H-Diplo Essay 309- Adom Getachew on Learning the Scholar’s Craft12 min read

It is difficult to pinpoint the moment at which I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Political Science or to focus on political theory.  I think of it more as a slow drift.  I grew up until 13 in Ethiopia and Botswana.  My dad, a biologist, taught at Addis Ababa University (AAU) and the University of Botswana, but while I had an academic parent, it never occurred to me that it would be my path too.  My dad’s trajectory was part of a generational experience.  He attended AAU at the height of the Ethiopian Student Moment and right before the Ethiopian revolution.  In a Cold War context, he won a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) scholarship to study in the U.S., which allowed him to escape much of the repression of the 1970s.  Yet, like many of his friends and colleagues, he pursued this opportunity with the intention of returning home to support the work of transforming his native land.  Both his research and pedagogical preoccupations were tightly wound up with Ethiopia’s developmental project.

H-Diplo Essay 309

Essay Series on Learning the Scholar’s Craft: Reflections of Historians and International Relations Scholars
2 February 2021

The Decolonization of Knowledge

https://hdiplo.org/to/E309
Series Editor: Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Essay by Adom Getachew, University of Chicago

It is difficult to pinpoint the moment at which I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Political Science or to focus on political theory.  I think of it more as a slow drift.  I grew up until 13 in Ethiopia and Botswana.  My dad, a biologist, taught at Addis Ababa University (AAU) and the University of Botswana, but while I had an academic parent, it never occurred to me that it would be my path too.  My dad’s trajectory was part of a generational experience.  He attended AAU at the height of the Ethiopian Student Moment and right before the Ethiopian revolution.  In a Cold War context, he won a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) scholarship to study in the U.S., which allowed him to escape much of the repression of the 1970s.  Yet, like many of his friends and colleagues, he pursued this opportunity with the intention of returning home to support the work of transforming his native land.  Both his research and pedagogical preoccupations were tightly wound up with Ethiopia’s developmental project.

I start with the experience of my dad because it instilled in me a sense of political or civic duty— the idea that one was meant to make one’s education useful.  Yet I didn’t think that this duty was best realized by becoming an academic. Instead, our time in Botswana revealed another possibility—the international civil servant.  Among our small Ethiopian community in Gaborone, those who worked for the United Nations and its various agencies were the model I had in mind.  What I especially found attractive of this group was their worldliness.  They had lived in many places and most of them were especially committed to working in Africa.  I imagined a future of doing humanitarian or developmental work that would locate me on the continent.

This nebulous interest stayed with me when we came to the United States in 2001, but it mutated.  Two events and one personal experience were central to my trajectory after arriving in the United States.  First, September 11, 2011 occurred one month after we arrived.  It was my second week of school in the U.S., and we lived in Arlington, Virginia at the time.  My memory of that day and its aftermath is overshadowed by a feeling of complete alienation from the patriotism that soon felt like a requirement.  It also means that during my whole time in the United States the country has been at war.  Second, two years later I attended a summer program at Howard University on International Affairs.  Howard was the first American college campus I visited.  While the program was organized broadly around a model-UN structure, it was fascinating to learn about Howard’s history and especially its role educating African nationalists during the 1930 and 1940s.  This was my first glimpse at the twentieth-century transnational networks and linkages of black internationalism.  Finally, my first year of college began with Hurricane Katrina.  The African American studies program at the University of Virginia organized teach-ins, collected donations, and mobilized volunteers in its aftermath.  Here again was a first for me—I didn’t know such a discipline existed and I soon found that it offered a critical language, a historical context, and a political orientation that helped me make sense of the world around me. Each of these shaped my trajectory.  More than any other group of people, it was the faculty in African American studies that encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D., and the problems of empire and race, as well as the possibilities of black internationalism that were intimated in these experiences that have come to define my work.

It didn’t happen all at once, and I still remained committed to working in international politics broadly construed. That gradually changed after I worked on Capitol Hill as an intern with Congressman Jim Clyburn, who was Chair of the House Democratic Caucus at time.  The job was at times tedious, but it was also fascinating to see how to corral party members for a bill or a vote.  But it was clear to me that summer that I enjoyed the reading I did on the train or during my lunch break more than I did being in the office.  By the beginning of my senior year, this insight along with the Great Recession, which made a job an increasingly unlikely prospect, meant I would apply to graduate school.

I applied to both Political Science and African American studies programs and ended up at Yale University because the joint degree was appealing.  It allowed me to continue exploring both disciplines and design a project that spoke to both.  I spent the early years grounding myself in political theory and taking as many classes as possible that spoke to my interests in anti-imperialism, black internationalism.  My dissertation and later first book grew out of this context and I would be shaped in particular by the three conversations.[1]

First, I arrived at graduate school in the context of a growing literature in political theory on the place of empire in the political thought of canonical figures, which queried the relationship between universalism and empire.  Books in this vein included Uday Mehta Liberalism and Empire (Chicago, 1999), Sankar Muthu, Enlightenment Against Empire (Princeton, 2003), Jennifer Pitts A Turn to Empire (Princeton, 2005), Jeanne Morefield’s Covenants without Swords (Princeton, 2005) and Karuna Mantena Alibis of Empire (Princeton, 2010).  Beyond political theory too, there was a wider reconsideration of international institutions and legal regimes in Martti Koskenniemi’s The Gentle Civilizer of Nations (Cambridge, 2001) and Antony Anghie’s Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law (Cambridge, 2005).[2]  These interventions figured into a growing global turn in the social science and humanities.

Second, I remained committed to the study of black internationalism, and I was especially interested in how Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic (Harvard 1993) had opened new questions and frameworks.[3]  One the one hand, I was drawn to books on the rich interwar configurations of black internationalism that were taken up in Michelle Stephen’s Black Empire (2005) and Brent Hayes Edwards’s The Practice of Diaspora (2003).[4] One the other hand, I was interested in how internationalists framings were reframing our understanding of decolonization, especially in Frederick Cooper’s Citizenship Between Empire and Nation (Princeton, 2014) and Gary Wilder’s Freedom Time (Duke, 2015).[5]

Finally, in particular through the work my advisor in Political Science Seyla Benhabib, I was drawn into debates about cosmopolitan political theory. Along with Benhabib’s own work, especially Another Cosmopolitanism and The Rights of Others, works I encountered in this context include Daniele Archibugi and David Held’s Cosmopolitan Democracy, Thomas Pogge’s World Poverty and Human Rights, Jürgen Habermas’s The Divided West, Ruti Teitel’s Humanity’s Law, Cristina Lafont’s Global Governance and Human Rights, and Jean Cohen’s Globalization and Sovereignty.[6]

The project that came out of these engagement was Worldmaking after Empire, where I sought to reconstruct the animating questions, debates, and institutional visions anti-colonial nationalists of the Black Atlantic pursued during the height of decolonization. Engaging the political thought of African and Caribbean anti-colonial critics, intellectuals and statesmen, Nnamdi Azikiwe, George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, Eric Williams, Michael Manley, and Julius Nyerere convinced me that they were not only or even primarily nation-builders.  Instead, we should understand these statesmen as worldmakers who reinvented self-determination in response to an account of empire that was centered on global racial hierarchy.  The book has now been out for two years and I have learned a lot from the responses and reviews it has generated (including on H-Diplo).[7]

At least two responses have informed my current work.  First as many have pointed out, the top-down focus on statesmen and intellectual elites narrows our sightline to the high politics of decolonization.  The action of the book occurred in the rarefied spaces of the League, the UN, and at inter-governmental conferences.  What would it meant to tell the story of anticolonial worldmaking as popular politics and political practice?  I seek to examine this with a new project on Garveyism in the interwar period, where I want to attend more closely to the everyday practices that made the movement the largest black political formation.  Though I remain interested in the history of ideas, and this project will carry that commitment forward, it will require different reading practices and orientations to attune myself to new practices and strategies.

