The Making of a Scholar-Activist


Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 18.14.38

Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja

When I enrolled at Davidson College in September 1963, civil rights marches were being held in Charlotte, North Carolina, against segregation.  My politicization as a teenager during the struggle for independence in the Belgian Congo between 1958 and 1960 pushed me to join the demonstrators.

I eventually abandoned my dream of becoming a medical doctor to pursue my other interests in philosophy and politics. In the process, I was greatly influenced by the writings of Amilcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty on socially relevant scholarship.

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 18.22.49In 1964, while walking past his office in the main building of the college, Dr. Richard Gift, then a professor of economics at Davidson, called me in to show me the 1963 Grove Press edition of The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon. The professor asked me whether I knew this revolutionary thinker of African descent, and was surprised by my ignorance. He told me that every Third World student must study Fanon. I took his advice seriously and went to the college library, where I found the original of Fanon’s book in French (Les damnés de la terre, 1961), other books, and several of his articles as well as commentaries on him in French scholarly journals.

Since then, Fanon’s writings have influenced my intellectual outlook as well as my analysis of African politics. I was greatly inspired by his overall message to African intellectuals, that they should follow the path of revolution by going to the school of the people, rather than be captured by the bookish knowledge of the Ivory Tower, in order to transform the inherited structures of the economy and the state to serve the interests of the wretched of the earth instead of those of the imperialist bourgeoisie and its lackeys in Africa. This message rang so true in my mind, not only because it reinforced similar messages from other great intellectuals such as Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci and Barrington Moore, but also and more importantly, because it reminded me of the martyrdom of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo. Generally, our African leaders have abandoned the ideals of freedom and prosperity for all, to pursue their own ambitions to join the rich and superrich of today’s globalized world.

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 18.30.42

In Praise of Philosophy

While still at Davidson, I decided to major in philosophy, and I learned a lot from three distinguished teachers: Professors George L. Abernethy, Alan B. Brinkley, and Earl R. MacCormac. Of all the great books that I read in the numerous classes I took from them, one has remained central to my intellectual outlook. It is the inaugural lecture of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty at the College de France, In Praise of Philosophy (French original: Éloge de la philosophie, 1953). In this brilliant lecture, Merleau-Ponty extolls the universal tradition of the social responsibility of intellectuals, a tradition that includes great thinkers like Socrates, Karl Marx and Cheikh Anta Diop. According to this tradition, intellectuals are to be philosophers and, as such, must become critics of the status quo. For to philosophize, Merleau-Ponty wrote 62 years ago, implies that there are things to see and to say. And what a philosopher sees and says may not agree with society’s conventional wisdom and dominant interests.

It follows that socially relevant scholarship is in perfect agreement with the Socratic view of philosophical practice as an uncompromising quest for the truth. A quest, it must be added, that involves a critical appraisal of all received ideas, values and conventions. The philosopher, according to this view, is one who investigates and announces the results of her/his investigation regardless of the price to be paid for the commitment to the truth, the ultimate price being, as in the case of Socrates himself, giving up one’s life. Following Fanon and Merleau-Ponty, I am a strong believer in this tradition of socially relevant scholarship.

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 18.36.50

Revolution in Guinea

Amilcar Cabral, the third and last major thinker whose scholarship has shaped my intellectual outlook, also belongs to this tradition. He is undoubtedly the most illustrious of all African nationalist leaders in that he combined a high level of intellectual analysis with a very successful leadership of the armed struggle against Portuguese fascism and colonialism in Guinea-Bissau. His writings on imperialism and national liberation were so superb that they were cited as an inspiration by the young military officers who carried out the democratic coup d’état, better known as the Carnation Revolution, of April 1974 in Portugal. These writings have been collected in several volumes, the most important of which are Revolution in Guinea (1969), Return to the Source: Selected Speeches (1974), and Unity and Struggle: Speeches and Writings (1979).

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 18.39.28

Return to the Source

I read most of Cabral’s writings while completing my work for a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They impressed me a lot more than most of the publications of American political science based on quantitative methods informed by mathematics and statistics. While these methods can be useful when used sensibly, they tend to portray the discipline as a value-free science akin to chemistry and physics.

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 18.42.45

Unity and Struggle

As a scholar interested in the aspirations of the people of Africa in consolidating independence and building democratic developmental states, this new science had less to offer me than the historically-based and value-grounded analysis of decolonization and postcolonial transformations offered by Cabral. Like Fanon, the Bissau-Guinean and Cape Verdean leader advocated the total emancipation of Africa from both colonialism and neocolonialism in order to implement a national project of democracy and development through self-determination politically, self-reliance economically, and pan-African solidarity. In this regard, the task of socially relevant scholarship is to generate the information and knowledge needed to achieve these goals. This is my commitment, as a scholar-activist.

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 18.48.04Georges Nzongola- Ntalaja is professor of African and African-American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In October 2015, the Institut Congolais de Recherche en Developement et Etudes Strategiques (ICREDES) published his book Failite de la Gouvernance et Crise de la Construction Nationale au Congo-Kinshasa: Une Analyse Des Luttes pour la Democratie et la Souverainete Nationale (Governance Failure and Nation Building Crisis in Congo-Kinshasa: An Analysis of Struggles for Democracy and National Sovereignty), which covers Congolese political history from 1885 to 2014. He is also the author of the recently published  Patrice Lumumba (Ohio University Press, 2014).

The image featured at the beginning of this post is of a pre-independence stamp from the Belgian Congo.The photo was taken by John Flannery.