Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Suppression of Slave Trade Memories

I attended the commemoration for the 200 anniversary of the Suppression of the Slave Trade Act in Nova Scotia in June. It was conference that included both academics and community people. My last post discussed looking forward to the event. Looking back, I had a positive experience as one of the three keynote speakers. My talk was on Sierra Leone and 4 central ironies involving the suppression of the slave trade. Here, I’ll excerpt the beginning and the end of the talk. The full talk is linked on my Google Pages.

In January 1999, Freetown, Sierra Leone descended into hell. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) invaded Freetown, bringing a civil war fueled by blood diamonds to the capital city for the first time. The Big Market, a covered market that I will discuss today, was razed to the ground as the RUF retreated a week later. The atrocities that followed this invasion are too horrible to describe during lunch. But let me say this, the descriptions of the invasion of Freetown call up memories of the Atlantic slave trade.

This afternoon, I shall link that invasion with the Suppression of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which we are here to commemorate. I will argue that a troubling and ironic consequence of the suppression of the Atlantic slave trade was the escalation of slave trading and slavery itself within Africa. Throughout my talk, I will emphasize a number of distressing contradictions that emerge as we narrate the history of resistance to slavery—what I call four troubling ironies….

As I make a few concluding points, let me return to 1999, the year rebels burnt down the Big Market. First, I don’t think it was a random act that the market was burnt down; the rebels were striking at one of the most significant landmarks in Sierra Leone’s history. Remember I spoke earlier about the way the market fit in the imagination of Freetownians, many of whom thought the market women were so powerful that they need not lock the marketplace at night—this belief persisted despite the huge padlocks that could be found at either end of the building. Imagine, rebels so fierce that they could burn down a marketplace that didn’t even need to be locked from thieves. The market was a complex target: the home of settler women traders who became known for their powerful trading tactics and medicine but also, as I have suggested, a central market that helped spread, first, plantation-like slavery in the region and, second, colonial rule.

So my second point is that we shouldn’t forget or suppress the memories of internal African slavery. We, here, in the New World know how long the shadow of slavery falls across a culture. Slavery lasted in West Africa well into the 20th century—often under the cloak of colonial rule. [Indeed, forms of slavery have re-emerged.] When I read accounts of Sierra Leone’s recent civil war, I feel like I’m reading archives from the internal African slave trade.

Now, there are many reasons for Sierra Leone’s vicious civil war—greed for diamonds, government corruption, globalization. But we can’t forget the impact of a long-lasting slave trade and the central irony that, as the Atlantic slave trade and New World slavery were suppressed, slavery began to flourish inside Africa.

For photos of the old and new Big Market, see my blog entry of April 1, 2007.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


I was worried that I messed up. I agreed to speak this June at a conference at St. Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, that will commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, Britain’s official decision to suppress the slave trade. [See]. I was beginning to think I had done the wrong thing. Sure, I wanted to be part of a commemoration of this landmark move. But I was beginning to worry about the quality of this particular conference. Then I discovered the work of one of the other keynote speakers, George Elliot Carke, and I decided that just getting to know about his work is worth my being associated with the conference. And I now have higher hopes for the quality of the entire conference.

My pleasant surprise came when I ‘googled’ Clarke, a poet and academic of African and Mi’kmaq Amerindian heritage from Nova Scotia who now teaches at the University of Toronto. Besides reading his biography at, I read his essay, “Must all Blackness Be American?: Locating Canada in Borden’s ‘Tightrope Time,’ or Nationalizing Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic” at It was extremely helpful to read a take on the African diaspora from a Canadian. He critiques African Americans for just assuming that African Canadians, whom he calls Africadians, are just like us. Ironically, Euro-Canadians—to maintain a mythological self-image of themselves as the ‘real’ Canadians—also viewed Africandians as Americans before the major migrations from the Caribbean disrupted that view. Clarke calls this tendency to ignore the reality and specificity of Afro-Canadians, “the denial of African Canadianité.”