Second, a number of responses to Worldmaking also pointed out the sharp disjuncture between the international ambitions of anticolonial nationalists and their domestic politics, which culminated in many of the cases I discuss in forms of postcolonial authoritarianism. I continue to be animated by the question of the crises and contradictions of anti-imperialism.  In an essay I am currently completing, I explore some of these tensions by thinking though the process of suffrage expansion in Africa.  I consider how universal suffrage—which was supposed to eliminate hierarchies or race and indirect rule—became a facilitator of new constellations of power.  This is one attempt to get at the wider questions of the promise of postcolonial democracy and its contradictions and failures.  Though this theme is not yet a full-fledged book project in my mind, I would like to continue to think through these themes.

Finally, and only tangentially related to the responses to Worldmaking, I am interested in the knowledge production that attended decolonization.  In some ways, this is a way to chart the worlds of the generations of Third World students and scholars like my father who viewed themselves as contributing to the nation-building of the mid-twentieth century.  Situated in political science, I am especially interested in what we might call Third World social science.  I have written on the New World Group, a cohort of political economists based in Jamaica who theorized the Caribbean as a plantation society.  I have also written about Orlando Patterson’s intellectual and political trajectory, which overlapped with this group.[8] I would like to continue to map a cartography of mid-century Third World social science, partly as an act of recovery, and partly because the “decolonization of knowledge” that is everywhere now and that has antecedents in the efforts of these figures to theorize the specific histories and trajectories of non-Western politics, economies, and societies.

 

Adom Getachew is Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.  Her most recent book is Worldmaking after Empire:  The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton University Press, 2019), and her work has appeared in Political Theory, Constellations, and the Oxford Handbook of Comparative Political Theory.

 

Notes

[1] Adom Getachew, Worldmaking after Empire:  The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019).

[2] Uday Singh Mehta, Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Liberal Thought (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999); Sankar Muthu, Enlightenment against Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003); Jennifer Pitts, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Jeanne Morefield, Covenants without Swords: Idealist Liberalism and the Spirit of Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Karuna Mantena, Alibis of Empire: Henry Maine and the Ends of Liberal Imperialism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010) Martti Koskenniemi, The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law, 1870-1960 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Antony Anghie, Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005). For a survey of this scholarship see Jennifer Pitts, “Political Theory of Empire and Imperialism,” The Annual Review of Political Science 13 (2010): 211-235.  For a recent retrospective on this body of work see, Inder S. Marwah, Jennifer Pitts, Timothy Bowers Vasko, Onur Ulas Ince and Robert Nichols, “Empire and its Afterlives,” Contemporary Political Theory 19:2 (June 2020): 274–305.

[3] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).

[4] Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), Michelle Stephens, Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914-1962 (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2005)

[5] Frederick Cooper, Citizenship Between Empire and Nation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014); Gary Wilder, Freedom Time (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).

[6] Seyla Benhabib, Another Cosmopolitanism, with Jeremy Waldron, Bonnie Honig, and Will Kymlicka, edited by Robert Post (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Seyla Benhabib, The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, Citizens (New York: Oxford University 2004);  Daniele Archibugi and David Held, eds., Cosmopolitan Democracy: An Agenda for a New World Order (New York Cambridge University Press, 1995), Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reform (Cambridge: Polity 2002), Jürgen Habermas, The Divided West (Cambridge: Polity 2008), Ruti Teitel, Humanity’s Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), Cristina Lafont, Global Governance and Human Rights (Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 2012), and Jean L. Cohen, Globalization and Sovereignty:  Rethinking Legality, Legitimacy, and Constitutionalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[7] H-Diplo Roundtable XXI-13 on Adom Getachew, Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination, 11 November 2019, https://hdiplo.org/to/RT21-13.

[8] Getachew, “The Plantation’s Colonial Modernity in Comparative Perspective,” in Leigh Jenco, Murad Idris, and Megan Thomas, The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Political Theory, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020); Getachew, “Orlando Patterson and the Postcolonial Predicament,” The Nation (October 2020), https://www.thenation.com/article/world/orlando-patterson-the-confounding-island/.