent on the world economy, as well as increased migration to, from, and within Africa, this is the moment to bring scholarship and teaching about Africa at Yale into sharper focus. Working collaboratively, we can foster new directions in research on Africa, identify new partnerships with those on the continent, and strengthen our recruitment efforts, all while emphasizing teaching and learning. Our current scholarship on Africa already draws on many disciplines throughout the university — from African language, history, and cultural traditions to global health research, to field experiments in development economics, to issues of sustainability, to research on emerging democracies, to theater projects with Tanzanian artists. For many years, my laboratory collaborated on HIV/AIDS prevention research in South Africa, and Marta is helping with an environmental and public health project involving the Masai.

A greater focus on Africa is just one example of how we aspire to unite research with teaching and learning, how in our research laboratories and our classrooms we can effect change beyond them, and how we can bring the world to Yale and Yale to the world.

This statement wasn’t completely unexpected, to those of us watching Yale’s Africa program closely. Over the summer several administrators have been putting things in motion, and this fall the gradual roll-out of the new Yale Africa Initiative has been ongoing. The Initiative, still in its very nascent stages, aims to be a university-wide shift to focus on Africa. It’s an idea I’m supportive of, but the vision being put forth is less than satisfactory. The vision for a new African focus doesn’t seem to include new faculty, improved language study, or increased course offerings, among other things. I won’t be nearly as in depth on it right now as I will be in the future, mostly because several students (myself included) are working together to draw attention to the pros and cons of the Initiative. This has already begun, in the form of my colleague Akinyi Ochieng’s column at the Yale Daily News, in which she highlights the importance of language study, student recruitment, and career service focus. The middle item seems to be the primary focus of the Initiative, including a recent $1 million gift from a Liberian Yale alum that will go towards financial aid for African applicants, the latter has been talked about to a lesser extent and the former not at all.

This blog will track the goings-on of Yale’s relationship with Africa, African students, and Africanist scholarship. As I anticipate this being a long process, I’m starting a new tag for it. Hopefully the Initiative expands and addresses all the major aspects of African(ist) studies at Yale as it develops. Fingers crossed.