“Africa Imagines: Reversing the Gaze” Student Reflections
Posted in Announcements
2018-2019 Lannan Fellows
The first event I attended was “Corruption Anxiety” led by Dayo Olopade, and the knowledge she shared about worldwide patterns of corruption quickly shifted my perspective on politics and reporting to set the tone for the rest of the symposium. While I like to think that I keep up with the news as I pursue a minor in journalism, Olopade’s description of “the power of perception” as “profound” led me to think about the West-centric lens through which I often view developing stories and even literature. While many members of the press and stories I read do not shy away from calling out Trump and his administration for corruption, I’ll admit prior to Olopade’s speech I had not considered how global measures of corruption might contain bias in favor of the West and against African countries and developing nations. The phrase, “conventional analysis of corruption is incomplete at best and racial profiling at worst” left me thinking about how institutions could perpetuate the inequality stemming from multiple forms of corruption by not offering an accurate measure of the problem. More broadly, I enjoyed the humor that Olopade brought to her speech, and how well she managed to engage the audience with topics that while important, might not always be thought of as exciting. In addition, I appreciated how Olopade ended her speech with solutions to combating corruption. I especially liked the piece of advice about “refusing to wait for laws when norms will do.” The structure of the talk, beginning with the problem and ending with solutions, helped end on an optimistic note for what could have been a negative topic, which also left me impressed.
While listening to “America as the Other,” I found myself continuing to reflect on the idea of America’s unique past and the ability of narrative to reshape its native people’s history as that of the other. As someone who loves literature and stories, I always admired the ability of narrative to transport the reader, listener, or viewer into another’s perspective and usually to generate empathy. However, this made me consider the change that the prominence distorted narratives, or art reflecting a distorted perspective, could have on history or the perception of the present. I found it very problematic to think about how Africa does not participate in the “Western gaze” as the West created it. During the question and answer section, I was troubled by some of the real consequences of art and representation that I had not given much thought to before, particularly how distance can act as a vehicle to increase violence, with the example of drone warfare in recent years supporting the notion. Prior to this point, I had not given much thought to the connection between the presentation of nations or politics in the news and the power of art, but this made me realize how much both topics overlapped. Although the former might be attempting to convey reality while the latter is fiction, works of art influence how people see the world around them and relate to people that might otherwise be perceived as different, which gives it immense value.
Looking back on the final event, I want to start by saying that I understand exactly why Dr. Dambisa Moyo was chosen as the keynote speaker. I went in excited, but curious as to how I would apply her ideas to literature and art. At the start of her speech I noted her quote, “The view from the periphery is sometimes the clearest there is,” which I have tried to keep in mind while not only reading the news over the past days but reflecting on the fiction I read and the impact it makes on my understanding of people and their values. Over the course of her speech and the question and answer session, Dr. Moyo covered a broad range of material that at times left me feeling overwhelmed by the scope of the problems facing our world and the difficulty in finding tangible solutions. Yet despite the heavy nature of the subject matter, I found myself hanging on every word she had to say and appreciated learning about how the West has contributed to both problems relating to poverty in the developing world and the challenges that threaten to affect everyone in the not-so-distant future. What stood out to me the most was the emphasis she placed on representation to avoid solving for the wrong problems. Afterwards I thought back to the discussion of the importance of art in constructing narratives to tell how the world is during “America as the Other,” which has prompted me to pay closer attention to how strongly location can influence perspective and the narrowness present in my own point-of-view.
The Lannan Symposium exceeded my already high expectations; the panelists were stellar and I learned so much I hadn’t known or thought about before.
The first event I attended was the opening keynote by Dr. Gus Casely-Hayford. It was amazing to learn about Timbuktu, a place I had only heard about from the joked-about saying regarding Timbuktu being this distant place. Dr. Casely-Hayford painted this vibrant picture of Timbuktu as a central city, thriving with culture, history, and scholarly activity; this made the portion of his lecture on its repeated raiding all the more poignant. When he brought up that the cultural destruction of Timbuktu’s was very intentional, and that this intentionality reflects the power of heritage, I was really stunned. I hadn’t thought about it before, but Dr. Casely-Hayford’s lecture really made me realize the gravity of cultural destruction. Another historical aspect of Dr. Casely-Hayford’s lecture that I found fascinating was his discussion of Africa’s involvement in the World Wars, and some of the paradoxes involved there. Other takeaways I drew from this speech were that I now really want to visit the Smithsonian Museum of African Art again and look at the art with a lens like that of Dr. Casely-Hayford, and that I will most definitely be watching “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu” when it comes out!
The next event I went to was Decolonizing the Mind: Country, Campus, Canon, with Mukoma Wa Ngugo, Tope Folarin, April Sizemore-Barber, and moderation by Cóilín Parsons. First, I want to say that I found Tope Folarin SUPER quotable, and I wrote down so many of his quotes in my notes because he just articulated complex ideas so concisely and so well. I also thought that Folarin’s personal experience with the institution of higher education was just such a perfect example of why higher education and capitalism need to be decolonized and reformed (or in the case of the latter, perhaps replaced entirely). For those who didn’t attend, Folarin described a time when his school was honoring an executive at Coca Cola, and that during the questions portion of this ceremony, he asked this executive about Coca Cola’s theft (my word) of South African water and consequent use of it to create and sell this unhealthy, unnecessary carbonated beverage. Folarin said that shortly after this event, he lost a large part of his college scholarship and could not afford housing nor a meal plan because of it; he said that this experience was formative in his journey to receiving the Rhodes scholarship, created in the honor of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes, which he noted was ironic. Folarin’s situation made me think about how capitalism creates desperation, then comes up with these performative attempts to alleviate it. On this general topic, Folarin commented that it is “comfortable and warm in the belly of the beast”, something that says a lot about the current state of affairs both in the United States and in South Africa. Other takeaways I got from this panel were learning about Rhodes Must Fall from April Sizemore-Barber, the idea from Mukoma Wa Ngugo regarding what institutions that used slavery (like Georgetown) owe the places from which they took slaves (places that, to this day, may be in a state of disrepair, such as Keta, the example he gave), and in general, the growing presence of India and China on the continent, something I had no idea was happening. Overall, this panel was extremely insightful, and gave me a lot of ideas regarding capitalism, colonization, and South Africa to think about.
The last event I attended was Lessons in Democracy, featuring Dayo Olopade and David Smith, moderated by Tope Folarin. One of the topics that struck me in this panel was the discussion of the impeachment of the South African president – it was interesting to hear that this was accomplished by grassroots organizations, and it definitely seems like a good lesson in democracy for America to take note of. I also LOVED Dayo Olopade’s insight from her piece “American Shithole” on leadership on the continent, noting that the men who lead many of the more problem-ridden African countries are men who have leadership characteristics like Donald Trump. Her commentary on the recent 737 crash was also brilliant, and her note that the crash is Boeing’s fault, and that America really has the strongly undemocratic system of outsourcing plane inspections to the private American companies who make the planes, has haunted me since. The panelists’ discussions on the many undemocratic institutions present in America (such as the aforementioned, the electoral college, Citizens United, and more), and how these institutions would most certainly be criticized more heavily by the West were they present in Africa, was also hugely insightful. Once again, this panel was hugely informative, and since this panel I have followed more African news sites in an effort to learn more about what is going on on the continent as well as see more African perspectives on African and global issues. Writing this has also reminded me to read the aforementioned Olopade piece!
Overall, I LOVED listening to all of the brilliant speakers over the course of the symposium, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to attend.
I thoroughly enjoyed all the of the thought-provoking and engaging panels I went to as part of Africa Imagines: Reversing the Gaze. The first event I attended was Dr. Gus Casely-Hayford’s keynote address on Monday evening. I particularly enjoyed the ways in which Dr. Casely-Hayford framed discussions of African art. Particularly, his close readings of William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress and Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon as two bookends–pre- and post-Enlightentment–was such an insightful way to point out the ways in which Western art has both relied upon and objected Africa under its gaze, and how Africa might reverse this process. Casely-Hayford’s discussion of the reunited Mbembe figures was particularly moving, and spoke to the ways that art, art historians, and the curatorial process can help to cohere and recapture fragmented histories.
The next panel I attended was “Lessons in Democracy,” with Dayo Olopade, David Smith, and Tope Folarin. Beginning with the ideas of “institutions”–as overarching structures, as imaginative creations, and as potential safeguards against human weakness–this conversation wove together experiences in Africa and in America to suggest the ever-present potential in “liberal” and “democratic” societies to conjure up the sources of their own undoing. I really enjoyed Olopade’s discussion of institutions as ideas, as forms of collective belief; she noted that “We need more expansive and legitimate imaginations” for our institutions, which I found to be an apt and prescient diagnosis. Olopade also deconstructed the pejorative ways in which the western gaze tends to position Africa–and how the recent Boeing plan crash reveals the ways in which America, colonization, the post-colonial context, and late capitalism are all the reifying structures that prop up faulty and oppressive narratives surrounding Africa.
The next event I attended was the reading entitled African Futures, with Maaza Mengiste, Tope Folarin, Makena Onjerika, and Mukoma Wa Ngugi. The opportunity to hear unreleased works from these literary figures was incredibly exciting, and I found each reading to be intellectually expansive and a wonderful testament to the power of the literary imagination. I think my favorite story might have been Makena Onjerika’s story about a girl who could quite literally step out of her skin, remove her heart, and play with it. Noted as “surreal,” this piece has remained in my thoughts ever since I heard it, and I look forward to reading the printed work when it becomes available. Folarin’s narrative was also a masterpiece of structure, dialogue, and posed haunting questions about mental illness, race, and childhood.
The final event I attended as part of Africa Imagines was the closing keynote address with Dr. Dambisa Moyo. Moyo’s discussion of the current economic global context, the six primary “headwinds” troubling it, and potential paths to solutions was absolutely fascinating, and stark in its diagnosis of the current world. Particularly interesting were some of Moyo’s proposals, such as mandatory voting, or reconfiguring the electoral system. I found Moyo’s critique of the neoliberal democratic structure very interesting, and I think that her points are extremely salient for current discussions of Africa and the globalized world.
This was my first experience with the annual Lannan spring symposium, and I found it a rich, thoughtful, and comprehensive event, spanning pertinent and vital discussions in the literary, political, cultural, and social spheres.
Dr. Gus Casely-Hayford posed several questions in his keynote address: In the wake of slavery and colonialism, how does Africa recover from narrative loss? How does one reimagine Africa within and under a Western gaze?
Perhaps the answer to the first question is that Africa’s history is not completely lost, or “locked away in the sea” as Dereck Walcott would say. Among the fragments, there are material points of access to this history, whether it be the hidden manuscripts in Timbuktu or the reunion of two drum holders. And like drums keeping rhythm, we can acknowledge both the voice of the music and the silence between beats.
Silence, omissions, and erasures can be powerful. Casely-Hayford reminds us that the ‘blank page’ is not necessarily a loss but a “surrogate battlefield, a manifesto to condemn our colonizers.” African art looks “neither west nor east, but forward and toward history.”
Possible answers to the second question were discussed in the America as “Other” event, featuring Casely-Hayford, Dinaw Mengestu, and Maaza Mengiste. The speakers posited that biographical information gives us access to what is actually happening in a nation, especially one wherein the leader tells us we can’t trust the news. In addition, there can be a dissonance between the personal experience of being an immigrant and how the national narrative portrays immigration, and this dissonance can be invalidating and traumatic. Biographical writing can reclaim the truth and turn something traumatic into something digestible. This discussion reminded me of our unit on memoir writing, and I see now the political potential that memoir can harness.
The speakers also discussed the power of collapsing distance in art. America uses distance to protect or obscure its own corruption by saying “corruption is over there, not here.” This line of thinking allows room for violence; for example, the casual killing of drone strikes, which create a greater distance between subjects. Artists, then, can collapse history and time to hold America more accountable for its transgressions. Romuald Hazoumé’s piece “La Bouche du Roi” overlays the narrative of the Middle Passage to the current oil trade, showing that the West continues to exploit the land and people of West Africa in the present day. In one visual demonstration, Hazoumé shows us that corruption is not ‘over there’ or ‘in the past’ but right here, right now. I hope that in my own writing, I can be more imaginative with the elements of time and space and weave different narratives together.
Finally, Dayo Olopade, David Smith, and Tope Folarin in “Lessons in Democracy” reaffirmed the importance of counter-narratives in any society. Smith noted that satirical comedy is a sign of a healthy society; if that humor is cut off or censored, as he said, “we are in trouble.” Olopade added that a mark of a bad leader is the inability to experience other perspectives. I believe this is another reason why literature is an important tool for citizens, activists, and marginalized communities. Literature, especially the memoir form, calls readers to submit to the singular experience of another, and the act of writing becomes a social practice.
The highlight of the day’s events for me was far and away the authors’ reading, from which I came away with a deep sense of awe and pride at not just the stories being told, but the range of ways in which the four writers decided to interrogate the world around them. I think this was particularly evident in the case of Prof. Ngũgĩ, who showcased both a memoir and a fiction piece a world away from each other in terms of their approach.
I thought Maaza Mengiste was phenomenal, and following her reading, I was left with a particular sense of having been moved that I find rare even among well established authors. As the only author present whose work I wasn’t already familiar with, being introduced to her work was for me the major takeaway of the past couple days, and I’m incredibly excited to read her next release.
It’s her reading that most clearly showcased the absolute labor that writing is and has been on the part of those who’ve made it their work to deconstruct through literature the legacies of the colonial encounter. On top of the actual writing itself, her going to the length of teaching herself Italian so as to access cultural archives was especially powerful for me not just because the sheer dedication such a process takes, but also because it mirrors my reason for choosing to go to London late last year.
I also came away deeply impressed with both Dr. Casely-Hayford (for anyone who missed it, Hassan Musa’s “Great American Nude” is absolutely brilliant), as well as Dayo Olopade, who needs to think about running for office. Dr. Gus and Professor Forna’s discussion during the keynote on the scramble to preserve the literary legacies of Timbuktu was especially enlightening, and leads me to wonder two separate questions, a) what else remains hidden? b) what (who) exactly was prioritized during the scramble to preserve Timbuktu’s cultural heritage? Considering the increasingly evident gender divide in contemporary African literary production, I have since been left with heavy thoughts on whose voices our societies sought, and continue to, elevate as cultural champions in the fight to self-articulate African identity.
The three Lannan Symposium events which I attended were “Decolonizing the Mind,” “Corruption Anxiety,” and “America as the Other.” I enjoyed all three and found them to be very engaging and thought-provoking. When listening to the conversation in “Decolonizing the Mind,” I was very humbled to realize how little I know about African history and even, in large part, the current culture of its various countries. I wished that I had done some background research before the event to learn more about the Rhodes Must Fall movement. However, even given my limited knowledge I found the conversation to be very interesting. I was particularly struck by Tope Folarin’s discussion of his position as a black Rhodes Scholar and his feelings regarding Rhodes Must Fall; his situation reflects the difficult position of minority groups who wish to create change in structures of power, but must engage and even participate in those structures in order to do so. I was also interested in Mukoma Wa Ngugi’s discussion his visits to a small village from which slaves were taken and a large port to which the slaves were brought to be sold. I think that his question, about what the city owes to the village, is very valuable. In a sense, it is impossible to ever truly fulfill that debt or make up for the horrors of slavery, but it also seems important to at least try.
The topic discussed in the second event, “Corruption Anxiety,” fits remarkably well with the Philosophy of Race class that I am currently taking. Dayo Olopade defined “corruption anxiety” as “the knowledge that society has been designed to support those in power at your expense.” She also pointed out that our current government (Trump’s administration) has condemned the actions of corrupt, authoritarian governments while displaying the same traits itself. I am struck by the similarities between her point and one of my most recent Philosophy of Race readings (“The New Jim Crow”), which discusses the US criminal justice system and explains that the power structure it creates produces a caste system equivalent to the slavery and the Jim Crow system. The author’s argument is that the criminal justice system allows criminals (particularly felons) to be deprived of their rights, and that unequal policing and government policies which target poor communities of people of color have placed a disproportionate of African American individuals in prison. This situation strikes me as a powerful example of society maintaining an unjust and oppressive system in order to maintain the social superiority of those currently in power.
The final event that I attended was “America as the Other.” Like “Corruption Anxiety,” I noticed several parallels to my Philosophy of Race class during this discussion. One particular point that stood out to me was the idea that the concept of opportunity which the US promotes is problematic. Although our society likes to talk about opportunity, the social realities of US society interfere with the pursuit of success for almost anyone who is not fortunate enough to be born into a very specific set of circumstances. I don’t remember who said it, but someone in the discussion brought up the idea that Africa is treated as an object by the West. While this is definitely an idea that I have heard before (in terms of slavery as well as a location for proxy wars to play out), this particular conversation linked it to some ideas that I hadn’t previously thought to consider (the oil trade and artwork). I thought it was interesting that African art was frequently used in this discussion (maybe as a result of Dr. Gus Casely-Hayford’s position with the Smithsonian) as a symbol of Africa’s autonomy and ownership over its own culture, or in some cases the lack thereof.
I found the symposium overall to be very thought-provoking, and I noticed numerous connections with classes that I am currently taking. I definitely hope to attend again next year!
Writing & Culture Seminar: “How Not to Write about Africa”
Taught by Professor Cóilín Parsons
Of the many panel discussions held during the Lannan Symposium, “Decolonizing the Mind: Country, Campus, Canon” stood out for its substantive conversation about the need to decolonize the African continent. The three panelists, Mukoma wa Ngugi, Tope Folarin, and April Sizemore-Barber, as well as moderator Cóilín Parsons, took center stage at the Fisher Colloquium at the McDonough School of Business to talk about the Rhodes Must Fall Movement in South Africa and the importance of “decolonizing” education within the African continent.
After much discussion of student protests in Africa, Tope Folarin brought up an intriguing dilemma that he faced attending the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, given the scholarship fund’s controversial and dark colonial past. Folarin shared his disdain for the legacy of Rhodes within the higher education system. He explained his reasons for participating in a program founded by such a controversial colonizer—he just needed the money to attend and provide for himself. This drew me to relish the ironic fact that Cecil John Rhodes never imagined that someone such as Folarin would be allowed to participate in the program. The irony helped me to understand Folarin’s choice and appreciate why student continue to participate willingly in the Rhodes Scholars program while also cognizant of its dubious past.
Mukoma wa Ngugi brought up the necessity for students everywhere to act to decolonize education, and how Georgetown University students were holding a vote over whether to support the 272 Referendum. The 272 Referendum (passed just a couple of days later) proposed raising Georgetown undergraduate student fees to provide money to give scholarships and other forms of compensation to the descendants of the slaves who were sold by the Jesuits to fund Georgetown University. Ngugi’s comments impressed upon the audience the fact that the phenomenon that is the Rhodes Must Fall Movement is not just limited to Africa, but that it has an expanded presence around the world. As a student of this university, I couldn’t help but feel in proximity to the crisis the panel was describing, which was taking place thousands of miles away. It became clear that “decolonizing the mind” is not unique to Africa; it is a global imperative.
Towards the end of the panel, Parsons pressed Ngugi on what he thinks “decolonization of Africa” would look like and why it is important to visualize it. After all, if they were advocating for decolonization, I’d expect them to know. However, Ngugi, as well as the other two, failed to offer a conclusive answer. They only managed to backtrack to explain their own experiences and how they felt the educational system failed them in particular. None provided a reasonably clear picture of a decolonized education. The answer to what it would look like is not so straightforward. Is a decolonized education possible and has there ever been such a system? Wouldn’t that require other parts of society to be decolonized first? Is it not so that the best panels don’t just answer questions, but they allow many others to arise as a result of exploring the underlying issues through discussion? If so, it was an excellent panel.
Can Dambisa Moyo Save Democracy?
Dambisa Moyo is an international economist known for her book Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa, which I read last year. Published in 2009, the premise of her argument is simple—stop giving aid to Africa. This is not what one typically hears from an African-born scholar. Yet, after watching an interview of her while I was studying international development in Ghana, I immediately became intrigued both by her and her ideas. I appreciated the fact that she is a strong, opinionated woman who is unafraid to voice her often controversial beliefs. When I heard she was coming to Georgetown, I couldn’t wait to see her speak in person.
As the final speaker at the Lannan Symposium, Moyo predominantly focused on aspects of her most-recently published work, Edge of Chaos: Why Democracy is Failing to Deliver Economic Growth. In an attempt to explain why democracy fails the majority, Moyo argued that there are six “headwinds”, or macro-level issues, plaguing our world. These issues include rapid population growth, global income inequality and a decrease in the number of jobs for unskilled lower-class workers because of technological change. Moyo then listed ten solutions to improve democracy, on the structural and individual level, and overcome these headwinds. For instance, at the individual level, she suggested creating a system of mandatory voting similar to in Australia, where failure to vote results in a fine. At the structural level, she suggested creating a policy of weighted voting—not dependent on the proportion of the population as is done in the United States Electoral College, but with strength of a person’s vote dependent upon that person’s knowledge of the issue at hand. Here was the controversial thinker I had come to listen to. And yet I was disappointed.
While I didn’t necessarily agree with the suggestions Moyo was proposing, I was more upset with the lack of concrete evidence she used to support her viewpoints. Furthermore, when she did choose to provide evidence, she pointed to China—referred to by its leaders as a “Socialist Democracy”—as an example for the United States to follow. She also held up Rwanda as an example to the world. To me, the level of authoritarianism and censorship that occurs in China and Rwanda is the antithesis of how we view democracy in the United States. Yet Moyo seemed to look past these (and other) issues plaguing these countries, instead focusing on their rapid growth and, in the process, implying that these costs are worth the price. To my mind, this is a steep price, and one that we cannot afford to pay. There is no doubt that Moyo is a fierce and intelligent woman who thinks critically about important issues affecting our world today. But I left her speech feeling somewhat unsettled, wishing she had delved deeper into her arguments and provided better evidence that her steps to fixing democracy would, in fact, fix it rather than break it for good.
I loved “Fanta Blackcurrant,” the short-story for which Makena Onjerika won the 2018 Caine Prize for African Literature, because of the emotions it invoked. From Meri’s desperation and the envy of her peers, to their collective struggle to survive, the world that Onjerika created made me feel it all. Onjerika delivered a gripping narrative that felt so real, I was certain that nothing else could surpass it. I went in to the “African Futures” reading wondering what would come next for Onjerika, and expecting a fresh, yet personal story. As soon as Onjerika said “fantasy novel,” however, all bets were off.
Fantasy has never been my thing. I was never a Harry Potter or Hunger Games girl, because the stories always felt too out of reach and unrealistic. Onjerika opened her reading with a description of the narrator taking her heart out and rolling it under her bed, and I suddenly felt a distance between myself and the story because of its imaginative nature. As the plot developed, however, I realized I was wrong and began to see myself in the narrator. In that young girl who unzips her skin after watching bootleg DVDs in her bedroom with her best friend. And in the tired medical student who takes of her head to shake around her brain after dissecting a cadaver. I felt nothing like this “fantasy” character and yet I felt exactly like her. For starters, I have watched my fair share of bootleg movies, but more importantly, I have felt the vulnerability, the shedding of your own skin. And I have experienced those same moments of frustration that make you want to shake all of the thoughts out of your head. Makena Onjerika surprised me because I did not expect a fantasy novel to make me feel anything at all.
When discussing her writing, Onjerika stated that she struggled to write this next book because she would write about it for a while and then decide that “she wasn’t really into [that] world.” I too felt that I had not been into “that world,” in the beginning. Despite this, Onjerika’s new work has shown me that she can effectively evoke emotion in two completely different genres. I don’t know what comes next for her but if that world is anything like the ones she has already created, I know I’ll be there.
The first panel of the 2019 Lannan Symposium, “Decolonizing the Mind: Country, Campus, Canon,” reminded me that privilege can be used in powerful ways, ways that uplift those pushed down by our societal structures. Featuring Mukoma Wa Ngugi, Tope Folarin, and April Sizemore-Barber, and moderated by Cóilín Parsons, this panel used the Rhodes Must Fall movement (RMF) in South Africa as a jumping-off point for a discussion of the work left to do in contemporary decolonization. Driven by university students, RMF began in 2015 with the controversy over a University of Cape Town statue of Cecil Rhodes, founder of the Rhodes Scholarship and Prime Minister of the British Cape Colony in South Africa from 1890 to 1896. The panelists explained how calls for the statue’s removal sparked protests demanding complete decolonization of the South African education system.
From there, the conversation dived into the complex work that is separating Africa then from Africa now. Folarin acknowledged the “internal contradiction” that comes with being an African-American Rhodes Scholar. He lamented the fact that finding success as a member of a marginalized community often requires working within the system that marginalized you. What he said next struck a chord: “It’s really difficult once you’re in the belly of the beast to escape the belly of the beast. It’s really comfortable in there sometimes.”
By this point in the panel, I was becoming increasingly aware of my surroundings. The shiny new business school, the majority-white students roaming around it, the slave-built buildings visible through the windows. My very own belly of the beast. Sizemore-Barber’s observation that RMF was particularly remarkable and effective because it came “from within the halls of privilege” began to ring in my head. I felt called out. What work were we, as Georgetown students, doing to start revolutions within our own privileged halls? What work was I doing? How can I give thousands of dollars to a school that is afloat today only because it sold 272 slaves in 1838? A school that continues to perpetuate wealth and racial inequalities through high tuition costs with insufficient financial aid?
Since the symposium, I’ve realized that the panel was bringing to the surface a necessary discomfort that comes with being a student at a historic, elite institution of higher education in America. Being a Georgetown student gives me advantages that the vast majority of the world cannot access. It’s a strange position to be in as someone whose major is called Justice and Peace Studies. Like Folarin, I found myself feeling a bit of a hypocrite for decrying the system that I actively participate in on a daily basis. In the past few weeks, however, I’ve found myself returning to one specific line in my notes from the panel: “RMF was a call to critique your place in the world.” It’s a simple task, but one I believe can start the conversations that lead to change. I think I’ll take it as my marching orders.
As I walked into the Fisher Colloquium, my ears were flooded with various snippets of conversation. As a first-year undergraduate student who knows almost nothing about the continent of Africa, or many other parts of the world for that matter, I found the environment very intimidating at first. However, as the next part of the symposium began and Dayo Olopade began her lecture, it was clear that the event’s content was not only useful for seasoned scholars of Africa, but truly important for all to hear.
Dayo Olopade is a Nigerian-American writer and lawyer, who has aimed to change the perception of Africa through her writings in publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, as well as in her book The Bright Continent. Throughout her talk on “corruption anxiety,” a term used to describe how the powerful benefit at the expense of the poor, Olopade touched on a multitude of topics — including formality bias, geopolitics, and income inequality. However, some of her most compelling words came towards the end when she asserted that it was the audience’s (or more broadly: the public’s) personal responsibility to combat the causes and repercussions of corruption in the world.
To illustrate her point, she described an instance in which her friend told her about the safety system of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She was surprised to find out that some of the world’s most famous art pieces were not guarded by an elaborate security system, but relied on the presence of crowds. She then expanded this idea to global phenomena. We cannot only rely on policy to guard our societal structures from corruption. We must gain safety through the presence of crowds who are vigilant in keeping the system just. Olopade ended her talk by calling on people to stop avoiding conflict in an attempt to maintain civility, but to instead act against corruption even if it may cause discomfort.
Following the lecture, my classmate and I were included in a discussion with three others who had listened to the talk. They each discussed how Olopade’s points applied to the current states of Kenya, Ghana, and Uganda, their countries of origin. I again felt the same discomfort that I experienced when I first walked into the room, as I had almost no knowledge of what they were discussing. However, as I am writing now, I realize Olopade’s point. We all need to give up some of our comfort and acknowledge deficiencies in our understanding of the world in order to take part in improving our societies. If we feel discomfort, we should not distance themselves from the situation, but rather dive in deep so we can start chipping away at our issues.
At a symposium inviting intellectuals from across the globe, made famous by their written words, the most powerful moments were those about silence. In his keynote address, Dr. Gus Casely-Hayford, Director of the National Museum of African American Art, introduced various art forms and artifacts from across the African continent, but made sure to highlight his favorite piece. He displayed two images of parts of a century-old Nigerian slit gong, an old wooden drum used in traditional music. He mentioned that when played in a confined space, their sound bellows “like thunder rolling across your chest.” Yet even more extraordinary, he claimed, is the “equally potent momentary silence” between beats. Casely-Hayford reflected on the necessity of this quiet, which allows the listener to regain composure and ruminate on the wonder of the music. Producing silence in music, referred to by musicologists as the “inside rhythm,” is no easy feat.
The sound of silence is, unfortunately, not always a beautiful one. The forced hush of the drum, when destroyed by warring forces, symbolizes a loss of voice and culture for the Nigerian musicians. The choice not to reveal an oppressed history had similar negative connotations for a different speaker at the symposium as well. In the “America as the Other” panel, Ethiopian-American novelist and writer Dinaw Mengestu told a story of how his family, after recently moving to Illinois from Ethiopia, was asked not to return to an Orthodox church because of their race. When they were finally accepted at a white Southern Baptist church, their pastor reached out to the rest of the congregation to tell them not to discriminate against Mengestu’s family. His parents initially shielded Mengestu from this truth, intentionally suppressing and silencing this part of their American history in order to protect their own “fundamental strain[s] of humanity.”
Colonization and imperialism have long dictated African expression by silencing it; Mengestu noted that, rather than attempting an accurate portrayal of Africa, the West “imagines a kind of proxy for its own needs and services.” Instead of reciprocating this view, Africa is, according to Mengestu, “not participating in the same kind of false gaze that the West has perpetuated.” By opting not to engage with or reproduce the discriminatory and unwelcoming discourse on Africa, Africans can reclaim agency over how they are spoken of by other and by themselves. The speakers at the Lannan Symposium voiced one message louder than the rest: the power of silence.