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On the Complex Historical and Contemporary Terrain of African Literature

Jessica Powers Talks to Kwasi Konadu, Trevor Getz, Lizzy Attree, Wendy Urban-Mead, Holly Y. McGee, and Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu for #readingAfrica

For five years now, on the first full week of December, readers and writers and educators and librarians and publishers join together to celebrate the diversity of literature in Africa, using the hashtag #readingAfrica. This year, we asked a panel of historians to discuss some of the issues around history, politics, and literature in and of Africa, and this is the result.

It seemed like a simple task at first. I sent off a list of questions and everybody would be engaged in writing responses and responding to each other in a sort of asynchronous, virtual “discussion.” But quickly, Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu, someone who is both a friend as well as an author that I publish at Catalyst Press, said she might need to decline participation, respectfully pointing out that my questions were absolutely framed from the standpoint of being an “outsider” looking in to Africa.

My questions, she wrote, were “for people positioned in the Global North. There is a framing of Africa and African Literature that is limited and full of certain assumptions and I understand that the reason for this is to “educate” or provide information to an audience that may not be at all familiar with the continent and its literatures. While I think that the Q&A will accomplish what you want for the audience you have in mind, I think that if I took part I would necessarily have to problematize and argue against a lot of the assumptions inherent in the questions, which ultimately may serve to confuse rather than elucidate the topic.”

I was instantly reminded of the time, a few years ago, when I wrote an essay about why I think Americans should read “global” literature. I argued that to gain a better perspective on our own cultural and political problems, Americans need to read books written by people who didn’t grow up here; don’t live here; have perhaps never lived here; have been shaped by cultural, social, economic, historical, linguistic and political forces entirely outside of the U.S.; and who are not writing about the U.S. The editor’s response was (and I’m paraphrasing), “Well, if people want to read diverse literature, and want a different perspective, they can just read Mexican-American writers; or African-Americans; or Chinese-Americans.”

She had missed my point entirely. I didn’t want to miss the point that Dr. Ndlovu was making. I wrote to all of the panelists: “Even though, as publisher of African writers, I am engaged with Africa and with ‘African literature,’ I am shaped by and informed by my location, which is very much in the U.S., and also shaped by and informed by my time in academia at Stanford.” I suggested we re-engage and problematize the questions and our responses to them, that I was open to it all, to a reframing. I may have been engaged with African culture, language, history and literature for half my lifetime—but that doesn’t mean I know anything at all, as Dr. Urban-Mead suggests below, that despite her 25 years of learning about and teaching about Africa, “I still don’t think I know very much about that part of the world, after all that.”

While I don’t think we transformed the conversation as much as I would have liked, or as Dr. Ndlovu rightfully insisted we should, I hope this conversation is a step forward.

–Jessica Powers, publisher, Catalyst Press

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If we look at the history of literature in Africa, what are some of the trajectories that we can name and see to understand its path through to modern-day publishing?

Kwasi Konadu: One of the trajectories is the production of “African” literature outside of Africa through “Western” presses, large and small. In recent years, these publishing houses have independently or through agreements with Africa-based publishers taken striking notice of writers of African origins—whether they live in Nigeria, Ghana, England or the United States. I’m thinking of Chimamanda Adichie, Taiye Selasi, Teju Cole, Yaa Gyasi, among others.

The commercial success of these individuals, often writing as part of a diaspora, for an audience outside of a land of birth or parentage strikes me as a trend to watch with caution. Modern forms of publishing and achieving international success remain tethered to the global academy (for scholars) and multinational presses (for literary writers) housed in the United States and the UK. African literature, if we follow the logic of this trend, will remain dependent on English and on external circuits of knowledge production and valuation. Written literature requires reading publics and an infrastructure to sustain both—here lies the challenge and opportunity for Africa-based publishers and writers.

Of course, I’m not suggesting we try to ignore colonialism’s impact or legacies, but rather I’m interested in how African writers are affirming their sovereign selfhoods and communities.

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What are common themes in African literature related to the historical time-period as we trace a path through the last century or two of literature by Africans and/or about Africa?

Trevor Getz: I think there’s a real question about how to deal with colonialism.  It is appropriately a central subject in the texts of those writing during the colonial era such as the poetry of Okot p’Bitek, the allegorical folktales of Haddis Alemayehu, the novels of Chinua Achebe. Its cultural and linguistic legacy is long, enduring, and deep, as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and others would have us remember.

But I think contemporary writers push back a little bit on the centralizing of colonialism as entirely dislocative and as a dominant theme in histories of Africa.  For me, one of the most exciting trends has been the literary exploration of Africa before and without colonialism, whether Zakes Mda’s The Sculptors of Mapungubwe or Ayesha Harruna Attah’s The Hundred Wells of Salaga. Conversely, Afrofuturism’s promise of an African future, and not necessarily an idyllic one, that is not centrally colonial––I’m thinking here of writers like Suyi Davies Okungbowa or Nnedi Okorafor.  Of course, I’m not suggesting we try to ignore colonialism’s impact or legacies, but rather I’m interested in how African writers are affirming their sovereign selfhoods and communities.

Lizzy Attree: I agree, Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu is a brilliant example of a Ugandan novel that completely de-centers the colonial encounter.

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The oral tradition is strong across the African diaspora, so what are the ways that tradition has been made visible in written form? Is there a particular way of writing that signals/honors its roots in the oral?

Trevor Getz: Personally, I think that the oral lends itself to representation in comic form—a medium that allows for empathic engagement with the subjects of study, and that also allows for seamlessly moving between the past and the present visually and textually.  But I am deeply impressed by Dr. Kwasi Konadu’s deep and respectful engagement orality in  Our Way In This Part of the World. In his communography of Nana Kofi Dɔnkɔ. Working with orality is tough for historians, because while we have developed methods like the oral history interview to gather information, these are often quite far removed from oral culture as it is lived as an embedded practice.  Kwasi, and some other scholars, push for us to understand these practices on their own terms.

Kwasi Konadu: I do think there are ways to communicate the oral in written form. Look no further than codified or written versions of the Sunjata epic. But I wonder, whether in scribal or graphic form, if either escape the mere transcribing or translation of the oral into fixed forms. The oral is performed in a textured moment, in an ecology of living and immaterial beings; I’m not sure the best ways of writing can or should capture these experienced parcels of the oral.

The oral is performed in a textured moment, in an ecology of living and immaterial beings; I’m not sure the best ways of writing can or should capture these experienced parcels of the oral.

In either case, authors such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in A Grain of Wheat and Amos Tutuola in The Palm-Wine Drunkard have been successful in using so-called oral traditions in crafting their stories. And historians of Africa have profited from the oral not only toward understanding the societies which they study but also in communicating their lifeways to readers living in different cultural and political contexts. An ongoing challenge for writers, historians included, revolves around oral literature produced in non-European languages in written form, and how these should figure into the global lore. While we can and should celebrate African writers whose written work in French or Portuguese finds an outlet in English translation, what about African writers working with oral materials and producing in African languages?

Wendy Urban-Mead: Thinking about orality and trying to render it in written form, a couple of things come to mind. When Joshua Nkomo died in July of 1999, his praises were sung by Pathisa Nyathi. Nyathi is imbongi—a praise singer. He is also a historian, educator, cultural heritage keeper, journalist, and more. One can read the printed praise poem for Nkomo. But listening to it with the ears was an entirely different matter—a different medium. The message enters consciousness not through the eyes. There is resonant nuance and power. It becomes possible to begin to perceive the enormity of the man being praised.

Then I think back in time and northward, to Malawi, and the recorded songs of men who were in the Carrier Corps (Kariakor) during the First World War. Melvin Page worked with several others to interview a host of veterans. In each interview, they asked, “Do you have a song from your time in the war that you remember?” Many of them did, and sang them for the recorder. One can read them in The Chiwaya War Stories, volumes 1 & 2. But what did those songs sound like? I am tantalized and frustrated by reading those verses on a paper book page.

