Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943

Uncommon Sense

The following is from the Uncommon Sense archives. It first appeared in the Summer 2006 issue, no. 122.

From the Director's Desk

Director's DeskSince last September, when I traveled to Ghana to explore the possibility of holding an Institute conference there in 2007, much has happened that I want to share with you. The original impetus for “‘The bloody Writing is for ever torn’: Domestic and International Consequences of the First Governmental Efforts to Abolish the Atlantic Slave Trade” was entirely a scholarly one, namely to clarify the ramifications for all of the nations involved of the decisions taken by Denmark in 1792 and by Great Britain and the United States in 1807–1808 to outlaw the transatlantic traffic in human beings from Africa. These efforts to interfere with what was then the primary engine of Atlantic commerce seemed to me, as to many other Institute constituents, to have economic, social, and political consequences as profound and far reaching as those that would occur from trying to outlaw the trade in oil today. Having decided, after consulting with a number of scholars whose research and writing center on the histories of various African nations, that Ghana would be the most appropriate venue for holding such a meeting, I began to progress along the usual Institute trajectory of planning the event, which included the considerable challenge of raising the money required to fund it. By the time I visited Ghana, I was reasonably confident that I had in hand the support I needed to put on the conference and that I could therefore deal in good faith with the local academics whose involvement would be critical to the meeting’s success.

Thanks to the invaluable assistance of Professor Emmanuel Akyeampong, a native Ghanaian who chairs the African and African American Studies Program at Harvard and whose sabbatical in Ghana fortunately coincided with my visit, I met with members of the faculties of history and archaeology at the universities of Ghana and Cape Coast, the director of the Institute of African Studies, the president of the Historical Society of Ghana, and the Minister and Chairman of Ghana’s National Commission on Culture. Their response to the Institute’s desire to hold a major international conference in their country was uniformly enthusiastic, but they asked that we do something more—specifically, that we try to arrange for scholars who are currently teaching in relevant fields in sub-Saharan universities and their graduate students to participate in the meeting as members of the audience. From the outset, of course, it had always been the Institute’s intention that Africa-based scholars would be involved in the formal program as paper presenters, commentators, and session chairs, but the request that I extend our  fundraising efforts to take on the additional task of securing funds to support the travel of teachers and graduate students to the conference came as a complete surprise. Frankly, the thought of finding even more money was pretty overwhelming all by itself, and trying to imagine how the Director’s Office staff could find the time to do the extra work involved in mounting such an effort further underscored the enormity of the task. I wanted to say no, that it was too far outside the Institute’s scholarly mission of research and publishing, that we didn’t have enough personnel to devote to it, etc., etc., but instead I found myself saying that we would try. That I was persuaded is a tribute to the intensity of those who asked and to their remarkable courage, perseverance, and dedication in fostering the life of the mind among their students when the resources needed to nourish learning in sub-Saharan Africa have shrunk so radically.

Scholars in both developed and undeveloped countries know that dialogue with their peers is an absolutely essential component of enriching understanding, developing new perspectives, and advancing knowledge. In the profession as most of us know it, we alternate between working alone on our research in archives and at other sites and engaging in the intensive sharing of information and perspectives with our colleagues. That modus operandi affirms our conviction that the best work is always a product of both experiences. What my new friends in Ghana made clear to me is that the economic realities that shape much of life in their part of the world have long denied scholars and students the chance to be involved in the sharing part of the academic equation—to participate in the seminars, conferences, and conventions that we, their counterparts in the west, take for granted. Without the benefit of wider exposure and discussion, sub-Saharan African scholars lose the chance to set their work in the broader contexts that enrich it and extend its meaning and significance.

This is what the people I met in Ghana taught me and why I am working so hard, along with the Institute’s Director of Development, Shawn Holl, the Assistant to the Director, Sally Mason, and Executive Board member Gillian Cell, to fulfill the request they made of me. Elsewhere in this newsletter (click here), you will find a detailed report about how we have proceeded, what we have thus far accomplished, and our continuing efforts to raise the funds that will cover the travel of 100 faculty and students to the 2007 meeting in Cape Coast. I feel sure that all of you join me in hoping that the faculty and students who attend the conference will be a catalyst for the renewal of an interactive community of scholars in sub-Saharan institutions of higher learning and that the connections made at the meeting will facilitate contacts both among academics within Africa and between African academics and their counterparts in other countries. We can also hope that publishing selected portions of the proceedings in the William and Mary Quarterly (and thereby making them widely available through JSTOR and the History Cooperative) will further encourage such encounters long after the conference has adjourned.

Of course, no one can guarantee that any of these things will happen. I can only say that these initiatives have to start somewhere and that my Ghanaian colleagues have convinced me the Institute’s 2007 conference can be a place for such beginnings.

Ron Hoffman