Empire, Federation, Nation, Pan-Africanism: Africa's Alternative Pasts

Seminar date: 
04 November 2010
Speaker(s): Frederick Cooper, Professor of History at New York University

Discussant: Dr. Klaas van Walraven (ASC)


Frederick Cooper is Professor of History at New York University. He is the author of a trilogy of books on labor and society in East Africa and more recently of Decolonization and African Society: The Labor Question in French and British Africa (1996), Africa Since 1940: The Past of the Present(2002), and Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (2005). He is also co-author with Thomas Holt and Rebecca Scott of Beyond Slavery: Explorations of Race, Labor, and Citizenship in Post-Emancipation Societies (2000) and with Jane Burbank of Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (2010). He is co-editor with Ann Stoler of Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (1997) and with Randall Packard of International Development and the Social Sciences: Essays in the History and Politics of Knowledge (1997). He is currently a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, where he is writing a history of citizenship in France and French West Africa between 1945 and 1960.

Africa's route from empire to a multiplicity of nation-states was not a straight line. Alternatives were in play until very late in the game: political leaders in French Africa claimed all the rights of the French citizen as well as a degree of autonomy within a federal or confederation structure that would remain French; some advocated a "primary" federation of African states within a French Community. No sooner had Ghana become independent than Kwame Nkrumah called for a "United States of Africa." The Bandung conference of 1955 implied a wider unity of ex-colonial peoples, while various radical movements assisted each other to promote more radical forms of independence. My talk will address the variety of forms of political imagination in 1950s Africa, the process by which some political possibilities were eliminated from contention, and the implications of this history of openings and closures for understanding post-independence politics. Behind the question of Africa's alternative pasts is the question of Africa's possible futures.