Another person said it best….
In reading my work, they said I am captivated by “the in-between” — an observation I would have agreed to with some of my work, but didn’t possess the wit or insight to apply it to all of my work. Yet it is true. Whether global events like decolonization, the smaller-scale, intersectional worlds of multiracial people, or the discomforting effects of jet lag, my work has gravitated toward transitional moments, social uncertainty, and ephemeral conditions of everyday life — all of which fall between narratives of empire and nation, absence and determinism, daytime and nighttime. How and why this has emerged as a predominant theme in my work is not entirely clear. Perhaps it reflects my own interracial, intercultural background. Perhaps it mirrors the kind of rootlessness my life has since undertaken. Perhaps it’s just a representation of history itself — everything is contingent, nothing is permanent. Illusions to the contrary, we live between growth and ruin.
Much of my career has subsequently been the product of intuition rather than overt calculation — an incautious approach, it would seem, in our status-conscious, resume-driven age. But it has been more organic and surprising as a result. A scholarship to study at the American University in Cairo when I was sixteen; reading Black Boy by Richard Wright during my first year of college; traveling in South Africa on my own a year after apartheid ended there — these unanticipated experiences shook me in different ways. Grad school opened more doors. Fieldwork in Malawi, six months in Maputo at Universidade Eduardo Mondlane, and almost two years at the University of Cape Town led (indirectly) to a Ph.D. from Stanford.
Since then my research has taken me further in southern Africa, including Zimbabwe and Zambia, and to less expected locales such as Indonesia, Jerusalem and the West Bank, Rome, Germany, the Netherlands, and Britain. The details of my work can be discovered in the Books section, but, suffice to say, what I’ve published engages academic discussions within African studies and other related disciplines, in addition to the deeper personal theme mentioned at the start. My thinking is still informed in different ways by debates of the 1990s and early 2000s, when the commingling of social history, the cultural turn, the transnational turn, and postcolonial studies promised new forms of historicism in the wake of the Cold War. My regional interests have subsequently included South Africa and southern Africa, the Indian Ocean, and the Global South more generally. Chronologically, I am primarily interested in the twentieth century, particularly after the Second World War. My thematic specializations include decolonization and the Cold War, postcolonial Third Worldism, leftist politics and insurgent thought, and critical race studies. I’ve been increasingly involved in conversations about African literature and African intellectual history, and my recent research has turned toward the experience of time itself.
Like a number of colleagues, I view the writing of history as a form of social criticism. In terms of perspective and politics, my work has focused on people, events, and histories that have either been politically oppressed or marginalized by scholars — sometimes both at once. I view the practice of history as less a matter of restoring or curating a past than an act of establishing a new foundation for rethinking the present and future. I tend to avoid — and am often critical of — the conventional use of categories of race, gender, class, culture, and nation, which can reify oversimplified views of the past and lead to forms of political exclusion. I take seriously Anthony Appiah’s point about the ethical limits of group identities. I believe in the possibilities of a new humanism as espoused by Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko. I remain committed to denaturalizing the working assumptions and boundaries of area studies, as started with my first book, Making a World after Empire (2010), as well as the category of “African” itself, as addressed in my second book, Unreasonable Histories (2014). My work on Fanon and the South African writer Alex La Guma has continued these approaches by looking at two lives that not only participated in a world defined by decolonization and the Cold War, but also subverted conventions of race, nation, and “history” in the process. Jet Lag addresses similar questions of temporality, modernity, and cosmopolitanism that preoccupy this preceding work, albeit beyond the geographic emphases (and biases) that tend to define these terms in scholarship. It deterritorializes what it means to be modern, focusing instead on elements of technology, physiology, and the acceleration and erosion of time under late capitalism. As I write in the book, jet lag is what global capitalism feels like. This recent work speaks to an ongoing interest in histories of “unreason” or, as I put it in one title, “unreasonable histories” — counter-intuitive subjects and situations that appear “without” history (in both senses) and therefore challenge political and historical consensus about what “history” is and should be.
My work continues in these directions. I am completing a reader on race and racial thought in Africa for Indiana University Press. I have in production with Seagull Books a collection of writings by Alex La Guma entitled Culture and Liberation: Exile Writings, 1966-1985, scheduled to be published in 2020. A second edition of Making a World after Empire will also appear in 2019, as well as a paperback edition of A Soviet Journey. I am currently writing and revising articles and commissioned chapters on Leninism in South African politics, South African exile culture, Soviet-African relations, and archipelago politics in the Global South.
But new, larger projects await on the horizon based on these foundations. I am continually amazed by the work being done by friends and colleagues. It is an exciting time to be a historian. More details to come.