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Continuation of The Conversation With Professor Kenneth Harrow

Professor Kenneth Harrow

This is a continuation of the Toyin Falola interview with Professor Kenneth Harrow who has been a Distinguished Professor of English at Michigan State University (MSU), also a devoted explorer of post-colonial African cinematic culture.

Professor Kenneth Harrow


 A – The Interview

Toyin Falola

Let me start with a most basic question: why African Cinema and how important is the nexus between Literature and Film? Looking at your transition from Literature into Film Criticism, how has it been and what, in fact, prompted it?

Ken Harrow

Let me answer the first two questions together. I began my career with the study of African literature, initially, working on Maghrebian literature in 1973-4. In 1977 I went to Cameroon on a Fulbright and stayed for two wonderful years. After which my work turned primarily to sub-Saharan literature. It was hard to bring my French up to speed in order to read francophone literature along with anglophone, but the years in Cameroon were followed by several long sejours in Senegal, and each stay deepened my attachment to African studies in the broadest sense, especially in the work on African authors. Cinema was not yet a scholarly topic for me, not a field in which I could imagine teaching and publishing, although early on I did take the film work of authors like Assia Djebar, Sembène Ousmane, or Wole Soyinka into consideration. I gradually became familiar with the fuller corpus of films of the major Cameroonian and Senegalese filmmakers, Dikonge-Pipa, Daniel Kamwa, Sembène, and the Sahelian filmmakers Sissoko, Cissé, Kabore, Ouédraogo, Niger’s Oumarou Ganda Alassane, and then most of those well-known in sub-Saharan Africa making films. But I do believe that most of us working on cinema were primarily literature scholars, and we honored both domains just as authors like Sembène or Soyinka also created in both media. The questions you posed are best answered for me by the two African Literature Association conferences I organized, and then by my publications. The first occurred in East Lansing in 1986. I believed in the need to support the theorizing of African literature using the most powerful postcolonial thinkers of the day whose works were animating “Third World” studies. Said, Spivak, Gates—not known for their work specifically on African literature—were keynote speakers, along with a host of African thinkers of note: Khatibi, Midiohouan, Irele, Anozie, Appiah, Gates, Sherley Anne Williams, Bouraoui, Chinweizu, JanMohamed, Nkosi, and others. It was enormously exciting, and as you can see by the names, black and Third World studies and theory in the richest sense were served by bringing these thinkers together. I was very concerned that African literary studies was bypassing some of the great work on post-structuralism in favor of older fashioned sociological readings depending on mimesis and realism, or at most semiotics; that post structuralism that had marked all the major developments in literary theory by the 1980s were not being developed in our field. I asked Gates about the issue of using non-African theorists in approaching African texts, and he said, use whatever works best; why handicap ourselves unnecessarily.

As I then worked on my own scholarship, my first book Thresholds of Change in African Literature: The Emergence of a Tradition (1994), took up that challenge. But it was a twofold challenge: first, to try to employ post-structuralist theorizing in reading African literature across three phases, from its early literature of temoignage or bearing witness, revolt, and then literature of the oxymoron, where I brought in deconstruction, down to the experimental period of Sony Labou Tansi. But I was particularly interested in establishing that African authors did not need prior responses to the west, were not working, simply to respond to European literature. I cared less about Achebe writing back to Conrad, or any other African writing back to European mis-comprehension or racism, than about Africans creating a literary tradition that would inspire future authors to take as their frame of reference. That was why I periodized the writing and took the early authors as foundational.

