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  • Ralph Bunche and African Studies: Reflections on the Politics of Knowledge
  • Pearl T. Robinson (bio)

“The dominant force in modern Africa is that of change.” These words, penned by Ralph Bunche in his 1934 doctoral dissertation (72), prefigured the ethos of what would come to be called, by the 1950s, the new field of African studies. Bunche’s thesis, written for Harvard’s Department of Government, offered a comparative analysis of French colonial administration in Dahomey (a colony under French rule) and Togoland (a League of Nations Mandate administered by France). His treatment of the subject wove together debates about colonial administration, race relations, and the responsibilities of the international community toward dependent peoples and non-self-governing territories—with the ultimate goal of producing a [End Page 1] work of both academic and policy relevance. As a fundamental principle, Bunche insisted that the study of Africa should not be divorced from the study of the larger sweep of world history and global change because “the African is exposed to the pressure of forces of an outside world which is itself in process of transformation” (1934:73). Moreover, in a stance that was unusual for its time, Bunche set out to study Africa from the perspective of the African.

As we pause to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the African Studies Association (ASA) in the United States, real world events are once again forcing scholars concerned with the continent to take seriously the notion that our work should have both academic and policy relevance. The human rights theme of this year’s annual program, as well as issues addressed in the featured round tables and plenary sessions—issues such as China’s new Africa policy, the United Nation’s Millennium Development Villages, and reparations for the slave trade—reflect the ASA’s commitment to providing a space where producers of basic knowledge about Africa can meet and exchange views with civic engagement communities and policymakers.

The ASA at fifty now has a deeper appreciation for the fact that it is important not only to study Africa from the perspective of the African, but also to take the time necessary to listen to African perspectives, and to give a megaphone to a broad spectrum of African voices at our annual meetings. The Bashorun M. K. O. Abiola Lecture and the Women’s Caucus Lecture are now institutionalized as platforms for inviting distinguished African speakers to address the ASA. This year’s Current Issues Plenary featured African perspectives on U.S. policy toward the continent. The Social Science Research Council brought together a panel of African public intellectuals to discuss the situation in Darfur. And an ASA Board–sponsored roundtable assessing the legacy of Kofi Annan provided an opportunity to hear from several distinguished African diplomats with long experience at the United Nations. If Ralph Bunche were alive today, I dare say he would be here with us, reflecting on Africa’s trials and triumphs, analyzing the various mechanisms of globalization, and urging us to amplify the many and varied African voices for peace, development, and global equity.

Let’s flash back for a moment to March 1957. Had it not been for the pull of historic events on the African continent, Ralph Bunche might well have been present for the ASA’s founding meeting here in New York City. After all, he worked just down the street at the United Nations secretariat. But the Suez crisis had erupted a few months earlier, and Bunche was overseeing the practical arrangements for setting up a U.N. Emergency Force (the first peacekeeping operation of its kind) in Gaza. On route to the Middle East, he stopped in Accra to represent the United Nations at the independence ceremonies of the Gold Coast (Ghana) on March 7, 1957. There, among the many dignitaries, pan-Africanists, and civil rights activists, [End Page 2] Bunche saw his old friend and fellow academic Melville Herskovits of Northwestern University. After the festivities Herskovits left for New York to attend the formal launch of the ASA and was named the association’s first president. Bunche flew to the Gaza Strip and on to Cairo for negotiations with...


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