A special issue of African Economic History, “Colonial Economic History in West Africa: The Gold Coast and Gambia in Comparative Perspective,” reconsiders the comparative place of economic frameworks in British colonies in West Africa. One of the issue’s important aims is to emphasize the difference in divergent spaces, between the “profitable” colony of the Gold Coast and the “economic drain” of The Gambia colony. Edited by George M. Bob-Milliar and Toby Green, the issue is also characterized by new and distinctive archival research from archives in the countries considered; this empirical detail places the economic impact of colonialism in an important new light.
As we consider the causes that matter to us around Giving Tuesday, author Megan Hershey discusses the value in supporting local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
We all want to help. We want to aid displaced Syrians in finding refuge, support Venezuelans in the face of hyperinflation, and assist Mozambican families rebuilding in the wake of Cyclone Idai’s devastation. We want to prevent these catastrophes by promoting democratization processes and supporting development efforts—to see health systems strengthened and disaster response teams trained and funded.
Yet, for most of us, figuring out how best to give to these efforts poses a challenge. Which organizations are trustworthy? What about overhead costs? Who is positioned to do the most good?
Then there are the debates over whether foreign aid is a life-saving good or a broken system that requires a drastic overhaul. Should we take a market-based approach or work to better weave political freedom into our understanding of development? It’s enough to exasperate even the most dedicated household philanthropist.
Yet, there is good news. While we’ve been asking how best to give, spirited, locally established, and deeply embedded nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have sprung up around the world and quietly gone to work on their communities’ toughest problems. Research on these NGOs spanning the last thirty-five years shows that they have had positive effects on development issues. These are the players that have embodied the injunction to “think globally, act locally.”
My recently published book, Whose Agency: The Politics and Practice of Kenya’s HIV-Prevention NGOs, offers a close look at the inner workings of these small, local organizations. Though they typically lack large advertising budgets and name recognition, they manage to achieve a great deal thanks to their local knowledge, community connections, and inherent adaptability.
When looking for an organization to support—whether in response to a humanitarian crisis or with an eye toward development—here’s why you should consider supporting a locally founded organization:
- Access: Local NGOs operate in the areas where they were founded and often hire employees from their communities. They also usually do not need special permission to access an area in crisis. This means donations go directly to the people who need it most.
- Embeddedness: They have relationships with local leaders and powerbrokers. While there can be tensions between NGOs and the people they reach, they are well placed to build trust, which facilitates service effectiveness.
- Flexibility: This is a local NGO’s secret weapon. They may be constrained by donor requirements on how they can spend money; yet, when individuals give to these organizations directly, the NGOs can use those funds quickly, for the greatest needs, without dealing with too many restrictions.
You may have to do a bit more legwork to find these organizations. Read news stories and international NGO publications carefully to see what local NGOs are mentioned or ask friends who have traveled to those regions. Many governments also have NGO coordinating bodies that make NGO registries available. Do your due diligence, read up on the organizations you plan to support, ask questions, and build a relationship with someone at the organization if possible. But don’t be afraid to support local NGOs; you can be confident that your gifts will have a bigger impact, and you might even feel happier, too.
Megan Hershey is an associate professor of political science at Whitworth University.
This week, the UW Press has been exhibiting at the annual African Studies Association Conference in Boston. The conference is wrapping up, but if you’re attending, there’s still one last day to stop by booth 314 for discounts on books and journals. And if you’re not in Boston, here’s a look at our new and notable titles in African Studies.
Holding the World Together, edited by Nwando Achebe and Claire Robertson
Featuring contributions from some of the most accomplished scholars on the topic, Holding the World Together explores the rich and varied ways women have wielded power across the African continent, from the precolonial period to the present. This comprehensive volume, focusing on agency and avoiding stereotypical depictions, features essays on the representation of African women, their role in national liberation movements, their incorporation into the world economy, changing family and marriage systems, economic impacts on their lives and livelihoods, their unique challenges in the areas of health and disease, and their experiences with religious fundamentalism, violence, and slavery.
Health in a Fragile State, by John M. Janzen
Based on extensive field research in the Manianga region of the Lower Congo, Health in a Fragile State is an anthropological account of public health and health care in the 1980s and 1990s after the collapse of the Congolese state. This work brings into focus John M. Janzen’s earlier books on African health and healing, revealing the collaborative effort by local, national, and international agencies to create viable alternative institutions to those that represented the centralized state. With this volume, Janzen documents and analyzes the realignment of existing institutions and the creation of new ones that shape health and healing.
Throughout, Janzen explores the manner in which power and information, including science, are legitimized in the preservation and improvement of health. Institutional validity and knowledge empower citizens and health practitioners to gain the upper hand over the region’s principal diseases, including malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid, and HIV/AIDS.
African Economic History, edited by Mariana Candido, Toyin Falola, Toby Green, and Paul E. Lovejoy
African Economic History publishes scholarly essays in English and French on the economic history of African societies from precolonial times to the present. It features research in a variety of fields and time periods, including studies on labor, slavery, trade and commercial networks, economic transformations, colonialism, migration, development policies, social and economic inequalities, and poverty. The audience includes historians, economists, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, policymakers, and a range of other scholars interested in African economies—past and present.
Spirit Children, by Aaron R. Denham
Some babies and toddlers in parts of West Africa are considered spirit children—nonhumans sent from the forest to cause misfortune and destroy the family. These are usually deformed or ailing infants, or children whose births coincide with tragic events or who display unusual abilities. Aaron R. Denham offers a nuanced ethnographic study of this phenomenon in Northern Ghana that examines both the motivations of the families and the structural factors that lead to infanticide. He also turns the lens on the prevailing misunderstandings about this controversial practice. Denham offers vivid accounts of families’ life-and-death decisions that engage the complexity of the context, local meanings, and moral worlds of those confronting a spirit child.
Ghana Studies, edited by Carina Ray and Kofi Baku
Ghana Studies is the journal of the Ghana Studies Association, an international affiliate of the African Studies Association. Published annually, Ghana Studies strives to provide a forum for cutting edge original research about Ghana’s society, culture, environment, and history. All of the scholarly articles in Ghana Studies are peer-reviewed by two anonymous referees, coordinated by an editorial team based in both North America and Ghana. Since its first issue in 1998, Ghana Studies has published significant work by leading scholars based in Ghana, the United States, Canada, and Europe. In addition, Ghana Studies features occasional material, source reports, and book reviews. It also serves to provide official notice of fellowships and prizes awarded by the Ghana Studies Association.
The latest volume of Ghana Studies features a special forum in memory of James Kwesi Anquandah, who was a pioneer in the field of archaeology in Ghana. Forum editor Ebony Coletu chatted with the editors of Ghana Studies to describe Anquandah’s legacy and support for interdisciplinary research.
Ghana Studies Editors: For readers who may be new to Ghana Studies or to the field of archaeology, can you tell us why James Anquandah was such a towering figure in the field?
Ebony Coletu: Professor Anquandah was the first student of archaeology at the University of Ghana in the sixties—and he went on to mentor five generations of archaeology students as a faculty member, along with countless others who were not working in archaeology or even students at the university. Because his research practice was deeply interdisciplinary, he attracted scholars beyond the department, many like myself just dropping in to his office to ask a few questions, but leaving with an exciting mandate to develop new approaches. You hear this in Kwasi Ampene’s article too, how conversations with Anquandah animated a speculative approach to researching musical practices in the Akan Stone Age and Early Iron Age. So Anquandah did not prescribe a method, he inspired methods, really from his energetic curiosity and commitment to telling new stories about the distant past. Also in this forum, Mohammed Mustapha and Wazi Apoh describe his “eclectic method”—which is a multi-disciplinary research protocol Anquandah used to answer complex questions. For him, it was not enough to write from a single discipline, or apply a single method consistently. Instead he wanted to synthesize history, policy, sociology, and art, to help reformulate and deepen the significance of a question and tell a better story about research findings, particularly for publics beyond the academy.
GS Editors: What distinguishes this special forum commemorating the work and legacy of James Kwesi Anquandah (1938-2017)?
EC: Soon after he passed, I circulated a call for papers that focused on mentorship as a way to map his influence across fields, thus “reframing the reach of archaeology.” The responses affirmed the call by capturing Anquandah’s marathon commitment to mentoring (training five generations of archaeologists in Ghana) as well as the ongoing work of decolonizing disciplines. Rachel Ama Asaa Engmann addresses this directly in her essay, when she writes about autoarchaeology, a research practice that foregrounds direct descendants as researchers whose families have lived in or around the excavation site. She enlisted Danish-Ga descendants as researchers at Christiansborg Castle, unearthing artifacts and posing questions collaboratively. As a consequence of centering community-based knowledge production, the project inspires new pipelines for training in archaeology aimed at multilingual researchers who are gaining experience on site. She reframes the reach of archaeology by asking who can do this work and why? For Kwasi Ampene, Anquandah inspired a deep-time approach to Akan ethnomusicology, and in the process he challenges our dependence on sixteenth-century European traveler sketches typically used as evidence of musical practices. Questioning the explanatory power and the historical limits of these images, Ampene goes on to suggest a deep-time alternative: using archaeological research to speculate on the multipurpose use of agricultural instruments to make ancient music, inspired by those used for both purposes today.
