Guest Post: On Not Looking Like an Expert: Being Black and Doing Research in Africa, White People’s Historical and Theoretical Turf

[Footnotes is excited to present a guest post by Ampson Hagan. Ampson Hagan is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and is currently living in Niger. He studies race-encoded idioms of healthcare deservingness and Black migrants’ subjectivities around humanitarian care in the Sahara. His writing has appeared in Africa is a Country and Fieldsites. On Twitter: @SAmpson_No_S. Please cite accordingly.]

Being Black, but not understood as Black in the same way as many of the people born and raised in Indigenous communities on the African continent are understood, has complicated my identity here in Niger. Being Black American and doing research in Africa (especially francophone Africa) is fraught with racial slights and misunderstandings. Black Africans are often surprised when I tell them I am from the United States; however, it is how Whites in francophone Africa respond to my presence that reveals a lot about their racist conceptions of my origin, my French-speaking ability, and my research acumen. The mobilization of these dangerous ideas is part and parcel of White gate-keeping of African knowledge production, which ironically, excludes Black scholars like me.

Representations of Blackness and their relations to people’s expectations of it often require recalibration when the context in which that Blackness was developed (e.g. the cultural-political rubric of the US) changes. I am curiously Black in Niger and my nationality requires some explanation.  Being both Black and American in Niger is not common and I often get the impression that people are surprised at that revelation. The same is true when I tell people that I am Black American and a doctoral student doing research in Africa. I don’t look like a doctoral student and people have intimated as such.

My research in the Sahara negotiates the contestations of race and non-race that by and large fail to gain the attention of considerable scholarly treatment (in the US or in this region). Thus, my project, stretching across the Niger-Algeria border in the desert, attempts to articulate the various race-projects in play and at stake in the rapidly securitized region. Niger is enforcing European Union (EU) anti-migration policies that simultaneously protect European extractive enterprises in the region.

While doing research in Algiers in 2017, I briefly stayed in a Catholic convent where I regularly sat for dinner with a dozen other guests. Many were White French folks and others were Algerians and Tunisians—who were almost exclusively historians and other researchers, journalists, NGO workers or attachés of some embassy—all of whom were in Algiers at this convent to probably get a cheap meal to eat and a quiet place to sleep.

The French dinner bell, a loud “À table!” for everyone to hear, brought folks to the long dinner table each night. At each dinner “nous avions faire le tour” or each person at the table introduced themselves. Whenever it was my turn, I dreaded the curious but rebuking and disapproving eyes that fixated on my skin, my face and my locs as I mouthed each word of my introduction…my voice feeling small and my tongue dry.  Sure, I got a slight tinge of pleasure when I saw their eyes light up at the sound of my “beautiful” French accent and solid command of the language. When I said I was from the US, the table was shocked.

I have come to expect that response over the years, both from speaking French to folks in the US and in France, as well as during my time doing research in various francophone African countries. Many French speakers are surprised that someone from the US could speak French. Often, the White French people I meet (along with other White foreigners) assume that my ability to speak French, and essentially mimic the colonial master (Bhabha 1997), is attributable to me coming from a francophone African country or having francophone African parentage.

After my introduction, the White French folks asked that ever-so annoying and dreadful question, “Quel est ton origine?” (“Where are you really from?”). I struggled, I demurred, and I relented answering that my father is Ghanaian. This answer was to satisfy their logic that all Black peoples in non-Black spaces must be “immigrants” or the children of immigrants, thus explaining our presence in these sorts of non-Black or White spaces.

But, when it comes from Black Africans, the question about my origin feels different. I don’t get the same sense of dread as I do when White people ask me about my heritage. What often follows is a subtle questioning of my “ability” when they demand to know, “How I came to speak like they do.”  All this amounts to an interrogation, a phrenological-like analysis to which I am constantly subjected.