He tells us,

Given the gravitational attractiveness of Black America and the repellent force of a frequently racist, Anglo-Canadian (and Québécois de souche) nationalism, African-Canadian writers feel themselves caught between the Scylla of an essentially U.S.-tincted cultural nationalism and the Charybdis of their marginalization within Canadian cultural discourses that perceive them as 'alien'. Hence, African-Canadian writers are forced to question the extent and relevance of their Canadianness (that notoriously inexpressible quality).

“Yet,” he reminds us, “African-Canadians cannot avoid assimilating African-American influences, for both African Canada and African America were forged in the crucible of the slave trade, an enterprise the British aided, abetted, and affirmed, then suppressed, then finally abolished in 1833.”

While I've written on the 18th century roots of the black community in Nova Scotia in my first book, it’s certainly helpful for me to get an informed contemporary view from the African diaspora in Canada before I go there to talk.

More later on how the slave trade still flourishes despite this bicentennial.

Monday, May 14, 2007


I got the copy-edited version of an encyclopedia entry that I’ve written on race suicide for the forthcoming Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History. Race suicide is a concept that represents fears of being overwhelmed by another race because of the low birth rate of one’s own race.

I love writing encyclopedia entries. They are kind of like puzzles. You have to know the topic well enough to know what belongs in a 400- to 3500-word article. The race suicide entry is about 1500 words. Especially when you want to write entries that cover global issues, it’s a real challenge to write coherently about a topic in that kind of short form. In this case, I was able to show how the term worked in the U.S., among both blacks and whites, Europe, and Australia.

Among my favorite “factoids”: Theodore Roosevelt, who popularized the term in the early 20th century, called white middle- and upper-class women who limited their family sizes, “race criminals.” Margaret Sanger, feminist advocate for birth control, wanted to limit the fertility of the “unfit.” And, in 2006, Pat Roberson, host of the conservative 700 Club, warned, “Europe is right now in the midst of racial suicide because of the declining birth rate.” Race suicide is one of those concepts that just won’t die!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

When Race and Gender aren't parallel

I have lots of things in my portfolio as vice provost for faculty affairs. Among the most interesting is the work I do to help diversify NYU’s faculty. I’m particularly intrigued that dealing with racial and ethnic diversity, on the one hand, and gender diversity, on the other, calls for different strategies. I also get vastly different reactions to the work I do in each arena. When it comes to issues of gender, I have lots of support and allies. I’m sure there are people who look askance at the recent seminar that I co-sponsored with the Faculty of Arts and Science Women’s Faculty Caucus on women and negotiations. But no one raised an issue. Plans for a conference on women and leadership at NYU, planned for the fall has garnered great support from around the campus. When the provost and I hosted discussions for women faculty in the sciences last year on gender climate issues, most showed up. I suspect that women who don’t want to be identified by their gender simply ignore such events.

Lately, I’ve decided to work on environmental issues for faculty of color. I have had a number of faculty of color, especially but not limited to junior faculty, express how isolated they feel teaching at NYU. There are more minority faculty here then many suspect but we are spread out across the university. This place is very large and some long for the camaraderie and support that comes from knowing other people who share minority identity. I began to see that making these connections influences whether faculty stay at NYU. In response, I decided to have two receptions for faculty of color this spring. I especially wanted to target untenured faculty. I asked the provost to join me in this effort. Without hesitation, he agreed and we sent out email invitations.

But who is a faculty of color and how do we find them? What do we do about those faculty of color who do not want to be identified by race or ethnicity? I decided to cast as wide a net as possible by using the racial and ethnic codes used by Academic Appointments. I was hopeful that those who did not want to attend such a reception would simply ignore the invitation, just as many women ignored the Women’s Faculty Caucus workshop on negotiation. By in large, most of those uninterested must have simply deleted the email invitations; one person accused me of being ‘misguided’ and out of date. Personally, I’m not so allergic to identity politics; but I do recognize many of the pitfalls of racial solidarity. As someone who is invested in diversifying the NYU faculty, I’m trying to create a culture here that is broad enough to appeal to faculty of color on all sides of this issue. I believe that NYU is a complex enough community to accommodate those differences.