Bwerani ku Manda
Nya Banda zanga uzindito
Nya Mbewe zanga uzindito
Ndabwera ku Manda
Come to Manda
Miss Banda come and get me
Miss Mbewe come and get me
I’ve come from Manda[1]

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One of the sayings we tend to emphasize during #readingAfrica is “African literature is not a genre.” What are some of the problematic ways people around the globe understand “Africa” and what are the historical roots of that?

Holly Y. McGee: Africa is erroneously stigmatized in the global imaginary as a backward and benighted monolith, and the diverse and extensive histories of the Continent have been based on oversimplified, fixed assumptions justified with inequitable social systems that aid in the perpetuation of widespread, false information. The racist speculations, examinations, postulations and perceptions of English and Anglo-American explorers that influenced Western intellectual traditions regarding Africa from the moment of initial contact are detailed in Winthrop Jordan’s seminal work White Over Black, which was first published in 1968 and is still recognized as a “classic” in the field of colonial slavery.

Sadly, hyperbole and outright fiction supplanted the truths of the Continent and obscured its realities (i.e. thriving ancient empires, advanced weaponry, extensive trade networks and complex bureaucratic systems) from the trans-Atlantic world, paving the way for generations of subjugation and continued exploitation.  What is more important than the past roots of the polemic ways in which people understand Africa, however, are the ways in which we must commit to re-educating ourselves and future generations in an effort to make ignorance of Africa history.

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Can you probe the use of “African” as a descriptor or adjective. The whole point of this event is to point out that African lit isn’t one thing, but as you all know, “Africa” and “African” often gets flattened into one thing. What are some of the ways that you’ve seen writers and illustrators push back against this?

Holly Y. McGee: Well-known children’s book authors like Margy Burns Knight, Margaret Musgrove, Page McBrier, and Muriel Feelings, have undertaken efforts to highlight the very regional and linguistic diversities which belie generalizations of “Africa,” displaying the myriad traditions, images, and cultural patterns unique to the locales about which they craft their stories. The incredible diversity of the 50+ independent nations of the Continent is unmistakable in their work and that of other authors and illustrators determined to encourage knowledgeable distinctions between that independent work and needs of African nations.

Beyond language, what does it mean to decolonize African Literature?

Wendy Urban-Mead. I have spent 25-plus years reading about, visiting, writing about, talking with people from, South Africa and Zimbabwe. I still don’t think I know very much about that part of the world, after all that. Why does the American academy think I am an Africanist, and can teach about Ghana or Nigeria? I’ve done it, of course. Because the “Modern Africa Survey” requires it. But every time, I feel irritable, and shoehorned into a category that did not come from “Africa” itself.

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Some African writers (like Ngūgī wa Thiongo) choose to write only in an indigenous language. This may limit their audience worldwide but provide political and cultural satisfaction for the writer and perhaps their audience. Can you talk about the historical and cultural desire to decolonize literature? How about in the academy?

Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: First of all, I would like to state that I will be answering most questions not as an erstwhile academic but as someone who lives and writes in the global South because I think that how we think about Africa and African Literature has everything to do with not only our personal positionality but also with where we are positioned in the world.

While I understand the multiple viewpoints expressed in the decades-old “the language of African Literature debate” between Ngugi wa Thiongo, Chinua Achebe et al., I often think there are nuances that go unexplored when people think through this issue. For instance, if, on some parts of the continent, people first encountered their languages in written form through translations of the Bible, that is, through a tool of colonization, does writing in an African indigenous language automatically mean that one is decolonizing literature? Beyond language, what does it mean to decolonize African Literature?

Lizzy Attree: I think the answer Siphiwe has given to the age old Ngugi language question is perfect. There are so many issues around languages that were not only learnt in written form through the bible, but also transcribed in written alphabets and phonemes through western interlocutors in the former colonies in the first place. This has been fruitful in many ways (I’m thinking of isi-xhosa newspapers which have since sadly disappeared in the Eastern Cape in the 1900s).