I hate this question, but I hated how I responded to it at that table that night. Even though I told them about my father—and I knew this is what they really wanted to know—I was too slow to subvert their assumptions about my origin by revealing my maternal roots with the answer, “Grace à esclavage Euro-Americain, on ne sais pas” (“Thanks to Euro-American slavery, no one knows my origin). Unfortunately, those words never left my mouth; I gave them what they wanted because I was unprepared for the lobotomy. Giving them what they wanted also required omitting the fact that mother is Black American, so as to avoid the subsequent question that often follows the revelation that my mother isn’t African, “Donc, tu est métis?” (“So, you’re mixed, right?”)

Unsurprisingly, but tiresome nonetheless, is that these learned bougie (defined as: uppity and exhibiting middle-class pretentiousness coming from French word bourgeoise) people seemed to have no idea of the reality of Euro-American slavery.  No one at the table, not even the White American sitting across from me (a PhD student in African history at Columbia University), said anything.  I began reflecting on this and I’m sure my dinner companions were probably expecting a migration story like “both of my parents are immigrants from [insert francophone African country here].” They were waiting for evidentiary cultural facts necessary to support their French colonial framework through which they come to understand racial and linguistic performance of “Blackness.” Revisiting this scene, I didn’t want that White PhD student to say anything, to try to translate, or Whitesplain my anger for the historically uninitiated (or ignorant) people at the table. Having a White student of African history attempt to intervene on my behalf would have been tantamount to a palimpsestic attack from which I may have never recovered—where I would resolve to starve, rather than eat at that table again. I’m used to White men “intervening” whenever to exploit any opportunity to display knowledge, but the faux wokeness exhibited by people like him who revert to silent bystander-ism even in the midst of small racial dramas such as this, never ceases to amaze me.

Over and over again, I replay this awful dinner scenario in my mind, where I tell off these assuming French and Algerian folks. It is in my thoughts—and not my memory—where I remind them that much of the Black peoples in the West are descendants of enslaved persons, who are responsible for building the structural and mythical edifices of the very French empire that brought all of us to that dinner table in the first place.

Anthropology and Africa comprise a historically fraught pairing that needs no recap here (Mudimbe 1988; Ekeh 1990; Mafeje 1996). I am not a scholar who participates in the sordid mythical rendering of “Africa” as a wayward, mysterious, dangerous, and magical “place.” Having been in Niger for the last few weeks beginning this phase of my project, I am alarmed and annoyed by the proliferation of Whites who come to Niger and other places in West Africa and claim these countries and their “fieldsites,” as their physical and academic “homes.” They employ tactics of academic or even social boundary-making and gate-keeping, at the exclusion of people like me (see Armory 1997 on the “racial division of labor” in which she discusses how US-based African studies ensure that research about Africa and about Black Africans is principally performed by Whites).

Yes, the Whites (from Europe, the US, and elsewhere) treat me as if I am an intruder in their carefully and aggressively managed historical, anthropological and political space of “Africa” and “African research,” and there is no effort to disabuse me of that feeling. I won’t even get into the crap that I get at academic conferences and talks with White researchers of “Africa” who challenge me on the “objectivity” of my study with racially coded language that goes without reproach or opprobrium. No one defends me from this examination, further evidence that White scholars of Africa consider it appropriate to question a Black person doing research anywhere (or at all). Such questioning and the attendant silence from other scholars content to be passive bystanders, simultaneously attempt to undermine my research/writing acumen without ever having to actually engage with it.

I offer no ways of combatting this annoying, detrimental and exclusionary practice. I have no answers. I try to avoid many of the Whites as much as I can, precisely for this reason, but as they are the gatekeepers, they often remind me of… home: the US. As I write this passage, the complicated feelings associated with my home bubble to the surface, but I will not engage them here. These racial situations around being Black and doing research have forced me start to think more critically about my existence as a researcher here in francophone Africa as a praxis. In Niger, that dinner question I struggled to address comes up as well. French and American expats, NGO workers and embassy officials continue to ask and be amazed at “how well I speak French” precisely because I am a Black person from the US. They expect researchers to be White. No one flips out in surprise at a White French or a White American person doing research on the healing systems of the Tuareg of Niger or on the public discourses on opposition politics in Niamey. But when I show up to do… anything… I am immediately harangued about my existence before anyone can even approach the idea of me doing ethnographic study here. They ask, “How did you learn French?” and “Where do you go to school?” seemingly innocuous questions are actually weaponized racist interrogatives, concealing racisms (Mullings 2005) in the form of questions. “Where are you from?” and “what is your origin?” are probing questions White people use to search for some aspect of my identity and history they can exploit in order to render my racial and academic story through familiar French-colonial explanatory epistemologies.