It is also interesting that non-faculty of color have felt comfortable raising questions about the receptions. One group asked me how were people of color supposed to relate to the larger faculty. I was a little surprised by this question. The receptions were not meant to be prescriptive—to create segregation within the faculty. Similar questions had not been directly raised about any of the gender diversity initiatives coming out of the provost office. This is just another instance in which the analogies between race and gender, which are often helpful, breakdown.

Saturday, April 21, 2007


I grew up in a house full of music. One of the favorite tunes that my uncles and cousin used to play on our piano was a ragtime version of Don't Blame Me. I couldn't resist putting this on my blog.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Memories of Sierra Leone

Over the last two weeks, I've gone down memory lane about my first trip to Sierra Leone, 1975-77. First I spoke to the Albert Gallatin Scholars at Gallatin. Then I had a conversation with a Ph.D. history student who plans to work on Sierra Leonean visual culture at the turn of the 20th century. Some of my photos:

The picture above is of me around 1976 in front of the Big Market in Freetown, Sierra Leone, the main subject of my dissertation. It was taken in the evening after the market had closed. The Big Market was the central market of a wide-spread trading network that included many Krio women traders.

The second picture is of a market woman who had a stall at the Big Market. This was at the side of the market. She’s with her grandson and is wearing traditional Krio clothes, even though she was not herself a Krio.

Finally, this is the picture I took of the new Big Market when I visited Freetown in 2005. The old market had been burnt down during the civil war and this was its replacement.

For the official story on the rebuilding of the Big Market, see

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Half of a Yellow Sun Review

Here's my review that I just sent off to Women's Review of Books.

5. The book: The World Was Silent When We Died

He writes about starvation. Starvation was a Nigerian weapon of war. Starvation broke Biafra and brought Biafra fame and made Biafra last as long as it did. Starvation made the people of the world take notice and sparked protests and demonstrations in London and Moscow and Czechoslovakia. Starvation made Zambia and Tanzania and Ivory Coast and Gabon recognize Biafra, starvation brought Africa into Nixon’s American campaign and made parents all over the world tell their children to eat up. Starvation propelled aid organizations to sneak-fly food into Biafra at night since both sides could not agree on routes. Starvation aided the careers of photographers. And starvation made the International Red Cross call Biafra its gravest emergency since the Second World War (237).

This excerpt from a clever book within Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, confronts the reader with one of the novel’s central ironies: enforced starvation, the very tactic that crushed Nigeria’s break away southeastern region, briefly independent and known as Biafra, also brought it the international attention that sustained its rebellion for three years. Those who are old enough to remember will recall that the first images of starving African children to pierce the consciousness of the west came from Nigeria’s 1967 to 1970 civil war. Adichie’s successful historical novel manages to capture many complexities and ironies of one of Africa’s first post-colonial conflicts.

Adichie, who won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and Hurston/Wright Legacy Prize for her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, is skilled at drawing her readers into the daily terror and brutality wrought by war. We watch as the seemingly genteel world of academia disintegrates and tugs at our own senses of security; we see both the silent killer of children, kwashiorkor, and bombs drive men and women to heroics, cowardice, and craziness. Adichie has done her homework well. Importantly, she writes into a rich tradition—virtually every major Nigerian writer has felt compelled to address this devastating civil war. Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, and Wole Soyinka have wade in. Given Nigeria’s lively tradition of feminist writers, Adichie is fortunate to follow in the footsteps of Buchi Emecheta and Flora Nwapa, each of whom unveiled the particular horrors women face during war. Moreover, Half of a Yellow Sun represents an entry by Nigeria’s new crop of wonderful writers, such as Helon Habila, Chris Abani, and Sefi Atta, into a necessary confrontation with Nigeria’s bloody past. To paraphrase Toni Morrison from Beloved, this is clearly not a story for Nigerian writers to pass on.