I continued after than by focusing on feminism: again using Western Feminism as an analytical tool. I wanted to bridge what was most inspiring about the major French feminist authors of the day, including Kristeva, Cixous and Irigaray, along with African women thinkers and authors. I knew I had to become familiar with everything African women had written, to be able to bring the major authors like Dangarembga, Beyala, Aidoo, Tadjo, and Boni etc. into the discussions that feminist writers were holding in the west. It was an enormous challenge since the tendency was to deny the relevance of western feminism for African women. I never accepted the claim that western thought would be irrelevant for Africa, but ultimately wanted to believe in the co-existence of the feminisms, thinking of Africans on the continent along with those working in the west and in the diaspora. My model for this early work was Bhabha, but was to become predominantly influenced by Simon Gikandi and V.Y. Mudimbe.

All this time my work in cinema grew: I organized the first courses in “Third World Cinema” and then African American cinema, and African cinema, at MSU, and taught them for years. In 1997 I organized a second ALA conference titled “FESPACO Nights in Michigan,” a tongue-in-cheek name. I brought more than a dozen of the most famous filmmakers, including Djibril Diop Mambety, Ola Balogun, and Gaston Kabore, as well as the young Bekolo, and tried to jump start the study of African cinema. Trinh T. Minh-ha and Werewere Liking were also there. From then on it grew until in the last ten years of my career cinema studies gradually subsumed my work on literature, and my books focused on film.

Toyin Falola

Thank you. What about your preferred work environment and how did your background and experiences strengthen your academic interests and academic departments you have handled? 

Ken Harrow:

I work at home, in my corner in the family room, laptop perched on my lap. Background: a humanities degree from MIT and Comp Lit from NYU, opened me to broaden, not narrow, fields. When I first went to Algeria and Morocco in 1973, I began to see a new world outside of Europe. Four years later we went to Yaounde; the two years there radically altered my world, and my perception of values. I embraced that experience totally. After our return to Michigan in 1979, I would periodically find a way to return and spend real time in Africa, usually in Dakar, and lived for those experiences and all the other exchanges with Africans and Africanists at home. The opening to black studies in the 1980s came at the most fortuitous time for me, as I was able to gradually teach African humanities, African literature, African cinema, and related diaspora studies for most of the rest of my career. By the end of the 2010s that was to become no longer the case. First postcolonial studies supplanted area studies, so I had to broaden the spectrum of materials that I taught. In cinema that was a pleasure, as I learned about Latin American and Middle Eastern or Asian cinemas. But eventually even that was too narrow for the STEM or non-Humanities systems of education that came to supplant the liberal arts, and it had to be within the frame of Global Studies that I could cast my net for students. My greatest joy was directing graduate students who specialized in the areas I loved, students who included Carmela Garritano, Connor Ryan, Cajetan Iheka, Olabode Ibironke, Emilie Diouf, Hilary Kowino, Lamia Ben Youssef, Kayode Ogunfolabi, and many others. We shared all the important experiences of teaching and research, of getting jobs and grants, etc. And I believe we were part of the world of the African Literature Association and African Studies Association.

Toyin Falola

Let us look at the cultural spaces in the United States and Africa. What are the commonalities and differences, especially for somebody who has been so much involved in the African cultural space?

Ken Harrow:

The United States is marked by race very deeply. Traveling to Africa enabled me to escape the burden of that system. When I returned home to MSU, it was to a campus, and world, where the struggle for black rights was important, and increasingly basic, as affirmative action fought to take hold. In Africa the cultural struggle entailed African life and values establishing their independence from European, especially French, rule, or control, or hegemony. It took quite a while for me to appreciate how there was intellectual and cultural collaboration as well as revolutionary rejection of neocolonial, that it was possible for thinkers to join those worlds and find enriched meaning. Think Khatibi’s Love in Two Languages (Amour bilingue). Unquestionably the thinker who most brought that to light for me was Simon Gikandi, though Mudimbe laid the groundwork for understanding how Afrocentrism could broaden our perspective, not narrow it. The same could be said for Said and Spivak, much as they were deeply immersed in western thought and culture. But the further complication over race arose as I collaborated with African American colleagues to create a new graduate program called African American and African Studies. Carole Boyce Davies was instrumental in helping me see and navigate the truly vast gap between those worlds, and Nwando Achebe and James Pritchett also helped enormously in building that bridge at MSU. I came to understand how it marked the history of the ASA, but not the ALA. How interior tensions between North African studies and sub-Saharan had been marked by racial tensions, and of course there was always South Africa, a world I generally ignored during my career. All of those tensions carried over to MSU for those like myself who considered myself part of both African American and African scholarly communities; of North African as well as sub-Saharan, of all those worlds outside of the American or western mainstream. Perhaps the key is in recognizing how the diaspora, especially in the Caribbean world, modeled that rapprochement. One things of the creolization movement and people like Chamoiseau, not to mention Walcott and Glissant. All these figures inspired my teaching and thinking.

Toyin Falola

What informed the work Trash, A Study of the African Cinema? What provoked the title?

Ken Harrow:

Trash was my second book on African cinema. The first, African Cinema: From the Political to the Postmodern in part continued my goal of extending theoretical frames beyond historical or sociological concerns, and using the exciting contemporary film studies approaches of the day, which included psychoanalytical and postmodern. I tried to be comprehensive in looking at the range of films produced from the time of Sembène down to the present. But Trash: African Cinema from Below was my favorite book. I took the lead of people like Robert Stam, in his work on “garbage” cinema from Brazil, and of course the queer cinemas, including John Waters, whose inspirations were found in exceeding mainstream, conventional, typically Hollywoodian commercial films. (Waters had a “trash” trilogy, and nobody was “trashier” than his star actress Divine.) African films were made in opposition to that western mainstream commercial cinema, from the outset: African filmmakers were committed, politically, and nationalist in the sense of national liberation. Very few real commercial ventures made it, until Nollywood in the 1990s. But African oppositionality had to defy dominant western, European, white, conventional worldviews and values, and that applied to cinema as well. What made for high culture in the west often was done by the exclusion of black or African worlds and values. That is an old story. How could the excluded “trash” undo its disparagement? Well, great authors and thinkers pushed the dominant order in a multitude of ways (think Soyinka’s The Road, or even the Jero plays). I had to learn really what it meant to assume a perspective “from below,” and use that perspective to overturn the system, the order, that set those values in place. It was possible to do so by embracing models of viewing, of value, really, provided in much great African cinema. Although my publishers were worried about using the term “Trash” in the title, I was convinced that its subversive quality set the right tone for a book that sought to embrace a perspective intended to overturn a dominant film order, and in fact I would use it for all aspects of African cultural production, from the arts to music and literature.

Part B – Interview analysis and reflections by Toyin Falola

It is becoming a trite observation that human society survives on myths: symbolic stories told and believed for large social relations and cooperation. In light of this, and the way human societies are structured for this purpose, literature and performance occupy a peculiar front in which these societies are reproduced in their peculiar forms for generations, as cultures of several peculiar traditions and giving. In Africa, for instance, through the literary production of the people, a lot has been revealed about the past of societies to scholars, mostly to social archeologists. As they animate the social reality of a society through certain representations, they determine what is known as well as those pieces of knowledge that could be deduced from this period in history for these scholars. In times of joy, sorrow, war, peace, plantation, harvest and at every other significant moment in the lives of the people of Africa, like every other culture, peculiar art forms are attached to define the moment. Through their literary representation, they give meaning to these important events and moments. In this process, literary productions in Africa mostly come in the form of poems and stories of different forms designed for different purposes. In one instance, one could observe that praise poems found among African cultures have different forms in accordance with the culture in view. Legends, myths, tales, and riddles are among the long and short stories common in African societies. Through these art productions, society’s social form is transformed into tangibles for all to remember and reproduce. Understanding the literature of a particular society, which is tantamount to understanding its art forms, is essential to understanding the society and to being acculturated. The poems—like the tales, myths, and legends—describe and tell the history of an event, person, place, thing, or phenomenon that encapsulates the essence of the subject. These are literary forms and works produced far into the past and have gained more content attributable to the time in which they were reproduced over time. Word, logos, and orature/orality become the cardinal tools of expressing these givings, thereby making creative oral arts the first to produce and understand literature.

This makes literature one of the earliest inventions of humans. Whereas civilization in the Islamic part of Africa—as in the Maghreb—transformed this into a writing culture early enough, literature in many parts of Africa was made and transmitted through word of mouth until late in the nineteenth century when Christian missionaries from Europe, returnee black slaves, and other interested agents of colonization that included the merchant companies and colonial governments needed to transform this into written form for communication. This was mostly to the advantage of the Christian missionaries who needed this form of communication to gain more converts. Already, areas dominated by Islam before this time adopted the Arabic syntax and writing culture. Consequent upon the foregoing, the transformation of literature into their written textual forms came as a gradual process in sync with the people’s evolution. The first documentation of many of the languages along the Sub-Sahara came in the form of translation of the Bible text from English, just as the adoption of Arabic syntax into Muslim-dominated regions was introduced through readings and use of the Qur’an. Following this, the two dominant languages that conveyed these cultures’ literary productions were the indigenous and colonial languages. In most cases, the documentation of African languages in written texts produced new identities. For instance, this was used to reinforce the Yoruba identity among the people who populate the southwestern part of modern Nigeria.

If the people could learn the language from their daily social relations, putting these words into (proper) writing would require going through the structured form of knowing laid out by the European learning model. With the prevalence of this system, literature is seen as relatable only to creative written arts and those who could produce it and must have to go through this concretely structured process as against the fluid learning largely drawn from the everyday living engagements and experiences of the people that produced previous knowledge that shaped and governed society. Expressly, knowledge production and systems in Africa were restructured, redefining, among many other things, literacy. Meanwhile, both at the surface and in deeper levels, literacy conveys the basic ability to relate with works of art, especially in their literary form.

Scholars from different fields have made the argument on several occasions, including anthropology, history and literature, on the form of literary art production that constitutes literature or a rather literary production. One that is appealing, broadly-given, and succinct relates literature and literary productions to the representation of everything present or perceived to be present in a community of people either through word of mouth or in written texts. Either way, they give (concrete) form to the ontologies and other beliefs of the people, including those in their metaphysical bearing.

Unarguably, Africa has come a long way since independence. And the same story could be rightly told of the region’s study by scholars from different fields. Adopting several methods of inquiry, scholars have theorized virtually every aspect of post-colonial African reality. From the “incredibles” to the credible, the African past once lost by (deliberate) ignorance and malicious intent have come to serve as the central nerve of these increasing academic endeavors. Owing to numerous reasons related to the above, this intellectual space of curiosity has been dominated by scholars and researchers outside of the continent.

Further, and as a direct consequence, this space has been controlled considerably by institutions outside of the region, mainly in western cities and capitals. This brings African study keenly close to the diaspora population and institutions in every form.  These institutions and populations have since laid new and fundamental paths for African studies within and without Africa. Encapsulating the whole dynamics of this phenomenon would be the socio-economic conditions of post-colonial Africa. In the twentieth century world of knowledge production in Africa designed and dominated by western ontologies and structures, capitalism prevails earnestly in every stage of navigating this system. Shifting from the traditional form of education premised primarily on cognition, education became part-and-parcel of the luxury of western taxonomic modernity. Of course, only a few Africans could afford this system of education.

Literary Figures

Again, the political hullabaloo that disrupted Africa’s post-colonial expectation was a sort of direct visa for scholars outside of the shores of Africa. And added to this is that Africa represents a virgin land for intellectual exploitation—and not just a medium of nuclear and medical tests— compared to the “over-researched” societies in Europe. In simple terms, many African states’ post-colonial realities, especially in the Sub-Saharan region, have made it an area of special interest to scholars far and near. Accordingly, to an immeasurable extent, many academic careers have been built around the African narrative of post-coloniality. In this interview, Ken Harrow has provided us with his unique entanglement with this world and its conflicting realities. Arts and artforms of societies, regardless of the space and time, are embodiments of the people’s lived experiences in view. They capture these realities in terms of compositions and expectations in creative ways like none other. They demonstrate this soft function through metaphoric, mythical, and symbolic expressions that impregnate their meanings for endless interrogation, especially by literary critics. One could not have conceived their functions less, considering that cultural industries are invariably situated within a deep and complex functioning of the society they represent. If anything, cinema can be seen as the performative front that links literature to reality.

Thanks to technological advancements and the digital revolution, African cinema has grown exponentially to the extent to which it could be rightly said to have left literature behind. Today, Nigeria’s Nollywood industry (a name allegedly given to it from the diaspora by another extended diaspora figure, Norimitsu Onishi of the New York Times) is rated only next to Bollywood, not in terms of quality of film productions but the quantity of production.

The reason for this is closely related to what has been construed to imply the democratization of the cultural space in Africa, as in other parts of the world. Democratization implies that the popular culture industry now dominates modern states’ cultural production. The new millennium digital revolution pushed this culture further into prominence from what it used to be during the years of black cultural revolution that spread from America to upturn the conservative Victorian-Puritanical culture that reigned supreme in Britain until late in the twentieth century. Through the increasing integration of the world along social, economic, and political lines, not even African cultures could resist this innovative infiltration. Post-colonial music became slices of American and Caribbean music genres like Jazz and Calypso, and together with some local mixtures, all blended to produce the unique popular tunes of the period played in emerging clubs, at parties and other entertainment spaces. The introduction of a video cassette, otherwise known as the Video Home System, was the first fundamental break in the performance industry following the emergence of traveling theater groups that played on stage at different locations and the Cinema. African film industries have now expanded so much that they were featured in international film festivals and awards.

Toyin Falola, Observer

The transformation from vinyl technology to tapes and subsequent advancements in audio production should also be noted in the changes in this industry—the cultural industry in Africa. Further enhancing the cinema and performative art over literature is the emergence of television stations, among other numbers of media expansion of the twentieth century, which literature had also benefitted in emerging African states. However, until about two decades ago, the world of literary production in Africa revolved around magazines, pamphlets, newspapers, books, and anything in print. The media of literary production remained analog for a long time and mostly appealed to different sections of society, unlike the film and music industries that appealed to a wider audience across different sections and social stratification. This limited the democratization of the literary space in modern African states, unlike in the performative arts where technological changes have been consistent. Compared to the visual art, the role of the gatekeepers kept in their various posts by the structure that executes the system has remained considerably in the literary world, thereby telling on the production and extent of distribution.

Short videos on Instagram, YouTube, and other social media platforms using smartphones, together with hour-long movies on various websites and platforms, have become so ubiquitous in post-independent African states for the entertainment purpose they serve. Technological advancements over the years since the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century in western Europe have ensured that the time and cost of producing these artworks are considerably reduced. Consequently, the production process is liberalized, leaving behind the companies’ gatekeeping culture and big money in the industry that had represented in the past. Distribution companies suffered more like others in the conventional structure of film and music production. All of the additions in the use of technology brought the evolving culture in society to the people in larger numbers at the same time. In simple terms, the introduction of e-books and other self-publishing media for free publishing and distribution of literary works still carries two fundamental challenges: the largely stratified audience; and the limited platform for free self-publishing and distribution.

Altogether, however, the post-colonial art industry in Africa poses many challenges that reflect the contradictions of modern African states. Simultaneously, the industry poses challenging questions on these realities for scholars to engage with through their theoretical lens. Therefore, it becomes imperative to pursue the comprehension of the intricacies of post-colonial Africa through every form of art production coming out of its cultural industries for better appreciation of the magnitude of our decolonization framework, which is in itself, hydra-headed. The political, social and economic implications of the decolonization movement among the intellectual community in Africa are palpable for all that have observed and followed the African academe’s decolonization discourse. Marching towards independence, every sector of society, including the arts, had been dominated by foreign archetypes, symbols, signifiers, and taste. Post-colonial states in Africa fertilized this trend with their socio-economic decays, which repelled investment in the African art industry. At some point, notably during the early burning years of the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) from the mid-70s to the 1990s, foreign companies that had invested in the music and film industries in Africa scampered for safety back to their home countries due to the massive loss recorded at the time. Many local investors ran at an equal loss and had no place to run except to the government for patronage. Many media houses were liquidated with unemployment reaching its peak. The decolonization and resuscitation of this industry for local art production then became one of the major challenges to be overcome by African states for a genuine claim of independence.

Kunle Afolayan, Nigeria’s award-winning film director

By the turn of the new millennium, this began to change with the advent of new technologies and gradual economic recovery of these states, bringing the film and music industry in the continent to global acclaim. This notwithstanding, these art productions have to compete vigorously with their foreign counterparts that have hitherto gained more ground due to their absence and are still gaining more ground to some extent due largely to issues related to product quality. Through conferences, seminars, journals, book publications, theses/dissertations, lectures, and all other forms and platforms of knowledge sharing, African Cinema has been well integrated into post-colonial discourse and decolonization debates on Africa.

Harrow has engaged this space from the vantage position of pluralism, i.e., African knowledge within African experience and against African knowledge within Eurocentric misconception. In this way, Africanist scholars are encouraged to globalize the exploration of their subjects considering of the data at hand, concentrating less on the glorification of Eurocentric views that have hitherto characterized African scholarship at the time as an endless response to this discredited scholarship.

What is more to this is that there will be less focus on where an idea that suits the purpose of exploring the post-colonial African formation emanates from, insofar as it goes into the imminent decolonization movement. Moreover, in this current planetary age, pragmatism and sophistication of knowledge systems dictate that knowledge acquisition can no longer be compartmentalized by discipline, region, or methodology.  As Harrow had mentioned, the argument will no longer be whether the devil is black or red but as the dynamics and purpose of its functionality.

From this standpoint, the liberating African knowledge system will not only result in ending the unnecessary debate on the concrete form of decoloniality but liberalize the space for potential possibilities that could safely drive this process home. According to Harrow in the interview, decolonization is integral to the cacophonic form of post-colonial Africa, including those related to displaced persons and refugees. Through his works and others in African literature, Cinema and Performative Arts, these realities have been dissected and given meaning. The message of the everyday struggle for survival by an average African in the Sub-Saharan region, to the extent of following a suicidal path that leads to Europe along the Maghreb region of Africa, has been told in these movies and the literature. Like every other academic field in the humanities and social sciences, Africanist scholars dealing with literary productions in the region are primarily concerned with the need to disengage this space from western colonization. This way, attempts have been made to extend the epistemological and ontological frames of knowing in the states with the view of capturing, in the broader sense, the social realities of the people alongside their cultural peculiarities. To this extent, Professor Harrow has called attention to those movies that could not make their way to the big screen and top markets, such as Netflix and all.

These movies often showed in film festivals carry powerful messages about the evolution of the post-colonial state in Africa. Reflectively, we are taking it back to the preponderance of capitalism in the system and structure that processes and produces “knowledge” as conceived in post-independent Africa. Similarly, the color or nationality of a scholar does not automatically translate into Eurocentric or Afrocentric scholarship, but the content of the scholarship. Works belonging to the likes of Soyinka, Ousmane, Kamwe, Kelani, Djebar and others that influenced Harrow’s interest in literature and performance are premised on the Afrocentric understanding of these societies.


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  1. […] post Continuation of The Conversation With Professor Kenneth Harrow appeared first on The Chronicle […]

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