Africa's Deep History Goes to Philadelphia
Method, Theory, and Heritage at AHA23
Do you want to update your syllabus on early African history? Are you interested in learning about new findings in Africa’s cultural history? Do you want to know the current restitution debates about Africa’s cultural objects in Western museums? Are you a newcomer to African history and curious about this storied but often-misunderstood continent?
A diverse menu of topics on African history awaits you at the 136th AHA annual meeting in Philadelphia. Several presentations will showcase how historians use novel interdisciplinary methods, including archaeology, historical linguistics, oral traditions, material culture, and the landscape, to recover the deep-time history of Africa over the past 3,000 years. These bodies of new knowledge help us to appreciate Africa’s contributions to global history and the impacts of the deep-time history on contemporary Africa and the African Diaspora.
Africa has the longest record of human history and one of the most diverse historical experiences in the world. The attributes of human civilizations that have animated historians have an early presence in Africa, making the continent and its people a vast resource for making sense of what makes us human, from philosophy and governance to technological innovations and the arts. Historians of Africa have been at the cutting edge of developing novel interdisciplinary methods for studying this deep history.
More than a dozen presentations in Philadelphia will focus on early African history, especially before the 19th century. Most of these can be found in two sessions that underscore the important contributions that Africanists continue to make to expand and enhance historical methodology and theory. Both are designed to be interactive and audience-focused.
Friday, January 6, 10:30 a.m.–12:00 p.m.
This roundtable showcases recent groundbreaking research on the impacts of West and Central Africa on the Atlantic World, the material history of long-term social and political changes in Central East Africa, the deep-time history of wealth, gender, and authority in Southern Africa, and more than 2000-year ritual and religious history in the Niger-Benue Confluence of Nigeria.
Chair: C. Cymone Fourshey (Bucknell Univ.)
Panel: Gerard Chouin (Coll. of William & Mary)
Yaari Felber-Seligman (City Coll. of New York)
Raevin Jimenez (Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor)
Aribidesi Usman (Arizona State Univ.)
Constanze Weise (Henderson State Univ.)
Saturday, January 7, 10:30 a.m.–12:00 p.m.
In this lightning-round session, six panelists will introduce, in two to three minutes each, how deep-time African ontologies are enriching some of the major concepts and topics in historical writing. Topics will include cosmopolitanism, kingship, wealth, migration, geology, and mental health.
Chair: Nana Osei Quarshie (Yale Univ.)
Panel: Cosmopolitanism, Akin Ogundiran (Univ. of North Carolina, Charlotte)
Kingship, Kathryn M. de Luna (Georgetown Univ.)
Wealth, Rhiannon Stephens (Columbia Univ.)
Migration, C. Cymone Fourshey (Bucknell Univ.)
Geology, Robyn d’Avignon (New York Univ.)
Mental Healing, Nana Osei Quarshie (Yale Univ.)
There are other deep-time Africa presentations in transnational and thematic sessions. These include “The Long African Atlantic,” in the session Language as Archive and Method (Friday, January 6, 3:30–5:00 p.m.). Here, Kathryn M. de Luna (Georgetown Univ.) will use the millennia-long language archives in Africa to explore the intellectual history of enslaved Africans in colonial Brazil, Saint Domingue, and Cuba. Also, in the Archaeoastronomy and History session (Saturday, January 7, 3:30–5:00 p.m.), Olanrewaju Lasisi (Coll. of William & Mary) will utilize early European travel accounts and new archaeological evidence to talk about the history of astronomy in the Yoruba region of Nigeria, focusing on how seasons, time-reckoning, and festival cycles were aligned with the observation and material recording of celestial bodies in the period between the 12th and early 20th centuries.
Innumerable African objects are in hundreds of Western museums and private collections, acquired through the violence of European colonialism and its hegemonic aftermath. The calls are getting louder for these objects to be returned to their countries of origin. On this topic, many conference-goers will find the following session relevant and interesting.
Friday, January 6, 3:30–5:00 p.m.
In this roundtable, chaired by historian Sarah Van Beurden (Ohio State Univ.), curators including Foreman Bandama (Field Museum of Natural History), Ndubuisi Ezeluomba (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts), and Amanda Maples (North Carolina Museum of Fine Art), and restitution scholar Cresa Pugh (New School for Social Research) will discuss the ethical, social justice, political, and practical dimensions of the restitution and return debates. Undoubtedly, the presence of such vast African material archives in Western museums and private collections complicates the study of African history and the role of museums as sites of memory-making and historical education. The insights of these museum experts and scholars will shed new light on how to handle the demands for restitution and return and the implications for the future. This roundtable complements the other sessions and presentations on methods, theories, and practices of African history and how to integrate African experience and ideas into long-term global accounts.
These presentations are just a taste of what you’ll find on African history at AHA23. There are other items on the menu of the 2023 AHA program that explore African history in global and comparative contexts. In this feast of Africa-focused sessions, there is more than enough for everyone in the City of Brotherly Love.
Akin Ogundiran is Chancellor’s Professor and professor of Africana studies, anthropology, and history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is chair of the 2023 AHA annual meeting program committee. He tweets @akin_ogundiran
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