Ugwu, the character who writes the book within Half of a Yellow Sun with which this review opens, undergoes tremendous transformations that are wrought by coming of age during this civil war. The book begins when he arrives from up country as a 13-year old to be the ‘houseboy’ of Odenigbo, a math professor and armchair revolutionary at University of Nigeria at Nsukka, the intellectual center of the Biafran independence movement. Indeed, until the war breaks out, precocious Ugwu seems to be following in Odenigbo ‘s footsteps, whom he calls Master. Both come from largely Igbo villages and adapt well to western style education. Their relationship is complex and at times problematic—allowing the Adichie to explore class conflicts in the post-colonial era. Ugwu arrives at Odenigbo’s house during peacetime when the false promises of independence—granted in 1960 were just beginning to reveal themselves. The house becomes a setting for passionate but friendly-at-first debates that express arange of intellectual positions in the run up to the war.

Odenigbo and Ugwu are a fascinating pairing. As Nigeria descends into its bloody civil war, naive Ugwu’s experiences help him find his voice. He takes up writing as a way of dealing with his bewildering and disturbing experiences, including facing both the shortcomings and value of his Master; participating in atrocities as a child soldier, and sustaining serious physical damage during battle. The war’s most harrowing experiences are seen through his eyes. On the other hand, Odenigbo becomes more and more mute, as his idealism is dashed along with Biafra’s hopes. He begins the book as a man sure of his opinions and place in the world. By war’s end, his narrow ethnic nationalism seems empty and, with no defenses against slights to his manhood, he sinks into alcoholism. Yet, Ugwu dedicates his book to Odenigbo. But for Odenigbo, Ugwu would never have learned to read and write and to challenge many of the injurious values taught in school.

The book’s central pair is the twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene. Many readers might recall from having read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart that twins had special significance among pre-colonial and colonial Igbo-speaking peoples. Since twin infants had been seen as abominations and bad omens for an entire village, they were left out in the forest to die. As Achebe, whose praise for Half of a Yellow Sun can be found on its back cover, illustrated, Christian missionaries used that tradition to convince some members of Igbo societies of the inhumanity of their own customs and, thus, to convert them to Christianity. The tensions between Christian and indigenous beliefs may, indeed, be another pairing in this book. Surely, it is no accident that Olanna and Kainene are twins. They are daughters of Nigeria’s new, corrupt elite; their parents even try to prostitute them to gain economic and political advantages. Their closeness strained at the beginning of the novel by their perverse relationships with their parents, they both rebel against their parents’ values but cannot recognize their own similarities to each other.

Their conflicts symbolize the civil war between Nigeria and Biafra and are a warning to present-day Nigerians to look beyond their differences before they descend into final destruction. The pointlessness of the twins’ disagreements represents the futility of Nigeria’s ethnic nationalism. Part of the book’s chilling quality comes from the almost seamless way people move from thinking of themselves as Nigerians to thinking of themselves as Biafrans. How quickly the word Nigerian shifts from self-identity to epithet; comrades become vandals; and neighbors become saboteurs. People no longer see how their destinies are intertwined. Olanna and Kainene learn through the terror and shocks of wartime that nothing—neither sexual infidelity nor personal jealousy—should estrange them.

Also coupled in Adichie’s novel is Richard, a British expatriate who falls in love with Kainene, and Madu, an officer in the Biafran army who also loves her. Richard moves to Nigeria with plans to write about what he sees as exotic art, 9th century Igbo-Ukwu art, which is just then being rediscovered in Nigeria and known in the West. He often seems like a lost soul. At the beginning of the book, he finds himself out of place in the expatriate community. In an act of rebellion against her parents, Kainene rescues him from that world and takes him as a lover. He gets caught up in the Biafran effort for independence and tries to become the literary voice of the Igbo people, a role that only Ugwu could fulfill. As his confusions grow, it becomes clear to the reader that he has exoticized both the Igbo-Ukwu pots and Kainene. Ultimately, Richard discovers that there is very little room for him in post-colonial Nigeria. Meanwhile his rival for Kainene’s affections, Madu, emerges as a man of integrity, resilience and fortitude and represents the best of Biafra’s culture despite the missteps of Biafra’s politicians.

It is appropriate to end this review with the epilogue from Ugwu’s book, “The World Was Silent When We Died”. After all, many people stood by while children starved and over one million people died. World powers, including Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union, protected their interests in oil by arming the federal government. The book’s critique of our complicities is painful to read.


