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Challenges Historians Face in Africa Today: An Interview With Joseph K. Adjaye

"The discipline of history in Africa is facing a crisis in that it is attracting fewer and fewer students."

Dr. Joseph K. Adjaye is Emeritus Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, and Professor of History at the University of Ghana, Legon. 

What was your childhood like? Coming from Africa where higher education is notably low, how did you acquire secondary education?

Fortunately for me, I came from a family in which I was a third generation educated person. My maternal grandfather was an administrator in the British colonial legal justice system. Both of my parents went to school. My mother taught for some years while my father was a teacher and later a school administrator.

What influenced your interest in history and specifically African history?

My interest in African history had its roots in my secondary school education through what I later considered as a process of default or denial. My years in secondary school coincided with the waning years of colonialism in Ghana and so the curriculum was still characteristically what can be described as colonial education, which emphasized Europe to the exclusion of Africa. Let me illustrate. In regional geography, for example, we studied the British Isles, Scandinavia, Canada and Australia, but not Africa. In literature, the curriculum was centered on English literature—Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, the Romantics, etc. Again, African literature was nowhere. Similarly, our history syllabus was centered on European and English history. The Tudors, Stuarts, Charlemagne, Peter the Great, etc., still stick out in my mind. The point is that colonial education was grounded on the racist assumption that there was nothing worthy of academic or intellectual study in Africa; in fact, that African history, culture and traditions were repugnant. Take this example, which is quite revealing. My secondary school was boarding, as were most of the top ones. However, even though the boarding environment brought students together, we were prohibited from communicating with each other in our local languages. Thus, a student could be suspended from school if he was caught speaking his own language. I took the G. C. E. ‘O’ (Ordinary) Level in 1957, the year of Ghana’s independence and the ‘A’ (Advanced) Level in 1959. We wrote the same exams and on the same days as students at Cambridge which issued the certificates. And even though Ghana regained independence in 1957, it took some years for the school curricula to be indigenized.

Given the fact that we were deliberately denied the opportunity to study our own past in high school, my mates and I quickly jumped at the opportunity to take courses on African history when we entered the University of Ghana, Legon, in 1960. This was a period of tremendous transition. Isaac Tuffuor and A. Adu Boahen were spearheading a curricular transformation that validated and introduced African history. We, for our part, were excited to be introduced to such topics as the genesis of civilization in Egypt, Mansa Musa and the rise of Mali as a cosmopolitan and world-class intellectual center, Zimbabwe and the historical wonders of Monomatapa, as well as historical pioneers such as ibn Batuta, ibn Khaldun and others. And when we encountered in our historiographical journeys that Western apologists such as John Fage justified the European slave trade by racist theories that contended that the dislocations and disruptions brought about by the slave trading operations were not significantly different from what the continent had been experiencing for centuries through its internal ‘tribal’ warfare, we were really fired up.

How did these perspectives acquired through your education influence your career as a historian?

My first post-graduation teaching appointment was as a history teacher at St. John’s Secondary School in the Western Region of Ghana in 1963. Imbued with what little I had learnt in African history at the University of Ghana, I wasted no time in making curricular changes that replaced European history with African history in the school curriculum. Thus, I was the first to bring about this important transformation in my school. I extended this change to the ‘Workers College’ for adults, where I did some part-time teaching. My students everywhere were excited to be exposed to this ‘true’ history of our past that had been denied them through what our educators regarded as colonial curricular irrelevance and discrimination.

The challenge to confront the dominance of colonial historiographies, epistemological categories and intellectual hegemonies in general considerably influenced and impacted my early publications after my graduate training at Binghamton and Northwestern universities. What galvanized me and my contemporaries at the time was the need, initially, to counter the Trevor-Roperian assertion that Africa had no history before the coming of Europeans. We were determined to rewrite our history from the inside, that is, from the African standpoint. This is the perspective we term today as African agency and proclaiming African voices. It was these perspectives that undergirded my early publications, for example, on colonialism, imperialism, and slavery.

But my greatest contribution to this effort, I believe, came in my Ph.D. dissertation and its subsequent publication, Diplomacy and Diplomats in 19th Century Asante. My research and fieldwork were not only a challenge to the Western tenets of the historian’s craft derived almost exclusively from documentary sources but also a validation of the Africanist position that orally-derived sources of information were equally valid. In my field work, I interviewed indigenous historical narrators extensively. In the end, I demonstrated that African states such as Asante not only developed specialized institutions and mechanisms for the maintenance of external relations but also that its diplomatic practice was as sophisticated as any elsewhere. Subsequently, through a detailed study of the Asantehene (king) Prempe I’s exile in the Seychelles, I demonstrated that the Asante king’s 87-page handwritten document titled The History of the Ashanti Kings and the Whole Country Itself(1907) was a rare type of historiographical contribution, even as his narrative style derived considerably from the oral history tradition.

What brought you to the US?

It was this passion for African history and the commitment to correcting the injustices that had been done to our history by the ways in which our past had been presented to us that brought me first to the US in 1972. At the time, I headed a secondary school in Kumasi, Ghana, as a young 31-year-old school administrator. I won a national competition in a program called the Teacher Ambassador Program, which sought to recruit experienced teacher-representatives from various countries in the world to bring their cultures to the American classroom. Thus, my mission was to infuse aspects of Ghanaian history and culture into the curriculum of the Binghamton, New York, school system. I spent 1972-73 at North High School, teaching African history and developing curricula that emphasized Africa. That experience was an eye-opener for me. I was exposed to pervasive stereotypes and deep ignorance that characterized most Americans’ perceptions of Africa and Africans. My 9th grade students constantly asked me questions about Tarzan at a time when I had not even heard of Tarzan.

Following that one-year experience in the American high school system, which, I must confess, I did not enjoy, I pursued advanced training in African studies at Binghamton and Northwestern.

In my post-graduation career, I held teaching and administrative positions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1977-80), University of Wisconsin-Madison (1980-87) and the University of Pittsburgh (1987-2011). At all three institutions, one of my passions was African Studies outreach to schools, colleges and the general public. I developed extensive curricular materials to assist teaching on Africa, organized and taught workshops, and gave hundreds of campus and public presentations on Africa. In pursuance of my commitment to helping American students gain a better understanding of Africa, I developed a number of Group Projects Abroad programs which were supported by competitively gained federal funding. In these projects, the teacher-participants spent about 4-6 weeks studying Africa first-hand and developing curricular units for infusion into their classrooms upon their return. And the projects were highly popular because the federal funding paid for practically all the expenses.

When I came to the University of Pittsburgh in 1987, one of my achievements was that I created an African Studies Program, with the support of Professor Lou Picard, which brought together Africanist faculty from various departments to advance teaching and research about Africa.

What is your overriding teaching philosophy?

My teaching philosophy is grounded in the belief that my primary responsibility is to engage students to research historical information and apply it to understand issues confronting us in the world today. This cannot be based on memorization of historical figures, dates and events. A catalogue of events and dates by themselves is useless. Rather, an understanding of the significance of particular historical facts and how they influenced processes of change are critical. My ultimate goal is to challenge students to develop critical minds. Students should not become uncritical consumers of facts and data. Counter-conclusions should not be dismissed. Broadly speaking, history empowers students to be better citizens. This is an ongoing process.

The use of multimedia resources as a teaching aid is useful, though admittedly such materials are limited at African institutions of higher learning. I seek to strike a balance between the traditional lectures format and the use of audio-visual materials and discussion sessions. Throughout, I emphasize intellectual integrity.

My lectures are organized around central theses, using them as examples for students to learn how to formulate a thesis, gather facts, organize evidence, and analyze it critically, supported by different arguments, and I encourage students to do the same in their writing. Good writing requires the formulation of a clear thesis, the gathering and organizing of evidence, and expounding it logically and critically. Assignments should be diversified and go beyond the traditional research essays to include both objective and qualitative questions, quizzes, group and collaborative projects and historical simulations. For the African arena, it is also important for students to be able to assess the significance of a historical development in relation to others globally.

