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THE TOYIN FALOLA INTERVIEWS – A CONVERSATION WITH PROFESSOR KENNETH HARROW

Professor Kenneth Harrow

PART 1:  A PRODIGOUS CAREER

Several intellectuals have dedicated their research studies on Africa and Africans by exploring various African experiences. Not many, however, have concentrated on the exploration of post-colonial African cinematic culture like Kenneth Harrow does with energetic zeal. Harrow has been a Distinguished Professor of English at Michigan State University (MSU), where he began his teaching career in 1966. During this long period, he has made numerous additions to the intellectual world of MSU and offered invaluable contributions that combine to produce breathtaking results on his university’s general outlook and the academic community in general.

Many decades ago, Kenneth Harrow bagged a B. S. in M. I. T., after which he continued in the same energy to secure his Master’s in English from the New York University, following this with the obtainment of his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the same school, NYU. Professor Harrow had background knowledge in European and American literature, which constituted the foundation of his comparative interest. He was well-versed in the American and European literary culture and traditions, and he made a resounding impact in the field. However, there was the urge to explore his intellectual environment, and Africa became the center of interest by what Africans might call “cosmic arrangements.”

Ken Harrow was rather enthused by Africans’ socio cultural effervescence, then became fixated on exploring the interconnection of these bubbling African civilizations and their contemporary cinematic culture. Given that people’s cinematic culture reflects their perception and principles, it is understandable that he decided to use that to mirror African life and to gain expert knowledge about them. He became fascinated by African cultures from what he admitted to and immediately decided to become more than a distant observer. Today, this erudite Professor has a profound teaching career with his talent and knowledge in those aspects of African history and traditions acquired while gathering firsthand experiences. To establish how well-groomed he was in the African cinematic culture, he has produced very intriguing works on African postcolonial expertise in the course of his teaching experience that now has spanned more than half a century. Since his appointment in 1966, he has unlocked the key to purposeful academic engagements and introduced ever-curious sets of students to it at different times. Between 1977 and 2017, Professor Harrow led many study-abroad programs to Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, and Senegal. If anything should be doubted about this Professor, it is not his unrivaled intellectual eclecticism.

Ever since he fixated his attention on African knowledge and culture, he has made impressive landmarks and remarkable contributions to the existing body of knowledge in that regard. His works focus on African cinema, Diaspora, and Postcolonial Studies, including African literature. Going by these engagements, Harrow has catapulted himself into an enviable height where scholars in the stated fields recognize his invaluable contributions and seek his expert knowledge. As a postcolonial critic and expert, there has been the revelation of African internal politics that shape the people’s socioeconomic system in many of his works. In what would be pointedly disclosed in one of his writings, seeing Africa from a distance usually corrupts one’s judgment about the continent and its people. The African situation is unique for many reasons, and the most reliable way to understand them is to walk a mile in their shoes. By living in Senegal and then Cameroon, Professor Harrow showed that he has the authority to philosophize and project conclusions about Africans, using his intellectual expertise and sense of evaluation. To his credit, he has produced several works that continue to shape how we generally perceive Africans and also preserve hitherto darkened areas that are perhaps deliberately masked by famous authors or innocently abandoned. He wrote Thresholds of Change in African Literature (Heinemann, 1994), Postcolonial African Cinema: From Political Engagement to Postmodernism (Indiana University Press, 2007), Less Than One and Double: A Feminist Reading of African Women’s Writing (Heinemann, 2002), and Trash! A Study of African Cinema Viewed from Below (Indiana University Press, 2013).

Quite a number of his works have feminist appeal because his exploration of African situations extend to interrogating the women’s experience in the African sociopolitical and socio cultural milieu. Through his continuous academic inquiry, we have come to shift our understanding about African women, mainly because the academic world, before concerted research efforts unveiling important information about Africans, was used to make sweeping generalizations that have unsubstantiated explanations. African women are exposed to various harsh conditions, notably because of social experiences that are not unconnected to colonialism. This general impression gets from the works of scholars whose interest is the post-colonial African state, the indestructibility of colonial legacies even when they seem to be acidic and politically poisonous to African development. We realize through their argument that the African woman is a victim of excruciating dual experiences, marginalization due to colonialism, and oppression resulting from endemic patriarchy. The fact that women in the current African world are mistreated is usually alluded to by many critics. Still, with the educative works from intellectuals like Professor Harrow, we have discovered the uniqueness of their African situation and corresponding experiences. Undoubtedly, the works of this Professor on African women are very educative.

It is difficult to challenge the fact that Harrow has been a successful educator and also a mentor. He has witnessed the clash of ideas and philosophies during his course of academic delivery. At various times, he has had to witness heated debates from his students and colleagues over their disagreement and opinions about issues raised by postcolonial writers. In fact, on different occasions, he has functioned more as a mentor and counselor to his students over his assessment of what they needed at each point of their intellectual exchange. For a successful academic like him, those in the field would understand that his success as a teacher and a mentor has been because he has a profound sense of collaboration.

In most cases, teaching graduate courses demands that the teacher is open to various contentious opinions, argued with sometimes intimidatingly solid points. However, there is always a need to strike a common ground, which has helped push him to an enviable position. This is a man who believes in varying opinions. He receives criticism with a different level of understanding. In most cases, he considers them an opportunity to expand one’s knowledge horizons and add experience to one’s teaching environment. Harrow does not set boundaries for those who do not belong to the same academic field, as he understands that evaluations and constructive criticism can come from anyone.

Apart from the four books credited to Professor Harrow, highlighted above, there are many other publications connected to his name. He has published approximately 63 articles and 28 book chapters, apart from editing numerous collections. There have been different conferences organized to his name, and he has also been involved in the delivery of academic programs in other parts of the world. All of these publications have had an immense impact on the perception of people about Africans generally. Perhaps, beyond what could be easily measured, his works have paved the way for reconsidering African political and economic policy as there appears to remain a connection between their sociopolitical conditions and their swelling migration rates. Increased attention drawn to migration studies and Diaspora existence cannot be said to have no relationship with experts’ works in the field. The contributions of Professor Harrow cannot be overemphasized in this domain. His ingenuity has been repeatedly shown not only in MSU, but it has also extended to Africa, where he demonstrated his knowledge and expertise at different symposia. Between 1982 and 1983, he delivered powerful lectures at the University of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and the University of Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, Senegal. During these experiences, his academic excellence was not unnoticed.

Professor Harrow’s scholarship remains actively significant to general knowledge because it has impacted our perception of the African people and cultures. All his literary productions have revealed the ingenuity of a man who has dedicated his academic career to know more about the African people and whose contributions in the same academic field have an enduring impact. His book, Trash: African Cinema from Below, challenges popular perception about Africans by probing the foundation of our sentiment against them. It addresses the intricacies of politics and power distribution that usually have devastating consequences on the people in the long run. If the average African is conceived as intemperate, stagnant, not creative, the result shown provides a summary not actually about the individual incapacity, but the overall downsides of their political life.

In most cases, the African cinematic culture is caught in this web by switching sides and favors the powerful obviously because of a determination to remain economically relevant. For this reason, realism is altered on the threshold of subjectivity. There is a poor sense of equity and equitable representation, and the fact is masked by the people who produced these cinematic contents. Therefore, one would be dumbfounded as to where the producers of these producers’ loyalty lie, with the government officials or the general public?

In essence, Harrow questions the postcolonial hybridity in the contemporary African cinematic culture without suspending their originality. It disrupts the order of imagining the people, creates an intellectual atmosphere for engaging the modern African cinema and film making, and therefore places some dangling question marks on their contemporary aesthetics in the globalized world. In his Less than One and Double: A Feminist Reading of African Women’s Writing (2002), Professor Harrow takes a pioneering dive into a less researched angle in literary criticism where he employed the psychoanalytical theory for the interrogation of African women experience in the literary pieces by the Francophone African women writers. In this work, he sufficiently x-rayed these women’s experiences about how they have been victims of social permutations and religious sentiments. The women in these environments are candidates of oppression because they are tied down with religious philosophies. Because of their separation from politics and other social arrangements, they have suffered from the result of such marginalization like depression, among other things. In Thresholds of Change in African Literature: The Emergence of a Tradition (1994), he considered the contemporary development in African political and economic trends despite having overwhelming postcolonial challenges to navigate inside. He states the profound accomplishments associated with the current crops of African leaders and linked that with an inherent determination to change the narrative about the African world. Their collaborative development is a testament to their conscious decisions to attain a geometrical height despite contending with indeterminate challenges.

Unmistakably, these intellectual productions demonstrate his commitment to global scholarship, and his never-ending additions to African literary productions and cinematic culture speak to several facts. His activeness in the provision of intellectual contributions to the United States of America cannot be overemphasized. His involvement as an academic at MSU has yielded a series of positive impacts on the country’s intellectual outlook, adding that his invaluable contributions have enriched African Diaspora studies.

Professor Harrow’s importance cannot be over-estimated, for he has etched his name among people who have transformed the global knowledge economy using their intellectual capabilities. Having edited several issues on academic journals whose thematic focus centers on African Nationalism, Women Sociocultural Experiences in Africa, African Cinema, and a couple of others, one cannot underrate his stake in African knowledge productions, especially in the Diaspora community. He has been so productive in the United States’ academic history that he offered intellectual additions to many schools in the country. Upon invitation, he taught in several schools in the United States in which the academic community felt his invaluable addition. Interestingly, the United States is not the only country that has benefited from his immense intellectual engagement; West Africa has always claimed some from it.

Sometimes he makes the duty of understanding him so tiring as one cannot but marvel at how he has been able to record such a magnificent impact within the decades. Despite his consistent academic engagement, how he has time to function outside of academics is always a good point of meditation. His intellectual engagement notwithstanding, he simultaneously served in so many professional capacities, providing expert knowledge and information for firms and organizations that require his input. Professor Harrow has been the General Editor of the African Humanities and Arts Series of Michigan State University; an active member of the editorial board of Research in African Literatures; and an occasional reviewer of African literatures for many journals, among which are World Literature Today, Africana Journal, PMLA, among many others. He was involved in all these, despite having a mountain of responsibilities in his academic field, and he made impressive landmarks while functioning in these positions. Strangely, Harrow’s academic engagements have not prevented him from having administrative commitments, and it is marvelous that he also performed excellently in the positions into which he was placed. For example, he functioned as a member of the Executive Council of the African Literature Association (1981-84; 1992-95), Vice President (1987-1988), and President (1988-1989). He was also a member of the Executive Board of the African Studies Association (1997-2000).

To pull all these strings while he was still offering his intellectual contributions to the global knowledge economy, no one can deny that he deserves immense recognition. Professor Harrow was duly recognized with the award from National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Younger Humanist Award, which took him to Morocco, Algeria, and France. This award was a recognition of his selfless contributions and behavior towards humanity. Not long after this, he was recognized as a three-time Fulbright Senior Lecturer, another award conferment that saw his significant research and teaching trips to Cameroon and Senegal. In the same measure, this award was meant to appreciate his extraordinary contributions and research in African knowledge systems, particularly in postcolonial reality. One must have been exceptional in their duty and academic engagements this time around to warrant the recognition of one’s departure from the academic community with a special symposium. The organization of a seminar in MSU during the retirement of Professor Harrow, titled “The States of Refuge,” served to appreciate his ingenuity, work ethos, professional ethics, and hunger for intellectual production and success.

Additionally, Michigan State University showed its appreciation for his contributions when it also recognized him with another Distinguished Faculty Award in 2010, followed by the Paul Varg Alumni Award for Faculty in the same year. The University of Texas at Austin conferred upon him the Distinguished Africanist Award (2011) obviously because the influence of his academic contributions knows no boundaries. The African Studies Association, in its own way, awarded him the African Studies Association Public Service Award just to celebrate a man that has profoundly revolutionized the African cinematic intellectualism with his prodigy.

Kenneth Harrow’s importance is truly global, for he has made commendable efforts that break new grounds in African academic engagements. He has added value to the critical works that x-ray the relationship between Africa and other parts of the globe. He has updated the general knowledge about the African “conditions” and how they have become the basis for their eventual reactions, especially in the contemporary world where the internet has collapsed boundaries.

Harrow represents diverse perspectives, and for this, he has made landmark achievements even in areas that are considered complex. Easy to work with, we have been to Nigeria together where he gave a Keynote Address and joined me at a University where the idea of creating a new Department of Philosophy and Development was incubated. For three years, he accepted my leadership as Chair of the Herskovits Committee to select the best book on Africa. His ability to argue is legendary, making him a frontline contributor to the most vibrant and most prolonged Africa-centered site, the USA-Africa Dialogue.

Toyin Falola is a man of few words!

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