Did you see photos in sixty-eight
Of Children with their hair becoming rust:
Sickly patches nestled on those small heads,
Then falling off, like rotten leaves on dust?

Imagine children with arms like toothpicks,
With footballs for bellies and skin stretched thin.
It was kwashiorkor—difficult word,
A word that was not quite ugly enough, a sin.

You needn’t imagine. There were photos
Displayed in gloss-filled pages of your Life.
Did you see? Did you feel sorry briefly,
Then turn round to hold your lover or wife?

Their skin had turned the tawny of weak tea
And showed cobwebs of vein and brittle bone:
Naked children laughing, as if the man
Would not take photos and then leave, alone (375).
e. Frances White is a professor in the Gallatin School and Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs at New York University. Her most recent books include, Dark Continent of Our Bodies: Black Feminism and the Politics of Respectability and Women in Sub-Saharan Africa: Restoring Women to History with Iris Berger.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Biafra's Half a Yellow Sun

I'm writing a review for the Women's Review of Books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun. The book is quite moving and sent me off to relearn the Nigerian history that I experienced as current events in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I first learned of the Nigerian Civil [Biafran] war from shocking television news images. For the first time, I saw images of African children with extended bellies and enlarged eyes suffering from kwashiorkor. I clearly identified with these children; but I couldn't figure out whom to blame for these atrocities. To further confuse me, we had a Nigerian exchange student staying with an extended family member and he was from a minority tribe within the Igbo area. He was distraught because the news seemed to be siding with the Igbo people who had formed Biafra despite the wishes of some of the minority ethnic groups in its region. I believe this was the first African I met and I was completely entranced by him. Of course, now I cannot remember any name or identifying information I could use to Google him. But he the impact of making all stories about Africa more complex for me.

When I went off to Wheaton College (MA), I met a classmate who was Igbo and who suffered greatly from the atrocities visited on the civilians during that led to some 2 million deaths. I suspect that my conflicting loyalties led me to avoid reading too closely about the Biafran/Nigerian Civil War until I was asked to do this review. After many years, I finally read Buchi Emecheta's Destination Biafra and Flora Nwapa's Never Again. I discovered that Adichie wrote into a very fertile literary territory in which many Nigerians had ventured to explain their cataclysmic civil war. Nigeria has produced so many great writers and and many of them had lived through the war at home, like Nwapa, or abroad, like Emecheta. I will have to place Half a Yellow Sun in this context. Well I better get to a write this review now. It was, after all, due on February 10!

Here's a good summary of the war and the lead up to it from Irem Szeman, Zones of Instability : Literature, Postcolonialism, and the Nation. Baltimore, MD, USA: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. p 120.

The Federation of Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960. A federal system of highly autonomous regions divided primarily along ethnic lines (Northern Region: Hausa-Fulani; Western: Yoruba; Eastern: Ibo) was established with the aim of making the country of Nigeria a workable whole. This close association of region and political party with ethnicity (one of the problems faced by many federations around the world) generated immediate difficulties for the new country: given the structure of the federal government, each election would inevitably result in one political party— and therefore one region and ethnic group— being effectively excluded from government (forming neither the official opposition or the government itself ). The inevitable ethnic tensions produced as a result were further heightened by the ethnic composition of the military: the officer corps were primarily Ibo, while the enlisted men were drawn mainly from the north.

A military coup led by Ibo officers in January 1966 constituted the last straw for the north and led to the eruption of violence against Ibo living in the north. A countercoup led by northern elements of the army led to the brief restoration of the federal system under the leadership of General Yakuba Gowon. This countercoup led to a mass exodus of Ibo from the north to the Eastern Region, and to the secession of the Eastern Region early in 1967 as the independent ‘‘Republic of Biafra.’’ An incursion by Biafran troops into the Western Region in an effort to capture Lagos led to all-out war on Biafra by the remaining regions of the federation; a blockade of Biafra by both land and sea contributed to the death of up to two million Biafran civilians, mainly by starvation, before the surrender of Biafra in January 1970. Only now is Nigeria beginning to emerge from this dark period that has effectively constituted the entire short history of the nation.••

The Biafran flag on which Adichie's
title is based: