Featured Research: Exploring the Experiences of Africans and People of African Descent | National Humanities Center

Featured Research

Featured Research: Exploring the Experiences of Africans and People of African Descent

March 1, 2022

In this issue we highlight the research of Fellows from the class of 2021–22 who are exploring the lived experiences of Africans and those of African descent in settings around the world.

Yinghong Cheng

Project: “Two Lives for a Mile”—African American Soldiers Building the Burma Road

Yinghong Cheng was born in Suzhou, China. He received his PhD in world history from Northeastern University. At Delaware State University, he teaches courses in world history and Asian history. His teaching emphasizes connections and interactions in world history and between China, East Asia, and the rest of the world. Cheng’s research engages modern and contemporary Chinese history in a global context, involving Maoism and its international impact, Sino-Cuban relations, overseas Chinese, the Cultural Revolution, and most recently the relationship between racial thinking and Chinese nationalism against the background of China’s rise.

History; Film and Media
“Negro Engineers Write History In Heroic Job On Key Ledo Road,” The Chicago Defender, Nov. 4, 1944

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

The project is a story about African American soldiers building the Burma Road (or the Ledo Road) to link northeast India to China through northern Burma for the purpose of transporting American Lend Lease Act supplies to support China, America’s key ally in the Asia-Pacific during WWII. Perhaps the initial spark occurred when I came across some discussions on a secret negotiation between China and the U.S. to solve disputes on the deployment of “colored GIs” into China as the project required.

Big questions include the relationship between race politics and wartime alliances; Black GIs’ contribution to the outcome of WWII; how African American soldiers and their domestic community communicated with each other to promote the goal of Double V (victory overseas against Fascist racism and victory against domestic racism); and the significance of this history to [de]colonization and [anti]racism during and after WWII at a global level.

In the course of your research have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

Yes. For one thing, in both America and China, Black GIs’ hard work and sacrifice have paled in comparison to sagas of combat missions of WWII. People are much less perceptive to logistics and laborious efforts than to combat activities in their relationship with or choice of war reflections, even if such efforts entailed equally heavy sacrifice due to the hostile natural environment and dangerous work conditions and were sometimes done under enemy fire.

In this case, actually, the mission demanded much more stamina and courage since it was not a single-combat act but days, weeks, months, and even years of continued hard and monotonous work against all sorts of unexpected odds. The psychological and mental pressure the soldiers had to bear was tremendous, and yet, to many, their sacrifice still needed justification under racial segregation.

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

I can mention two. The first is the significance of race/ethnicity in the studies of WWII history and post-war decolonization, which is what the India-Burma-China theater stands for due to its unique characteristics. Not only can we find different “racial” groups from all continents here but also a cluster of diverse ethnic, cultural, and caste categories in the region south of the Himalayas and north of the Bay of Bengal.

The second is the international aspect of African American history: as the first large-scale and well-coordinated interaction between African Americans and various Asians, this historical experience broadened the vision of African Americans’ understanding of world politics and their recognition of the relationship between their domestic pursuit and a global struggle for equality and justice under various and often complicated circumstances.

Oscar de la Torre

Project: Enyoró: A Collective Biography of Black Matanzas (Cuba) from Slavery to Nation-Making‚ 1835–1898

Oscar de la Torre is associate professor of Africana studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He received a PhD in history from the University of Pittsburgh in 2011 and a postdoctoral fellowship from Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition in 2014. He investigates slavery and the post-emancipation period in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States, with a special focus on the connections between environment, labor, and identity. He is the author of The People of the River (UNC Press, 2018), an award-winning social and environmental history of Black communities in Amazonia. Currently, de la Torre has embarked on a study of the coexistence of interracial experiences and racist ideas in Matanzas (Cuba) in the realms of labor, leisure, and disease.