GS Editors: You not only guest edited this special forum, you also contributed an essay to it in which you introduce the idea of “descendent epistemology.” Can you tell readers how your conversations with Anquandah helped you formulate this innovative methodology?
EC: I was fortunate to meet Anquandah in the early stages of my research on Chief Sam, an Akyem merchant who led a diasporic return movement that recruited support from thousands of African Americans to purchase a ship that set sail from Texas, arriving in the Gold Coast in 1915. I had narrow interests in that first conversation. I wanted to reconstruct a fuller version of Sam’s family tree and identify a plausible link to the Sams of Anomabo, who are part of my family. Chief Sam’s life was far from conventional, leaving traces and descendants in multiple countries, including multiple wives and stepchildren. I sought Anquandah’s help to make sense of a more complex family tree. But after reading his interview notes with descendants and talking with him over several years, he began to reflect my questions back to me, noting that my concern with kinship had widened to include the technical matter of diasporic return: what was the status of African Americans who pledged to live, work, and die in African communities? Were they also, in some sense, part of Sam’s family? Sam had proposed to adopt them en masse to facilitate the process of landownership and repair a spiritual wound from separation by slavery. While mass adoption was unsuccessful, those who remained quickly integrated into indigenous communities through other means. I found Sam’s proposal, and colonial attempts to block it, an important antecedent to contemporary debates about diasporic right of return, evidence of kinship, and different routes to Ghanaian citizenship.
GS Editors: Taken together, what does this collection of special forum essays tell us about the next generation of archaeological research coming out of Ghana?
EC: The last essay says much on this point. Mustapha and Apoh tell a story about Anquandah’s decolonial legacy, which has shaped their own research itineraries instead of resting on a citational model that preserves what previous generations of Africanist archaeologists prioritized. For example, Apoh’s research builds new sources for the understudied topic of German missionionization and colonization in historical archaeology. While Mustapha pushes back against an exogenous theory of social complexity in the Mamprugu Traditional Area in Northern Ghana by investigating indigenous innovations that led to large scale ancient ironworking. Engmann’s work also sharpens this point by challenging value assessments in the literature, which can determine which places are considered critical to research while marginalizing others. Her work at Christiansborg Castle is groundbreaking for the sheer number of artifacts excavated in a short period of time on a site previously considered marginal. This despite the fact that it served as the seat of several administrations, from Danish governors to Flight Lieutenant John Jerry Rawlings. Though this forum began in a memorial spirit, it was exciting to edit because it features forthcoming interdisciplinary work in Ghana Studies encouraged by Professor Anquandah’s pathbreaking example.
Ghana Studies Volume 22 is available on Project MUSE. Browse the table of contents, which includes the special forum along with other articles and reviews. And if you’re attending the African Studies Association Conference this week, stop by the University of Wisconsin Press booth (#314), where you’ll find Ghana Studies alongside many of our other titles in African Studies.
Today we present an interview with Maya Angela Smith, author of the new book Senegal Abroad. This book illustrates the experiences of Senegalese people in Paris, Rome, and New York, and is a part of our series Africa and the Diaspora: History, Politics, Culture.
How did you become interested in language in the context of migration, and why did you decide to focus on the Senegalese diaspora?
I first became interested in the relationship between language, identity, and setting as a college student. While studying abroad in Paris and Dakar, I experienced the social nature of learning a language and how this social practice varied with context. For me, learning French in Paris was a more challenging experience than learning French in Dakar. Many Parisians seemed to have little patience for language learners, and I was often self-conscious about my French-speaking abilities, worried about making mistakes. By contrast, while learning French in Dakar, I felt less pressure to speak French perfectly, partially because I was simultaneously studying Wolof, the most widely spoken national language of Senegal. Senegal, however, represented a conundrum to me. While I did not sense the same imposition of standard French as I had when studying in France, there was still a reverence for the French language that surprised me. People I met in Dakar insisted that Senegalese spoke the best French in Africa and even better than many people in France. I had not expected an African country to place so much pride in a colonial European language, all the while enthusiastically championing the various national languages of Senegal.
Furthermore, when interacting with people in Dakar, I realized that so many people had either been abroad, were planning to go abroad, or had family members abroad. Senegal, thus, was a mobile space constructed and managed through various diasporic settings. Many of the students at the university in Dakar had spent time studying in France, and I assumed that this mobility was tied to social class. However, I soon found that people from all social classes had access to the world beyond Senegal. For instance, vendors at the Marché Sandaga, Dakar’s largest market, when realizing I was American would tell me about their experiences living in New York City and about how many of their family members were still there. They would proudly show off the English they had acquired. Others, when learning of my travels to Spain and Italy, would talk about their time in these countries, and we would compare our experiences there especially as it pertained to language. These were not isolated incidents. It seemed like everyone had a story from abroad. These informal conversations I had with Senegalese in Senegal thus became a point of departure for a more formal inquiry into language and migration in the Senegalese diaspora.
How does your research inform your pedagogy?
My scholarship broadly focuses on the intersection of racial and linguistic identity formations among marginalized groups in the African diaspora, particularly in the postcolonial francophone world. As someone trained in sociolinguistics but who has always been housed in French departments whose primary interest is literary and cultural scholarship, my practice of bringing close textual readings to ethnographic interviews allows me to tell something new about the human condition. In my courses, I give students the tools to think critically about how we as humans engage with our environments and how we act, react, and interact with others. My goal is to help them articulate not only what they experience in their own lives, but to thoughtfully analyze how different communities and societies make sense of the world. In addition to the various forms of cultural production that we analyze in class—language, art, film, music, literature—I often have them grapple with the data I collect. I find that my interview data offer a productive space for students to comprehend the larger social and cultural phenomena that become visible in the themes we explore in class.
Speaking of your data, do you have a favorite anecdote from your research?
For my most recent book, Senegal Abroad, I interviewed over 80 people of Senegalese descent across Paris, Rome, and New York as they convey a variety of illuminating experiences on language, blackness, and migration. While it is hard to pick a favorite, I have a tendency to gravitate toward the anecdotes that showcase multilingualism, creativity, and humor. For instance, in winter of 2010, I was eating lunch with some Senegalese acquaintances at a restaurant in Rome. Although Wolof was the most common language used among this group, a regular patron named Idi abruptly switched into Italian to announce that he was discarding his Senegalese identity and claiming an Italian one instead. One of his friends then retorted that if he were so Italian, he should drink his water in Italian, to which Idi replied that drinking was not part of the Italian language. While the group began to argue playfully in Wolof and Italian about national identity and what constitutes being Italian, a man named Bachir exclaimed in French that he was proud to be Senegalese. As the only use of French in the whole exchange, I wondered why he would use French to profess his Senegalese heritage, especially considering the negative position he had taken in previous discussions concerning the role of the French language in Senegal. The linguistic intricacy of this exchange conveys the complexity surrounding where the Senegalese fit in discussions of Italian identity, the role of French as the former colonial language in current articulations of a Senegalese identity, and the agency that people have in negotiating these and other dynamic identities. Importantly, this exchange was happening over laughter and playful teasing as they shared a meal, demonstrating the cultivation of joy even in what many of them view as hostile spaces.
Why do you think the work that you do matters?
I place a lot of importance on representation. In this moment where political discourse and the media provide such a skewed and myopic view of immigrants and where their stories are usually told by those in positions of power and privilege, I wanted to find a way for the most marginalized among us to share in their own words the complexity of their lived experiences. Furthermore, in academic scholarship, most of the work on transnationalism depicts African migrants succumbing to economic temptations as the sole reason for migrating and creates a depressing picture of their existence in host countries. While I do not minimize these motivations and difficulties, I go beyond political economy and also concentrate on the pride, passion, and happiness that the people in my research achieve through their reflections on language. Their stories blur the lines between utility and pleasure, allowing for a more nuanced understanding of why and how Senegalese move.
is an assistant professor of French and Italian studies at the University of Washington.
Today we present a piece written by Douglas J. Falen, author of the new book African Science.
In 1935, the British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard wrote, “Witchcraft is an imaginary offense because it is impossible.” Although Evans-Pritchard made a sincere attempt to explain the rationality of African witchcraft, his remark voiced an enduring Western view of the distinction between imaginary witchcraft and scientific reality. Since then, anthropologists have used less dismissive language to address such cultural differences, but this does not automatically mean they accept the reality of other cultures’ magical forces. What is the role of our own reality in our interpretation of other cultures? And what do we make of a society where witchcraft and science are not competing paradigms, but rather are similar forms of knowledge? These are the philosophical and interpretive dilemmas that an anthropologist faces in studying the occult in the Republic of Benin, West Africa.
In the course of many years of research, I have come to recognize that my Beninese friends do not feel the need to make a choice between science and magic. For them, western scientific knowledge is a kind of magic that is responsible for fantastic technology, such as airplanes, cellphones, and the internet. This “white people’s witchcraft” as Beninese call it, is often likened to the incredible accomplishments of their own occult knowledge, which they call “African science” – an indigenous force that also permits people to travel around the world and to communicate via invisible waves. Another feature that these two systems share is their moral ambiguity. Beninese people acknowledge that, despite their benevolent potential, technology and witchcraft are similar in that both can result in death and destruction – such as through bombs or invisible soul attacks. This suggests that in Benin, what we might call “witchcraft” (àzě in the Fon language) is a much broader category drawing up ideas about knowledge, technology, and magic. Some informants also suggest that witchcraft is the animating force behind their indigenous deities, Christian churches, and esoteric societies like Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. They regard witchcraft as the ultimate, all-encompassing, and universal force in the world. While people attribute misfortune, illness, and death to the work of malevolent witches, àzě’s incorporative tendencies allow traditional healers to adopt and employ new, often foreign, spiritual traditions in a supernatural arms race to triumph over evil. Beninese witches and healers battle over people’s souls, reaffirming the existence of good and evil in the world.
Rather than reduce witchcraft to mere folklore, or a naïve belief held by those lacking scientific rationality, I have taken inspiration from my Beninese friends for whom witchcraft is not a traditional belief giving way to modernity. Witchcraft is instead a contemporary, adaptive, and inclusive system that incorporates many domains that westerners regard as distinct – science, medicine, religion, and the occult. Although I do not expect foreign people to accept another culture’s supernatural reality, one of the lessons of anthropology’s “ontological turn” has been to encourage us to take native categories seriously and to let them shape our interpretation of other cultures. Through long-term, intimate ethnographic experience, I have come to appreciate my Beninese friends’ understanding of their world without feeling the need to discount it or frame it terms of my own categories of real, imaginary, science, or myth. Anthropology’s contribution to current social debates is to show us that cultural difference does not have to result in judgment, disavowal, and discrimination. If we make an effort to befriend people who are different from ourselves, we usually find that they possess the same human rationality as we do.
is a professor of anthropology at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. He is the author of Power and Paradox: Authority, Insecurity, and Creativity in Fon Gender Relations.
Ghana Studies Journal Publishes 20th Anniversary Special Issue
With the most recent volume of Ghana Studies, the journal celebrates its twentieth anniversary, as well as the thirtieth anniversary of the Ghana Studies Association, of which it is the official publication. Along with the usual articles and book reviews, the current issue features an anniversary forum, where scholars reflect on the history of the field of Ghana Studies as well as the progress of the journal and the association.
One of the forum’s notable offerings is a conversation with previous Ghana Studies editors Akosua Adomako Ampofo and Stephan F. Miescher, in which they discuss their editorial challenges and successes, as well as their thoughts on the journal’s potential future directions. Below is an excerpt from this conversation, centering on the ways in which Adomako Ampofo and Miescher cultivated a focus on Gender Studies in the publication’s pages. The full interview can be found in Ghana Studies Volume 21.
GS Editors: You are both noted Gender Studies scholars, who also brought your respective backgrounds in history and sociology to your term as editors of GS. Has your mark on the journal been shaped by your (inter)disciplinary orientations? Or by other commitments?
Akosua: I like to see myself more as an interdisciplinary scholar rather than as a sociologist. This is why I am attracted more to the works of sociologists like W. E. B. DuBois and Patricia Hill Collins—both authors who speak to questions of gender and race, as well as their intersections, which is where much of my own work is situated—than, say, to the works of Marx and Weber, albeit the latter certainly have their value. There are two ways I tend to respond to an article: If it’s in my field, I am looking for something new and refreshing, or new insights to a question that has puzzled scholars. So to that extent I tend to be more critical, but also, when it comes to a younger scholar, I’m more excited about pushing it to publication. However, if the work comes from an area outside my own area of expertise, then I am looking to be thrilled, sometimes to have my socks knocked off so I have that aha! moment, which I want the whole world to feel. Then I can proudly shout that it came out in a journal I am affiliated with. And then, yes, definitely I think that having spent my entire academic career in a multi- and interdisciplinary institute, I am very sympathetic to interdisciplinary work. And of course gender scholarship is so interdisciplinary. After almost thirty years of teaching, I have found that students respond much more enthusiastically, and tend to engage more with the class, when we have a multidisciplinary set of texts. In the gender classes I coteach at IAS, we have always included literary texts and films, as well as work in history, political science, economics, and so forth. It’s my view that especially for African Studies, this multidisciplinary approach is important since the nuances of our global history and contemporary realities often get lost in the cross-sectional or the single-approach analysis.
Stephan: My own research interests certainly had an impact on the type of work we pursued and published. Questions about gender have been important to me for a long time. As GS editor, I was pleased that issue 14 featured several pieces on gender including Ernestina Dankyi’s article on transnational families, Peace Tetteh on child domestic labor, and Josephine Beoku-Betts on women academics in neoliberal Ghana. In the same issue, we published two articles on same-sex intimacies, a topic then still marginalized in African Studies and in Ghana. The piece by Serena Owusua Dankwa deals with same-sex love and female masculinity; the one by William Banks explores the subjectivities among saso people, a community of men who engage in same-sex erotic practices. The special issue on health and health care (issue 15–16) also includes works with a gender analysis, such as Fidelia Ohemeng’s article on the gender dimension of trust and caregiving for HIV patients and Jo Ellen Fair’s piece on love and newspapers advice columns. My tenure as GS editor corresponded with a period when my scholarly interests expanded to the history of development and technology. For over a decade, I have been researching the history of the Akosombo Dam for my forthcoming book, A Dam for Africa: The Volta River Project and Modernization in Postcolonial Ghana. This interest also led to the “Revisiting Modernization Conference,” for which I wrote with Dzodzi Tsikata a paper that compared discourses and practices of modernization in relation to the Akosombo and Bui Dams. Our paper appeared in GS 12–13.
Akosua: I certainly had my favorites among the papers on gender; however, I’m not telling. What I will say is, all the gender issues that were addressed in the volumes mentioned by Stephan, which we coedited, brought fresh and important issues to the table.
Aaron Denham, author of Spirit Children: Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana, comments on the importance of reading about distressing subjects. His book is published today in the University of Wisconsin Press series Africa and the Diaspora: History, Politics, Culture.
As I began writing about infanticide and the “spirit child” phenomenon in Northern Ghana, I became interested in how narratives of vulnerability and difficult human experiences can evoke powerful emotional and imaginative reactions in listeners and readers. Spirit children are, most often, disabled or ill children believed to be spirits sent to destroy the family. In their fear, and with limited treatment options, families occasionally hasten their child’s death.
When speaking about my research to friends and the public, my descriptions of families’ difficult decisions would often induce silence or provoke awkward replies. After one presentation depicting a family’s struggles to care for a spirit child, a well-intentioned literature professor suggested I bring an MRI machine to the remote savanna to scan the children to determine if they are indeed spirits. In other venues, some people vehemently denied the fact that infanticide was even occurring. The most powerful responses, however, come from parents with young children. I soon learned to temper my descriptions after a friend became distressed when I casually explained the grim reality one family faced. She vividly imagined her infant confronting similar circumstances.
Some authors and anthropologists have written about the value of attending to their own emotions and the anxieties that arise while conducting research. George Devereux stressed that ethnographers should scrutinize their reactions and blind spots, because our emotional worlds shape the ways we experience and interpret other people. This self-attunement is useful for readers too. How might our internal world shape our understanding of what we read?
When confronted with difficult material, our emotions and anxieties can enhance or limit comprehension. When I’ve discussed infanticide, I have found that people quickly gravitate to familiar but experience-distant sociobiological paradigms. These are often encapsulated in the question: “Considering their circumstances, doesn’t infanticide make good environmental sense?” Although at times reasonable, biofundamentalist accounts can foreclose deeper moral engagements with human experience. People defer to purely objective explanations to distance anxiety and move disturbing knowledge to more familiar and manageable terms. Devereux described this process as interpretive undercomprehension. This dilemma results in anxiously clinging to a point of view simply because the reader can “tolerate that particular interpretation, while considering all other (psychologically intolerable) interpretations unscholarly and erratic.” Jacques Lacan described a similar process that he termed the “passion for ignorance,” or the desire not to know, and to want nothing more to do with knowledge that is too intense.
Authors leverage readers’ internal worlds in many ways. In my writing, I wanted to bridge diverse cultural experiences to confront the perceived strangeness of infanticide. I wanted to encourage moments of mutual recognition, if not always an empathetic attunement. The challenge has been in finding a balance between presenting the visceral realities of people’s lives and developing emotionally tolerable narratives that facilitate a deeper level of understanding.
Readers can also contemplate their own reactions to emotional subjects. Stories that confront cultural difference and distressing practices can evoke anxiety or revulsion. In these cases, we can maintain our passion for ignorance, or we can take the opportunity to contemplate the reason for these sentiments and reflect on the complexity of our shared humanity. Challenging stories can help build empathy and inspire us to action. Moreover, as we open ourselves to difficult material, we do more than learn more about the lives of others. If we pay attention to what a text evokes within, we can ultimately come away learning more about ourselves.
is the director of the Master of Development Studies and Global Health program and a senior lecturer in anthropology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He formerly was a mental health provider for children and families, a fellow of the American Psychoanalytic Association, and a volunteer with Engineers Without Borders.
We are pleased to announce six new books to be published in May.
