Kwasi Konadu discusses identity politics and what it means to be African

Historians in the News

One hundred years from now what weight will race and/or ethnicity have on our understanding of identity?  Are we moving towards a society where race will become so ambiguous that notions tied into race will become a thing of the past? The concept of a post-racial society seemed to gain further traction during the election of President Barack Obama, but as author Dr. Kwasi Konadu notes, there hasn’t been much of a post-racial anything in the years since President Obama’s election. Konadu is a professor of history at the Center for Ethnic Studies at City University and is also the author of such works as “The Akan Diaspora in the Americas” and “Indigenous Medicine and Knowledge in African Society.Konadu recently shared his thoughts on identity, post-racialism, and what it means to be African.

How has your identity shaped your work?

It’s been very personal to the extent that a lot of what I have done in terms of my research has been shaped by my ancestry. For instance, after a number of years of doing my family history through elders in my family in Jamaica and in Ghana I had a dream that I had to go back to Ghana to find out more about my great-great-grandmother, who I knew very little about. That led to my dissertation in Ghana, which led to a decade of work and partnership in Ghana. It has become another one of my homes in the African world. So, identity shaped by ancestry has been critical to how I choose what I am interested in and how I approach those matters with the kind of passion that I do, with the quest for getting the story right.

I come across many conversations about identity, especially with regards to national identity. There are some that feel national identity is more important than racial or ethnic affiliation. What are your thoughts?

If you make it an either or, whether it is the clan, or the nation, in terms of how we define nations and nationalism, or some other kind of affiliation, I think we miss a very subtle but important point. We miss the point that Africans historically have identified themselves. Humans tend to have sort of concentric circles.

To the heart of your question about national identity, I don’t think the issue is one of either or. The crux of the issue is realizing that where you are and who you are don’t have to be in conflict. That is, I can be an American citizen as a political status or a social status, but culturally define my ancestry. You can be both African as a cultural identity but still be a political citizen. For instance, in Ghana you can be Asante; my mother’s family is Asante.  At the same time you can be a citizen of the Republic of Ghana. You can be the range of clan systems. Similar systems exist among the Yoruba, the Hausa, and the Igbo in the place called Nigeria and much of the phenotypically populated African continent....

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