The African Studies Initiative (ASI) at the University of Minnesota begins from the premise that interactions among the various regions of Africa, as well as between Africa and the rest of the world, are critical to the scholarly enterprise. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education in 2014–2018 as a Title VI African Studies National Resource Center, the ASI fosters collaboration among faculty across departments, colleges, and professional schools at the University of Minnesota on projects that promote transdisciplinary research, teaching, and public engagement not just on or in Africa, but with Africa.
What does this mean?
Whether our research typically unfolds in the library or in the field, what guides our work is an intellectual, ethical, and political commitment to interrogate, redefine, and create new knowledge with African colleagues, sources, and communities. U.S.-based African Studies cannot ignore its entanglement in the inequalities that colonialism, the global slave trade, and neocolonialism and globalization have visited on the African continent and its diasporas. Yet disabusing ourselves of the notion that we can work “on” Africa or filter the continent through non-African sources is an important step, however tentative, toward the decolonization of knowledge.
To that end, the ASI funds faculty efforts to develop new African Studies curriculum; funds graduate and undergraduate students of African languages through academic-year and summer Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships; organizes symposia and other events that connect the work of University faculty to that of other scholars, artists, and activists locally, nationally, and internationally; and conducts outreach to colleagues in K–12 education, community colleges, and other colleges and universities across the Twin Cities and Minnesota.
To date, our work has focused on four core areas:
- Pluralizing and Deconstructing “Africa”
- Food and Agriculture in Africa
- Geographies of Disparity in Africa: Public Health
- Reframing Mass Violence: Social Memory and Social Justice
Two cross-cutting foci, Rethinking African Studies and Communicating Across Borders: Translation and Interpretation, have animated transdisciplinary dialogue and sparked fresh ideas. Linking faculty with Africanist interests in the humanities, social sciences, agricultural and natural resource sciences, and professional programs such as medicine and public health, the ASI has catalyzed 45 new or redesigned UMN courses in African Studies and less-commonly taught languages. ASI projects also enhance the visibility of our faculty’s deep expertise in African Studies to audiences beyond the University.
We have organized highly successful workshops with K–14 educators that have fostered curricular innovation in area schools and community colleges, among these Leech Lake Tribal College and Normandale Community College, and we have developed partnerships with African institutions—most recently an exciting new project with the University of Cape Town to produce a special journal issue on African voices in global health, co-funded by the South African National Research Foundation.
Our current goals accent the interconnectedness of Africa and the United States: to bring knowledge produced in Africa to the center of U.S. African Studies; and to explore the interrelation of key developments in Africa with those in immigrant, refugee, and diasporic communities in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, and the United States.
With this accent on global/local connections and knowledge production in view, the ASI plans to launch a new African Theory from the Continent Collaborative in concert with other National Resource Centers and to engage four central areas in the years ahead:
- Border Conflicts: Nation, Religion, Language
- African Voices in Global Public Health
- African Migrations: Movement and Memory
- Human Trafficking and Human Rights in Africa
It is with such complex questions in mind—questions that transcend traditional categories of area, region, and nation-state, but also traditional demarcations of academic fields and disciplines—that the ASI approaches African Studies. We are thrilled to help the University community imagine and realize new projects that cross-pollinate research, teaching, and public engagement on, in, and above all with Africa.