Origins of the Annual Graduate Conference in African Studies at Boston University

Professor James McCann

On the Occasion of the 20th Anniversary Conference in 2012, A Look Back

A twentieth anniversary is an anniversary worth marking.  Our current crop of organizers thought it might be useful to recount the origin of this gathering, an event that has now been duplicated by our BU diaspora around the country (including James Pritchett at Michigan State, Jane Guyer at Northwestern) and there are others at Indiana, UCLA, and Illinois.

The common ancestor of this meeting had its birth in 1992.  I was then Associate Director of the African Studies Center (Allan Hoben was director).  I received a letter (it would not have been an email?) from Prof. J.B. Webster from Dalhousie University saying that he had a vanload of graduate students who wanted to drive to Boston to meet their counterparts at BU.  He asked if we could host them.  He also offered to bring Canadian beer (an implicit disparagement of American beer, I think.  Somewhat befuddled, I walked down the 4th floor hallway of 270 Bay State Road and sat down with my trusted colleague, historian and Publications Editor, Jean Hay.

We chatted, chuckled, and discussed the virtues, and otherwise, of the now late Prof. Webster.  Jean pointed out that our own Jane Parpart was the historian at Dalhousie and she would assure that the Canadian beer was not the major attraction of the visit.  Jean proposed that we turn the self-invitation of our friends from Canada into an impromptu conference of their graduate students and ours.

We did so a few weeks later, though the Canadian visitors—with Nigerian and Kenyan students among them, as I recall—drank all of the beer they smuggled across our common northern border.  It (the conference, I mean) was a major success.

The next year, in 1993, BU graduate students themselves took over the organization of the conference, including a debate about whether faculty were really to be invited at all.  They would muck things up, as I recall was the consensus.  It was attended by students from the Boston area (Harvard, MIT, Brandeis, Tufts), one from UCLA; and there were inquiries from around the country.  In succeeding years, the event became a sustained ritual, a keynote speaker became part of the opening night tradition, Ethiopian and Senegalese food replaced pizza, and the organization–always a committee of the current Graduate students—grew and developed its own set of customary practices.  We witnessed an “invention of tradition.”

Part of that has become the passing of the baton to the next cohort with virtually no faculty involvement, though the fear that faculty would “muck it up” receded.  Faculty take a keen interest, but at an arm’s length.

So here you are.  Welcome to the current iteration.  You are a mix of generations, points of national origin, and points of view.  Have at it.  And enjoy the moment.

Jim McCann

Witness to an to an earlier generation (and appreciator of the current one)