May 9, 2017
WHISPERS OF CRUEL WRONGS
The Correspondence of Louisa Jacobs and Her Circle, 1879-1911
Louisa Jacobs was the daughter of Harriet Jacobs, author of the famous autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. That work included a heartbreaking account of Harriet parting with six-year-old Louisa, taken away to the North by her white father. Now, rediscovered letters reveal the lives of Louisa and her circle and shed light on Harriet’s old age.
“A rich and fascinating portrait of Philadelphia’s and Washington D.C.’s black elite after the Civil War. Even as the letters depict the increasingly troubled political status and economic fortunes of the correspondents, they offer rare glimpses into private homes and inner emotions.”—Carla L. Peterson,author of Black Gotham
Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography
William L. Andrews, Series Editor
May 16, 2017
TO OFFER COMPASSION
A History of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion
Doris Andrea Dirks and Patricia A. Relf
“Conservative Christianity has become synonymous with opposition to abortion, but before the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized it in the U.S., clergy organized to protect pregnant women and direct them to safe abortions. Dirks and Relf explore this extraordinary and little-known history through detailed first-person interviews and extensive research with Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clergy who, between 1967 and 1973, created a pregnancy counseling service and national underground network to provide women with options for adoption, parenting assistance, and pregnancy termination. . . . Critically important social history that too many in today’s abortion wars have never known or chosen to forget.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
May 23, 2017
Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana
“A brilliant, sensitive, and moving book about the heartbreaking phenomenon of infanticide. This is a book to be taken seriously by hospital personnel, public health policymakers, NGO workers, and anyone interested in the fate of the world’s most vulnerable young children.”—Alma Gottlieb, coauthor of A World of Babies
“A skillful ethnography of the spirit child phenomenon in northern Ghana—children who fail to thrive, are feared to harm their families, and therefore should be ‘sent back.’ This insightful, theoretically rich analysis offers a nuanced ecological, economic, and cultural explanation of maternal attachment.”—John M. Janzen, author of The Quest for Therapy in Lower Zaire
May 23, 2017
THE LAND REMEMBERS
The Story of a Farm and Its People 9th Edition
With an introduction by Curt Meine
“Ben Logan is strikingly successful in recalling his own boyhood world, a lonely ridge farm in southwestern Wisconsin. . . . He reviews his growing-up years in the 1920s and ’30s less with nostalgia than with a naturalist’s eye for detail, wary of the distortions of memory and sentiment.”—Christian Science Monitor
“A book to be cherished and remembered.”—Publishers Weekly
May 30, 2017
Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era
Edited by Franz Rickaby with Gretchen Dykstra and James P. Leary
As the heyday of the lumber camps faded, a young scholar named Franz Rickaby set out to find songs from shanty boys, river drivers, and sawmill hands in the Upper Midwest. Pinery Boys now incorporates, commemorates, contextualizes, and complements Rickaby’s 1926 book. It includes annotations throughout by folklore scholar James P. Leary and an engaging biography by Rickaby’s granddaughter Gretchen Dykstra. Central to this edition are the fifty-one songs that Rickaby originally published, plus fourteen additional songs selected to represent the
varied collecting Rickaby did beyond the lumber camps.
“[Rickaby] was the first to put the singing lumberjack into an adequate record and was of pioneering stuff. … His book renders the big woods, not with bizarre hokum and studied claptrap … but with the fidelity of an unimpeachable witness.”—Carl Sandburg
Languages and Folklore of the Upper Midwest Series
Joseph Salmons and James P. Leary, Series Editors
May 23, 2017
The second book in the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery Series
DEATH AT GILLS ROCK
“In her atmospheric, tightly written sequel, Skalka vividly captures the beauty of a remote Wisconsin peninsula that will attract readers of regional mysteries. Also recommended for fans of William Kent Krueger, Nevada Barr, and Mary Logue.”
—Library Journal, starred review
“Three World War II heroes about to be honored by the Coast Guard are all found dead, apparent victims of carbon monoxide poisoning while playing cards at a cabin. . . . The second installment of this first-rate series (Death Stalks Door County, 2014) provides plenty of challenges for both the detective and the reader.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Skalka captures the . . . small-town atmosphere vividly, and her intricate plot and well-developed characters will appeal to fans of William Kent Krueger.”—Booklist
Eric Lamore, editor of Reading African American Autobiography: Twenty-First-Century Contexts and Criticism, spoke with us about why it’s necessary to study overlooked texts to gain deep insight into African American life narratives. His book is published today in the Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography series.
What influence do you think that President Obama has had upon readers and writers of African American autobiography?