Questioning like this parallels biological racism, inasmuch as it resembles how racists characterize the mental capacities of Black people as biologically determined compared to Whites who assumedly possess a limitless capacity for acquiring and developing knowledge.

Not only am I an outsider, I am a surprise. I don’t know or care if the gate-keeper Whites like it, but I am starting to enjoy being a “surprise”. Perhaps it reflects a praxis in doing different work. Perhaps being a Black American, and specifically being a Black American here in Niger, is an intervention into racio-normative expectations of Black people and Black aptitude (both in the US and in Africa). It calls attention to questions I have always asked:

1. Why are there so many Whites who come here to do research but only few Blacks come?

  1. Why do most of the White researchers (anthropologists especially) ignore race as a dominant factor or theoretical paradigm through which to analyze Black Africans’ experiences (in Niger and elsewhere)? And why do they only consider theorizations of race as mere coincidental anomalies in the geopolitical and social histories that continue to orient peoples’ everyday lives?The monograph “The Predicament of Blackness” (Pierre 2012) introduced me to Jemima Pierre and Black African scholars who have critiqued how studies of “Africa” practiced by White Western scholars. White scholars tend to give little consideration to race as a theoretical framework to examine how Black Africans live a global racial-capitalist regime to which they are subjected or even how Black Africans experience the many post-colonialisms that exist throughout the continent (Mafeje 1998; Mabokela and Magubane 2004; Mamdani 1990; Zeleza 1997). I am poring through their footnotes to see if and how they encountered issues of race and racial expectations of the researcher, to better understand my own experiences as part of a shared phenomenon of talking to folks about race in Africa while simultaneously being raced as either a Black or a non-White social scientist.

I am still looking, but for now, I will try to continue to theorize how my existence in Niger and in the space of (Western) anthropology conducted within Niger (and Africa more broadly) operates as an intervention into the Whiteness of American- and European-produced African studies. My work makes space for different theoretical claims about Blackness and about Black people’s experiences throughout the African continent. As long as I live here, and especially as I continue to contest people’s expectations of who a social scientist in francophone Africa can look like and be, people I meet will ask me questions about my origin. Now, I feel more comfortable telling people: “Because of Euro-American slavery… I don’t have an answer for you.”

References:

Armory, Deborah. 1997. “African Studies as American Institution.” In Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science, edited by Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bhabha, Homi K. 1997. “Of mimicry and man.” In Tensions of Empire, edited by Frederick Cooper and Anne Stoler. 152-60. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ekeh, Peter P. 1990. “Social anthropology and two contrasting uses of tribalism in Africa”. Comparative Studies in Society and History 32(4): 660-700.

Mabokela, Reitumetse, and Zine Magubane. 2004. Hear Our Voices: Race, Gender and the Status of black South African Women in the Academy. Pretoria: University of South Africa Press.

Mamdani, Mahmood. 1990. “A Glimpse at African Studies, Made in the USA.” CODESRIA Bulletin, no. 2, pp. 7–11.

Mudimbe, Vumbi Yoka. 1988. The invention of Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Mullings, Leith. 2005. Interrogating racism: Toward an antiracist anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology, 34.

Pierre, Jemima. 2012. The predicament of blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the politics of race. University of Chicago Press.

Zeleza, Paul T. 1997. Manufacturing African Studies and Crises. Dakar: CODESRIA.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *