History’s Presence

Adom Getachew, interviewed by Nawal Arjini
Adom Getachew

Adom Getachew

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

In the August 17 issue of the Review, the political theorist Adom Getachew writes about Howard French’s Born in Blackness, a radical reexamination of the importance of Africa and Africans to Western history. As French writes, the European exploitation of the continent and its peoples went hand in hand with the willful erasure of African contributions to the world economy, to its culture, and to humanity’s greatest achievements. Retrieving this nearly lost past cannot undo centuries of violence, but it may reshape our understanding of the world today. As Getachew writes, Born in Blackness presents an answer to the question: “What do we want history to do for us now?”

Getachew’s first book, Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (2019), focuses on the ambitions and failures of the African and Caribbean leaders who fought for independence throughout the twentieth century. For her current project on Marcus Garvey and the mass political movement he inspired, she is researching the popular mobilization of ideals. She currently teaches at the University of Chicago.

We e-mailed earlier this week about her intellectual preoccupations, “decolonization” today, and the crises of history.

Nawal Arjini: You open your review with a discussion of Du Bois. He had such a long career and was such a capacious thinker; it seems like there’s a Du Bois quote for every occasion. Is there anything surprising or particularly prescient about his work? Or, as you suggest in the review, anything incorrect?

Adom Getachew: Du Bois has been a touchstone in my thinking for a long time. (My colleague Jennifer Pitts and I edited a collection of his international writings last year.) There is much in his thought that seems incorrect today, from the implicitly essentialist conception of race he outlines in his 1897 essay “The Conservation of Races” to his vision of vanguardist political leadership. But the purpose of engaging with someone like Du Bois is not to reaffirm what we already believe; it is to learn from his orientation toward political thinking.

Du Bois is a multiscalar thinker: he approached politics from the individual level of moral psychology all the way up to the institutional and the international. He also constantly worked and reworked his analyses of, for example, race and third world solidarity. And he was keenly aware of the contingent character of politics: in both his scholarly writing and his political activism, he was alert to the rhetorical, institutional, and collaborative possibilities that might generate different political outcomes or produce new pathways toward liberation. Even at his most despondent about the prospects for genuine emancipation and equality, he was inoculated against pessimism.

How did you come to the academy and your current focus?

I came to be an academic in large part due to the discipline of African American studies and to the faculty of the Carter G. Woodson Institute at the University of Virginia, where I got my undergraduate degree. As a relative newcomer to America and as an African immigrant—my family moved to the United States when I was thirteen—college was where I developed a language to understand race and racism and cultivated a critical sense of my own background and place in the world. It was actually through African American studies that I was introduced to African history. I came to be especially interested in the forms of Black internationalism and Pan-Africanism cultivated throughout the twentieth century, which remain central preoccupations of my work.

Your review mentions the 1619 Project—another work of public history written, like Born in Blackness, in large part by nonacademics. Are these debates happening downstream of scholarly research, or are they inspiring it?

There is a symbiotic relationship between academic history and public history. Several academics were directly involved in the 1619 Project, and Born in Blackness draws extensively on some of the most exciting developments in the scholarly literature on slavery. At the same time, the way the 1619 Project and Born in Blackness explicitly pose the question of the present political stakes of history is distinct from the ways academic historians approach their work and, as we have seen, can be the source of much acrimonious debate. There is a growing public historical consciousness; the past and its meaning is, in a visceral way, part of political debate and social life.

This is especially true of the history of slavery and race in America. I think this has to do with a deep sense of the discrepancy between living in a present where the formal, legalized structures of racial domination, typified by Jim Crow, are not with us any longer, but the legacies of the past persist. The 1619 Project and Born in Blackness are responding to this context, but they also shape the contours of these debates. Why academic history has been less responsive to this moment, whether it should be and how it might do so, are bigger questions. 


Your work has focused on the difficulties and disappointments of the end of formal empire. What are the stakes of this question today?

There are many ways to think about the relationship between history and the present, but I will mention just two. The first is that history can denaturalize what we take to be given and inevitable political settlements. History shows how belated and contested the conflation of decolonization with the formation of new nation-states was, and such histories help to make our own present seem less calcified than we might normally think.

Second, revisiting the way people in the past formulated central questions or their political projects (even when they were unsuccessful) can shake up how we think in the present. It’s never the case that we encounter straightforward lessons for our current problems in the archive. But encounters with the past might wrest us free from certain patterns of thinking.

So at least one answer to the question of what history does for us is that it can inspire a productive alienation, an estrangement that can make us see the present differently. But it should be noted that history is not just a set of facts—it must be constructed into a narrative. In a forthcoming book, tentatively titled The Tragic Vision of the Civil Rights Movement, Review contributor Brandon Terry makes a powerful case about how narrative strategies produce different ways of thinking about the relationship between past and present.

What’s the relationship between history and political science? How have you integrated them? 

As a political theorist, I focus on concepts with a global reach and some claim to universality. For example, the nation-state, which, for all its crises and limitations, has become the central political form of modernity. In order to understand how the nation-state came to be the predominant political form of the last several centuries, we need to account for the specific historical trajectories of various regions of the world. The paths that led to the formation and crisis of the nation-state in Africa or the Caribbean are quite distinct from those of Europe. Born in Blackness gestures at this point, when French observes that while “war-making” produced strong nations in Europe, it weakened those in Africa.This point is also powerfully made in The Life and Death of States, a recent book by the historian Natasha Wheatley, which looks at the relationship between the history and theory of sovereignty in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its successor states.

The idea that reconsiderations of the past were central to understanding and taking action in the present was also a belief widely shared among Black political thinkers, including Du Bois. So part of my interest in the past is fueled by the preoccupations of the thinkers I study.

What do you make of calls to “decolonize” canons, syllabi, and minds? How useful is the language of decolonization in those contexts? What is the relationship between activism and scholarship? 

These are demands to correct for epistemic injustice, and in my view they continue an important midcentury project of decolonization. The transformation of higher education, the production of knowledge from the global south, and the reclamation or restitution of cultural objects were crucial parts of the political agenda for many anticolonial nationalists in the 1960s and 1970s.

I think one reason students make these demands is that they feel a real gap between what they are learning and the various crises of the world around them, even though they may not always present it this way. I think they are searching for a way to make sense of their world. I do wish the dimension of epistemic decolonization would be more pronounced in such calls. They often become debates about representation without sufficient conversation about what we hope such representation will produce, which is the most important part of the debate.

As for the wider relationship between activism and scholarship, the pedagogical experience is necessarily dialogic. This always means there is the space for and the possibility of contestation and struggle with one another. This can be uncomfortable and difficult, but at its best it is as generative for the teacher as it is for the student. 

What are you working on next?

I have two ongoing projects that I’m really excited about. The first is a collaboration with three curators, Antawan Byrd, Elvira Dyangani Ose, and Matthew Witkovsky, to mount an exhibition titled “Project a Black Planet: The Art and Culture of Panafrica,”which will be the first to survey cultural activity from about 1920 to the present—architecture, design, film, literature, music, and visual art—through an expressly Pan-Africanist lens. It will open at the Art Institute of Chicago in December 2024 and then travel internationally, including to Barcelona and Brussels.


The second is a book, tentatively titled The Universal Race: Garveyism and the Practices of Pan-Africanism. It’s a study of the largest Black mass movement, and it reconsiders Garveyism’s intellectual and political origins in the British empire.

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