In putting together this collection of eleven essays on African American autobiography, I was particularly interested in Robert B. Stepto’s claim that scholars of African American literature need to rethink this canon because the President of the United
States for the last eight years is himself an African American writer. In his book, A Home Elsewhere: Reading African American Classics in the Age of Obama, Stepto compares relevant parts from Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, with foundational literary texts, some of which are autobiographies. I titled my introduction “African American Autobiography in the Age of Obama” to emphasize this connection.
This election season, I went back and reread Obama’s Dreams, and I was struck by the President’s comments on reading. He wrote in the preface to the 2004 edition of his memoir that he wanted to revise parts of his book, because he would have told his life story differently had he written it later in his life. But, he commented that his 1995 memoir would be read differently as republished in a post-911 world, so he was quite aware of the relationship between text, reader, and context. Part of Obama’s contribution to the study of African American life narratives in the twenty-first century is this important point about the need to reread older life narratives, because cultural and political landscapes continue to change in the United States and around the world. One could reread pertinent African American life narratives from the past, for example, in the context of the #blacklivesmatter movement.
I think Obama’s Dreams also laid an important textual foundation for African American life narrators in the twenty-first century. Though Dreams was first published in 1995, Obama’s explorations of the biracial self, and his search for people and places (including outside the United States) that impacted his constructions of self, are found in much of twenty-first-century African American life writing. The last four essays in Reading African American Autobiography explore these themes. There are striking parallels between Obama’s Dreams and twenty-first-century African American life writing that scholars need to explore further.
How might future scholarship build on the essays in this volume?
The contributors and I collectively make the case that reading these life narratives in the twenty-first century requires scholars to consider a wide array of texts and a host of critical approaches. We also directly address ways that innovative critical frameworks, such as ecocriticism or queer theory, allow scholars to reread seminal life stories from our past in new ways.
Some of the contributors reclaim overlooked texts and lives, including a criminal confession published on a broadside in the late eighteenth century, an abridged edition of Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography published for children and adolescent readers in nineteenth-century New York, an uplift narrative published after the Civil War that contains important photographs, and autobiographical graphic narratives published in the late twentieth century. The slave narratives published in the antebellum period still remain very important, of course, but my book makes the case that scholars need to spend more time analyzing other overlooked texts and lives. More work needs to be done to recover neglected aspects of African American lives and to dig into texts that have not received adequate critical attention.
We also call for studying a wider range of genres. Scholars today can look at the presentation of self in blogs, YouTube posts, graphic narratives, films, and photography, to name just a few genres. The intersection of genealogy and genetics, too, has produced all kinds of new information on African American lives that we need to consider. The printed page is still important, but these other channels make it clear that African American life narrators are telling their stories and exploring the self in ways beyond the writing of a memoir. All these varied explorations have expanded the canon of African American life narrative in dramatic ways. There is no doubt that the field must and will become more interdisciplinary.
In the book, we also look at celebrity life writing in the twenty-first-century. Almost all examples of this in the African American life narrative canon are collaborative projects. It would be fruitful to study that process, especially if there is documentation (transcribed interviews, recordings, and the like) mapping how the celebrity and the collaborating writer worked together.
In the chapter that you contributed to this collection about Olaudah Equiano, you draw on the history of books and publishing to shed light on the complex textual histories of the African American autobiographical tradition.
Yes, I’ve been influenced by scholarship on early black Atlantic literature and book history. I’ve written here about Abigail Mott’s 1829 abridged edition of Equiano’s autobiography. Usually, Equiano is understood as one of the main individuals of African descent involved in the political movement against the slave trade in 1780s Great Britain. The point of my chapter is that there is a whole different story on Equiano if you look closely at the several different editions of his autobiography that were published in the United States, both during his lifetime and following his death. Mott’s 1829 edition, published thirty-two years after Equiano’s death, was aimed at students in the New York African Free School. It is the first edition of Equiano’s autobiography I know of that was edited specifically for young African American readers in the United States.
Mott’s abridged edition is a perfect example of what I referred to earlier as an overlooked text. By looking at more than one edition, we can discover that Equiano’s autobiography was edited and read in the United States differently from editions published in Great Britain. These differences tell us a great deal about how editors and book publishers packaged Equiano’s life in specific ways for their readers. Mott’s edition shows us one of the points where Equiano’s autobiography entered the African American canon (though he clearly viewed himself as an Afro-British subject). Studying abridged, unauthorized, and posthumous editions of early black Atlantic life writing reveals a great deal about the changing histories and contexts of works that shaped the beginnings of the African American life writing tradition.
is an associate professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. He is the editor of Teaching Olaudah Equiano’s Narrative: Pedagogical Strategies and New Perspectives and coeditor of New Essays on Phillis Wheatley.