I am also a believer in the validity and utility of interdisciplinarity. My teaching and publications are considerably influenced by my belief that approaches to researching, analyzing and constructing the African past must be inclusive of social, cognitive and material aspects of history. Thus, perspectives from other disciplines including anthropology, sociology, political science and linguistics must be recognized and given attention. Indeed, the cornerstone of African history today, as some would suggest, is that which is constructed from the ground up, that which gives attention to the oft-forgotten and marginalized masses, that which illuminates subtle but complex historical insights buried in the quite mundane everyday lives of people. My belief in interdisciplinarity has considerably influenced my publications. My six books and dozens of articles, book chapters and review essays span subjects as diverse as chieftaincy, cultural transmission, information transformation, indigenous knowledge, Ghanaian rituals, and sustainable development; time in the Black experience, Black popular culture, sports and citizenship; and slavery, the African diaspora, African security, and African historiography.

What have you been doing since your retirement?

Upon my retirement in 2011 as Emeritus Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, I decided to return home to Ghana and give back something to the society and institutions that ‘produced’ me. Towards this end, I took up a part-time teaching appointment in the History Department at the University of Ghana, Legon. Even though my position was part-time, I took up leadership roles in the revival of their graduate program, the expansion of historiography course offerings, and other efforts to strengthen the department, and my colleagues were appreciative of my contributions. To sustain student interest in history as a major, I set up the Professor Joseph Adjaye Endowment Scholarships, which annually offers tuition grants to undergraduate students majoring in history or graduates pursuing M. Phil. and Ph.D. degrees.

Alongside these efforts, I have also maintained my research activities. A couple of months ago, my most recent book, Elmina, ‘The Little Europe’: European Impact and Cultural Resilience, was published (Sub-Saharan Publishers, Accra, 2018).

At the societal level, my return home gave me the opportunity to similarly engage myself more actively in family affairs and my church activities which has included my funding of a scholarship program that assists needy student parishioners. I have similarly been actively involved in several development projects at my alma mater, St. Augustine’s College.

In your opinion, what is the purpose of history? Who are its intended consumers, and does the historian have a social responsibility?

I contend that historical writing should not be meant for university academics, school teachers or students solely. History, as knowledge, is not only a product of contemporary reality, but also contributes to the molding of that reality. Hence, history responds to, and is shaped by, the realities of the times such as nationalism, poverty, violence, etc.

The quest for distinctly African constructions of history provides lenses through which we might seek to better understand African societies, for there are realms of knowledge that are buried deep in local contexts, e.g., the realms of oral history, which pre-dated the written form.

There is the perennial question: should history function as a science of praxis? Some contend that historical production should go beyond an academic enterprise to serve as an instrument of cultural and national identity, a tool for responding to contemporary social, political and economic conditions. Hence, the historian must have a social responsibility. I wouldn’t go as far as to call for history as ideology, but rather I would urge a commitment in historical production that illuminates existing social problems and therefore a historical writing that can have a place in the service of national reconstruction and development.

What are the challenges facing the historian, the discipline of history, and historical production today?

I will answer this question with reference specifically to Africa although some of my observations have relevance for the history profession everywhere.

Admittedly, colonial and Western paradigms of historical construction have now been successfully challenged and overturned. However, a number of significant limitations continue to constrain the history profession in Africa.

* Among the troubling issues is brain drain, the loss of trained historians either to other professions or to opportunities abroad.

* A severe paucity of infrastructures of research and teaching at home as well as limited accessibility to resources located abroad.

* A condition which some see as stagnation in scholarship. Limited research facilities and resources, combined with hard economic situations, have severely constrained the ability of African scholars to publish. One consequence of this condition is that most scholars are hardly able to go beyond their first book publication, which is usually a revision of their doctoral thesis.

* Indeed, there is very little incentive to publish. Very few viable presses exist in Africa.

* A further problem facing historical production in Africa is that despite the proliferation of institutions of higher learning on the continent, the most prestigious sites for pursuing African history/studies remain outside the continent, as African universities lack the finances to fund research, publication, staffing and programmatic activities such as conferences.

* Some might even acknowledge that the discipline of history in Africa is facing a crisis in that it is attracting fewer and fewer students. Many students consider the pursuit of history as ‘useless’ and unrewarding economically.