History; Film and Media
Public spring, Matanzas, Cuba (Library of Congress)

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

The city of Matanzas, and more broadly Cuba, have always struck me for having such enormous, diverse, original, and, to a certain extent, successful forms of Black activism. In terms of religion, ethnic associations, civic clubs, labor unions, educational institutions, women’s clubs, and even patriot agitation, that city has been a dynamo of Black activism since the 1800s. I am interrogating that activism with a series of transnational questions and concerns that I hope will enrich our debates about past and present anti-racist movements and policies in the Americas. What are the achievements and limits of their activism? What can we learn from a Black activism intimately tied to revolutionary traditions of nation-state building?

In the course of your research have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

I started by reconstructing the social history of Black Matanceros, that is, their demography, their life expectancy and health profiles, their professions, etc. Soon, the first surprises appeared: the life expectancy of urban Afro-Cubans was almost lower than that of sugar plantations, with barely any differences between enslaved and free Black people! This was the opposite of what I expected, as port cities in the Americas are normally famous for having hosted large free Black populations with more autonomy and better living standards than their plantation counterparts.

Considering these findings, I decided to enlarge and then split the project into two books: one devoted to study exclusively the social history of Black Matanceros and Matanceras, and a second one focused on their more cultural and political history.

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

First, I am hoping that this study will bring up to speed Cuba’s nineteenth-century history of slavery and race in the city—as opposed to that of plantations. This is clearly a void in the historiography that needed to be addressed. I also expect to contribute to broader debates about how Black populations in the Americas have conceived their place in the nation. This is of much interest, for there are transnational differences asking to be explored and understood: what discourses and strategies have been the most efficient in struggles over citizenship, difference, and equity? How have those changed over time, and according to what factors? In a context of globalization and growing inequality, conversations about race, citizenship, and equity continue to be more pressing than ever before.

Mbaye Lo

Project: Blacks in Arabic Sources: An Intellectual History of Africanism in the Arab World

Mbaye Lo is associate professor of the practice of Asian and Middle Eastern studies and international comparative studies at Duke University. Originally from Senegal, Lo completed his undergraduate and graduate training in classical Arabic language and literature at the International University of Africa, Khartoum and Khartoum International Institute for Arabic Language, Sudan. He also received an MA in American history from Cleveland State University where he also earned his PhD from the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs. He is the author and editor of nine books in both English and Arabic that examine the intersection of intellectual and social discourse of Arabic/Islamic and African cultures. His current NHC project, on an intellectual history of anti-Blackness in the Arab World, interrogates Arabic discourse (with emphasis on literature, history, religious texts, and Arab popular culture) to uncover the trajectory and manifestations of anti-Black attitudes from pre-Islamic Arabia to the twentieth century.

History; Film and Media
Old Arabic manuscript in Futa Toro, West Africa (Mbaye Lo)

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

This project dates back to my graduate training in classical Arabic and Islamic literature. I have been always interested in examining the presence of Black Africans in pre-Islamic Arabia, their intellectual contribution during the rise of the first Arab-Muslim empire, and the root causes of their continuous marginalization starting from the eighth century onwards. It is not a popular topic in the academic market or even legible to our political sensitivities. I am glad to come back to this ‘old love’, and also thankful to NHC for giving me the opportunity to work on this book project.

In the course of your research have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

I am dismayed by the paucity of research material that deals with this area of scholarship, given the fact that the earliest Black writers who documented their experience from racialized viewpoints did so in Arabic and within the Arab-Muslim civilization. Very few seminal works in African or Middle Eastern disciplines have studied the issue of Blacks in Arabic and Islamic sources. I don’t think it is due to lack of interest in this field of study; but it might be due to a dearth of scholarly work in the classics, as some have claimed.

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

I hope to attract scholarly attention to this area of research which is crucial if we are to account for the Black experience on a global scheme. Anti-Black prejudice in the Middle East and Arabic discourse is not a product of Orientalism or Occidentalism; it is much older. It predated modern sensitivities related to colonialism, Orientalism, and Islamophobia. Blacks were real people in the Arabian Peninsula before the coming of Islam in the seventh century; they were among the knights, poets, mercenaries, and conquering Abyssinian rulers. But what led to the drastic decline in their status in the subsequent generations, must be examined and studied.

Paul Ushang Ugor

Project: The Cinema of Femi Odugbemi: Screen Media and Popular Culture in Nigeria

Paul Ushang Ugor is associate professor in the Department of English at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. His research interests are in the areas of African literatures and cultures, black popular culture, Anglophone world literatures, postcolonial studies, cultural theory, and new media cultures in the global south. He is the author of Nollywood: Popular Culture and Narratives of Youth Struggles in Nigeria (2016). He has also coedited several collections including, Youth and Popular Culture in Africa: Music, Media, and Politics (URP 2021); African Youth Cultures in the Age of Globalization: Challenges, Agency and Resistance (Routledge 2017); Contemporary Youth Cultures in Africa (a special issue of Postcolonial Text. Vol. 8, No 3 & 4, 2013); and Youth, Cultural Politics and New Social Spaces in an Era of Globalization (a special issue of Review of Education, Pedagogy and Cultural Studies 31:4, 2009). His research and teaching interests in general are concerned with emerging trends in global politics, economy, communication, cultural representations, and everyday life, especially in the postcolonial world.

History; Film and Media
Femi Odugbemi

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

In my first book, Nollywood: Popular Culture and Narratives of Youth Struggles in Nigeria (2016), which examined representations of youth culture in Nigeria’s popular cinema, now known internationally as Nollywood, I analyzed one of Femi Odugbemi’s films, Maroko (2006). In that chapter of the book, I argued that the film is a powerful critique of postcolonial misgovernance in Africa, especially the ways in which insensitive and reckless projects of urban redevolopment by the ruling elite can be counter-productive, endangering and ruining the lives of otherwise productive youth. I presented the work at the Program of African Studies at Northwestern University in Chicago in October of 2016. A month later, at the African Studies Association Conference in Washington DC in November, I was approached by professor LaRay Denzer, the leader of the Nollywood Study Group and publications editor of the Program of African Studies newsletter at Northwestern, to help facilitate a film festival focusing on one Nollywood director. I promptly recommended Odugbemi’s work.

The film festival was held in October of 2017, and as part of the event, I was asked to introduce and contextualize Odugbemi’s work for the Nollywood Study Group, and by extension, the American film audience. It was in the process of preparing for that event that this project first occurred to me. My hunch that Odugbemi had created a body of work deserving of serious scholarly scrutiny was confirmed at the festival when several of his films were screened at Northwestern and Illinois State University with great excitement and engagement from the public. It was after that festival that I began to gather my thoughts on my current book project, which focuses on the cinematic oeuvre of Femi Odugbemi as a director-auteur. Tentatively entitled Afropolitan Humanism in the Cinema of Femi Odugbemi, the work aims to explore the aesthetic and philosophical dimensions of Odugbemi’s cinematic corpus, focusing particularly on the unique artistic vision and authorial style that he brings to bear on his screen media work as a Nollywood director and producer.

The research project engages with a number of questions. The first, and very specific one is, how does Femi Odugbemi’s screen media output constitute a form of artistic search for truth and justice in a postcolonial society crippled by a culture of corruption and the denigration of human life? But in doing so, the work also deals with a broader set of questions about cultural politics in Nigeria and Africa in general: how might popular culture take on both political and moral or ethical issues as a way of building a vibrant public consciousness in a new democratic culture in search of a novel social order? How does popular cinema—Nollywood—serve the transformative aspirations of a postcolonial society in search of new meaning, direction, and hope? These are some of the questions that I grapple with in the project.

In the course of your research have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

Absolutely! There are several, but I’ll just highlight two. I’ve been struck by the similarities between Odugbemi’s views about cinema as a political tool and the philosophical articulations of pioneer African filmmakers of the 1960s and ‘70s regarding the revolutionary role of African film, especially its duty to combat neocolonial structures of oppression and exploitation. There’s always been a distinction made between postcolonial African cinema produced on celluloid and Nollywood films. Apart from the differences in the technology—digital video versus celluloid—and professional training, Nollywood has always been perceived as an apolitical genre driven mainly by the mere desire to provide mass urban entertainment and the capitalist aspirations of Hollywood cinema. African cinema is assumed to be much more political, concerned with responding to the pressing social issues confronting the continent. In fact, one of the reasons why very little scholarly work has been done on individual Nollywood directors is the perception that they are not ‘serious’ filmmakers/artistes politically engaged with their audience. So, I’ve been struck by how many of Odugbemi’s utterances about cinema and the arts in general echo some of the earlier views by pioneer African filmmakers about cinema as an ideological tool. It leaves you wondering whether Nollywood has been as apolitical and socially disengaged as scholars have often claimed.

I’ve also been surprised by how Odugbemi has been profoundly influenced by American cultural politics. Although he returned to Nigeria more than thirty years ago after his studies at Montana State University, his artistic vision and composite approach to filmmaking has been deeply influenced by the Hollywood studio system. While at MSU, Odugbemi worked as an intern at KUSM CH9 TV station, which was founded by Dr. Hyppa, the chair of the Department of Mass Communication, and Odugbemi’s academic mentor. It was at KUSM Channel 9TV that Odugbemi honed his media production skills as a filmmaker. In a personal interview he acknowledged that he “learned a lot by doing things hands-on at KUSM 9.” So, the foundational filmmaking and managerial skills that Odugbemi has brought to the production of his African films and TV dramas are clearly American. In fact, Femi Odugbemi’s authorial vision in contemporary filmmaking that has sought to link art and entrepreneurship in Nollywood production is clearly allied to his American training, that is, Hollywood’s entrepreneurism. He is not only invested in the politicization of culture and the ways in which it can be used as a veritable tool of social reengineering, he recognizes and approaches cinema as a competitive art. This bit of information is important because Nollywood is often framed as an indigenous film industry created independently by young people without any outside influences. Through Odugbemi’s work, and perhaps other directors too, we can see some traces of American popular culture in African popular cinema.

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

The book aims to demonstrate the humanitarian uses to which Femi Odugbemi has put his screen media work as a socially-committed filmmaker, especially the multiple ways in which he deploys screen media—film and television—to interrogate and challenge a decadent postcolonial socio-political order that is contemptuous of human life and the other precious resources needed to sustain it. Part of the wider argument I make in the book about Odugbemi’s cinematic oeuvre as a director-auteur is that his cinematic output as a whole is indicative of a well-established tradition of “socially responsible cinema” in Nollywood film production, which has rarely been acknowledged by African film scholars and other commentators on Nollywood cinema. Thus, I am hoping that the work will instigate more scholarly focus on auteurism as a useful conceptual and methodological approach in studying Nollywood cinema.

There’s a plethora of critique that has already taken shape around Nollywood cinema in the past two decades. Much of that scholarly work has focused on the growth and development of Nollywood, its unique production processes, its links to political-economic and cultural globalization, its diverse genres, and so on. But very little has been done in carrying out a thorough and insightful analyses of the individual work of hundreds, if not thousands, of the cultural workers in the Nollywood film industry. There are countless studies on postcolonial African filmmakers who work(ed) on celluloid, but very little on Nollywood directors who rely mostly on digital video technologies. In the past five years, there’s been two edited books and two journal special issues on two Nollywood directors—Kunle Afolayan and Tunde Kelani. But that scholarly output is minuscule compared to the countless number of directors, producers, and other sundry artists that work in Nollywood. A sustained study of their individual artistic work will offer new insights into the aesthetic diversity and multiple artistic visions that have shaped and defined what is now one of the most popular film industries in the world today.