But what do we do then with orality, or as Charles Mungoshi said to me once (when a song in one of his short stories was transcribed in English as ‘nonsense song’), “These are songs my grandmother sang to me—I cannot explain to you what it means in English directly.” He then sang to me (he was a little drunk). I still have the recording and the transcription was published in the JRB recently, but I cannot explain or understand his words, only naively remember what I felt hearing him sing. As Mukoma wa Ngugi says of the Tizita, it contains an archive of 200,000 years of human emotion. Do we even need to access these things intellectually? Are there other ways in which we can share orality?

Do we even need to access these things intellectually? Are there other ways in which we can share orality?

At the Kiswahili Prize I can talk of how we are trying to re-center African languages as part of African literature and make Kiswahili a world language (UNESCO has just announced there will be a world Kiswahili day in July 2022), but decolonizing African literature is another exercise altogether.  A man I met at a literary event in London last week said he’d reviewed plenty of manuscripts by white writers writing about Kenya and considered Kiswahili a “lingua-franca” as he put it and was shocked when I said it has hundreds of years of history dating back to the Omani caliphates on the east coast of Africa and is akin to Arabic as well as of course Bantu languages in so many ways.  Why was this man even reviewing Kenyan manuscripts?!!? Of course I couldn’t say this directly to him, but I hope he went away and looked into what Kiswahili really is, the dialects, the kimvita poetry, etc. etc.

Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: Lizzy, I really love the Charles Mungoshi anecdote, there is so much personality that comes through in that story. I also like the idea of a “nonsense song” because for me it points towards Eduoard Glissant’s idea of opacity. While the word “nonsense” is derogative, the real question is for whom does this song not make sense? Obviously for Mungoshi, his grandmother and the ‘Shona’ language (Karanga, Zezuru, Korekore, Manyika or Ndau etc) group they belonged to, the song made plenty of sense.

For example, I know that within the isiNdebele oral tradition in which I grew up, some of the songs our grandmothers taught us were to give us a certain facility with the language, for instance, to teach us how to make q, x and c sounds. The songs were constructed in order to be memorable and fun and not necessarily to make “sense” beyond that point. Given the context within which these songs were created, I believe they have “the right to opacity” beyond that context. Let translations into English call them “nonsense” if they must, we (those of us who speak the language) know what those songs are, what they “mean” and what they are used for and that is ultimately what matters most and is important.

All this speaks to the point that Kwasi Konado made earlier when he said, “I’m not sure the best ways of writing can or should capture these experienced parcels of the oral.”

When we think of how determined the colonial project was to order things, render everything knowable, and ascribe meaning to things then, perhaps, this opacity can also be used productively within a decolonization project.

To my mind there is something inherently, perhaps not “decolonial,” but definitely “uncolonial” and “uncolonizable” about this ability of the song to make itself untranslatable into English. When we think of how determined the colonial project was to order things, render everything knowable, and ascribe meaning to things then, perhaps, this opacity can also be used productively within a decolonization project.

Trevor Getz:  I may be wrong, but, to me, this question reflects the recognition of the necessary division between the decolonizing projects of global north and south (to be approximate). Decolonizing in the global north is a project wrapped up heavily in the specific racial supremacy problem we have created.  As such, we struggle to conscientize an audience that is broadly ignorant of Africa, aware of African livelihoods, perspectives, lived experiences, hopes and dreams, creativities, intellectualisms. We do so in part, we probably must admit, to hold a mirror up to our own society and push resolutions for our own problems. This project, however, would probably not be meaningful (in truth) to decolonization in Africa, where of course everyone is an expert in being African and does not need us to inform them.

Again, I offer this submission with humility, but I see the divide frequently in efforts to “decolonize the curriculum” in the US/UK, efforts that are only very loosely connected to African decolonization efforts that have in their focus the much more everyday presence of colonial legacies.

I’m not rejecting the commonalities, of course, and I recognize US settler colonialism.  But in the case of “African history and literature,” the north and south decolonizing projects are not really the same.

Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: Although I do not particularly like labels, to be honest, when I stepped away from academia a few years ago I did so as a postcolonialist invested in the histories (mostly cultural and social) of Africa and its diasporas and so I am responding to your response from that vantage point. I struggle to understand why there has to be a “necessary division” between the decolonizing projects from the global south and north and why in the always already globalized world in which we live these projects cannot be one project that speaks to a global audience about both “racial supremacy” and the “everyday presence of colonial legacies,” especially since these things are obviously linked.

I understand that you are saying that the specific racial supremacy problem has led to a lack of knowledge not only about other parts of the world and other communities within the zones of that racial supremacy and that it is then the work of the decolonizing project in the global north to educate the inheritors of that supremacy and those who have lived under it about what that supremacy has done beyond the pervasive narrative of its greatness and to begin to right some of the many wrongs of that idea of supremacy.

21st-century African writers, although forging ahead into previously uncharted territory, are often traveling down familiar roads and all that is really changing now is how certain institutions are coming to understand and depict that journey.

However, I don’t understand why this decolonizing project cannot be connected to the one that seeks to expose the “everyday presence of colonial legacies,” legacies which are very rooted in the idea of white supremacy. I don’t understand why in this decolonizing project, the world needs to continue to be divided along the very lines created by the very thing (white supremacy) that it is trying to move beyond.

I am not being intentionally obtuse, I am genuinely trying to understand how the “necessary division” leads us forward productively.

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The trend away from postcolonial fiction to everything from Afropolitanism, historical fiction and African futurism has broadened the range of stories that are considered “African”—can you comment on this diversification and its benefits for African writers? Along those lines, many African writers are now frequently indulging in genre-specific fiction—crime, romance, etc. How can these genres allow for a greater and broader understanding of the continent’s history and culture and diversity?

Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: I particularly like these two questions because they help illuminate one of the central issues within discussions about African literatures. The questions are posed as though African writers are doing things that they have not done before or moving into more global trends or moving away from more “traditional” forms of storytelling (usually the oral tradition) when really what is happening is that the people who categorize and label literatures (who are usually never the writers themselves) in order to publish/sell books and teach literatures are the ones who determine how they will label the literature. In other words, like most writers in the world, African writers write, and their work gets categorized by others.

Therefore, when looking at what is currently happening within the world of African literatures, I think we need to flip the focal point of the questions. Was this diversification not always there? Haven’t African writers been writing genre-specific fiction for decades now? If the answer to both questions is, yes, then the question is why did the people who publish/sell books and teach literatures not provide these categories or explore them more fully before? Why did they not see them and/or why were they not invested in showcasing these categories? What made some categories more difficult to sell and/or teach? Why was it necessary (at a certain moment in history) to not present the full diversity of African literatures? How can this help us think productively about ways to move beyond the power structures within these institutions (publishing and academia) that not only limit what African literatures are, but, all too often, also what they can do?

Wole Talabi et al have shown that African speculative fiction can be traced all the way back to the oral tradition. Some writers writing in colonial or indigenous languages were very much aware that they were writing genre-specific literature because they had been inspired by genre-specific writers. For instance, some crime writers were influenced by the works of Agatha Christie etc., and those who wrote thrillers, by the works of James Hadley Chase etc. Macmillan’s popular, pan-African Pacesetters series that began in the late 1970s exposed readers to all kinds of genres. All of this is to say that 21st-century African writers, although forging ahead into previously uncharted territory, are often traveling down familiar roads and all that is really changing now is how certain institutions are coming to understand and depict that journey.

In short, I think these questions and concerns tell us more about the industries and institutions in which African literatures circulate than they do about the writings and efforts of the African writers themselves, which is also very illuminating.

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Literacy in Africa is always a challenge, though some organizations seek to solve it through book donations and/or use of digital technologies for book access. What are some of the inherent challenges to these approaches? What are ways we could improve current approaches?

Lizzy Attree: The inherent problem with donating books is the same as donating clothes. Outdated and unwanted books that flood the African market firstly means that people only get access to low quality materials that have been cast off by someone else. This is not always the case, but when the books are current, the donations also take the bottom out of the book market. How can booksellers and publishers afford to compete with free books? The altruistic intention is admirable but resources might better be spent elsewhere. Investing in African publishers and selling rights separately into African markets so that books can be produced competitively locally rather than imported.

Digital access is a slightly different issue, and Worldreader and others have made some good donations, I think, getting solar powered e-readers to school children. I do worry however that authors are not best served by cheap access to their work—royalties are small at the best of times—ensuring authors are paid for their creative work is another issue to be addressed, as is the production and translation of books in local languages so that mother tongue education can thrive. Otherwise donated books in English simply contribute to further colonization of minds.

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What’s a book by an African writer that you regularly recommend people to read?

Trevor Getz:  I have recommended Suyi Davies Okungbowa’s David Mogo Godhunter to a dozen friends and colleagues. I don’t know what genre to place it in—fantasy? Science fiction? Afrofuturism? Crime?—thus proving the inappropriateness of genres. It is, however, a fantastic adventure in a well-conceived world built de novo by the author.  The characters, whether gods or mortals or in-between, are compelling, and it’s ridiculously unobtainable in the US in particular.

Lizzy Attree: I always recommend Butterfly Burning by Yvonne Vera but also now add Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift, as well as Marlene van Niekirk’s Agaat. Plus The Rosewater Trilogy by Tade Thompson.

Kwasi Konadu: I often recommend Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Healers and The Beautiful Ones are Not Yet Born. Set within newly independent Ghana, the latter is well-known and brings the sounds and smells of corruption and so-called postcolonial life into sharp view, while The Healers is an under-the-radar book and perhaps Armah’s best work, because of its intimacy of details and because its themes hinge on confronting the tyranny of empires—both local and global—as well as power people have within and in unity.

Wendy Urban-Mead: I have assigned Ngugi’s Dreams in a Time of War several times now. My positionality is in the U.S., in North America, teaching future secondary school history teachers, and undergraduates taking history classes. Nearly all are *not* majoring in Africana Studies. The lack of knowledge about anything from Africa is enormous. It’s an ocean of not-knowing. We have to start somewhere. I am thankful that there are texts in English, that let us get started. They read Dreams in a Time of War, alongside the letters of “Lily Moya,” which appear in Not Either an Experimental Doll. Students ask outstanding, penetrating, painful questions about language, text mediation, audience, colonialism, the impact of missions, and gender. They can’t emerge from reading these two texts with a unitary, uncomplicated tale of “colonial schooling” and “Africa.” They realize that “traditional” means a host of things. They cannot help but see that learning to read can be mind-closing, an extension of hegemonic suffocation—or mind-opening, world-opening, and somehow also all of a piece with the orally rendered stories heard around the fire at night from grandmothers, older siblings, and aunties.

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Dr. Lizzy Atree is the co-founder of the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature. She has a PhD from SOAS, University of London and Blood on the Page, her collection of interviews with the first African writers to write about HIV and AIDS from Zimbabwe and South Africa, was published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in 2010. She is a Director on the board of Short Story Day Africa and a trustee of Wasafiri magazine. She was the Director of the Caine Prize from 2014 to 2018. In 2015, she taught African literature at Kings College, London and has since taught at Goldsmiths College and now teaches World and Contemporary London Literature at Richmond, the American International University in London. She is the Producer of ‘Thinking Outside the Penalty Box’, an African Footballers project partnering with Chelsea and Arsenal, funded by Arts Council England and supported by the Poetry Society, and a freelance writer, reviewer and critic, recently featured in Africa Is A Country and The Conversation Africa.

Dr. Trevor Getz is a historian of Africa and the world whose interests include history education, comics in history, and other popular ways of thinking about the past. Most of Getz’s work revolves around issues surrounding gender and slavery in West Africa. He is the principle content manager for the World History Project, series editor for the Oxford University Press’s Uncovering History series, and collaborating on the history for the 21st Century Project.  Intensely interested in the possibilities of participatory research and the democratic classroom, he also collaborates on depicting West African pasts in video, Lego, and comics.

Dr. Kwasi Konadu is John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Endowed Chair and Professor at Colgate University, where he teaches courses in African history and on worldwide African histories and cultures. With extensive archival and field research in West Africa, Europe, Brazil, the Caribbean, and North America, his writings focus on African and African diasporic histories, as well as major themes in world history. He is the author of Our Own Way in This Part of the World: Biography of an African Community, Culture, and Nation (Duke University Press, 2019), (with Clifford Campbell) The Ghana Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Duke University Press, 2016), Transatlantic Africa, 1440-1888 (Oxford University Press, 2014), The Akan Diaspora in the Americas (Oxford University Press, 2010), among other books.A father and husband first and foremost, Konadu is also a healer (Tanɔ ɔbosomfoɔ) who studied with his grandfather in Jamaica and then in Takyiman (central Ghana) as well as a publisher of scholarly books about African world histories and cultures through Diasporic Africa Press.

Dr. Holly McGee specializes in U. S. History and African American History, with an emphasis on black women’s intellectual history, comparative political activism in the United States and South Africa, and popular culture in the twentieth century.  Her secondary specialties include local histories of the American South, South African women’s history, and oral histories.  Currently, Dr. McGee teaches at the University of Cincinnati. Dr. McGee’s first manuscript, Radical Antiapartheid Internationalism and Exile: The Life of Elizabeth Mafeking is a biographical oral history of Elizabeth Mafeking—a recognized South African women’s leader and trade union president identified by white civic and political leaders in 1959 as the head of “the most militant trade union in the country.” As a case study of radical, working-class consciousness in Apartheid politics, the manuscript demonstrates how Mafeking and others helped to craft a language of activist rights for black women in South Africa, and advances discussions regarding women, gender, and family in South Africa while exploring banning and exile as lost spaces of historical analysis and inquiry.  Dr. McGee’s most recent article, “Before the Window Closed: Internationalism, Crossing Borders, and Reaching Out to Sisters Across the Seas,”  reflects a return to and expansion of her earlier comparative work, which was focused on the radical social and political activism of black women in the United States and South Africa in the mid-twentieth century.  The article posits four women—two South African and two American—whose ideological and organizational connections extended far beyond their own national borders and helped to change contemporary ideas regarding the supposed place of black women in national and international protests.

Dr. Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu is a writer, filmmaker and academic who holds a PhD in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University, as well as master’s degrees in African Studies and Film from Ohio University. Her debut novel, The Theory of Flight, published in North America by Catalyst Press in 2021, won the 2019 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize in South Africa. She is also the author of The History of Man, which will be published in North America in January 2022.

Wendy Urban-Mead is an educator and a historian of southern Africa. After teaching high school history for five years, she acquired a PhD in African History from Columbia University. She teaches Global and African history for the Master of Arts in Teaching Program at Bard College, and with the Bard Prison Initiative. She is the author of several scholarly articles and of The Gender of Piety: Family, Faith and Colonial Rule in Matabeleland Zimbabwe (Ohio University Press, 2015.) She is working on a curriculum on Africans and the First World War for use by advanced secondary and college teachers, to be published with 21st Century Project.

[1] Sam Kamanga, interview with Melvin page, translated by C. M. Manda, 4 August 1973, Chirungulu Village, Malawi, in Melvin Page, ed., Chiwaya War Voices: Malawian Oral Histories of the Great War in Africa, vol 2 (The Great War in Africa Association, 2021), p. 539.






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