Beyond Racialized Divides: Understanding Africa Today

This guest post is published during the African Studies Association conference in Chicago, occurring November 16 – 18, and prior to the American Anthropological Association conference in Washington, D.C., occurring November 28 – December 3.  

By Dorothy Hodgson, co-editor of Global Africa: Into the Twenty-First Century with Judith Byfield

For decades, the continent of Africa has been imagined as divided into two distinct zones: “sub-Saharan Africa” and “North Africa.” Although these phrases are seemingly about geography, they index more troubling legacies of racialized ideas about the relative superiority and modernity of lighter-skinned “Arabs” in the north over their predominantly “black” neighbors living south of the Sahara. By conceiving of the Sahara desert as a blank space, such noxious notions persist, masking the connections and inequalities between north and south produced by long histories of trade, travel, migration, enslavement, conquest, colonial rule, religious evangelization, and more.

An Interconnected Whole

Global Africa challenges this racialized divide, demonstrating the intellectual and political value of understanding the continent as an interconnected whole. François-Xavier Fauvelle documents the extensive international trade between West African kingdoms and polities in northern Africa and beyond during Africa’s “Global Golden Age” (AD 700-1500). E. Ann McDougall describes the settlements, sites, and support that enabled three very different women to traverse the Sahara centuries later. Zakia Salime explores how contemporary musicians of Raï and Rap in Morocco and Algeria intentionally combine sonic elements from elsewhere to convey their political message of Pan-African solidarity. Other authors examine the circulations of textiles (Victoria Rovine), religious ideas (Cheikh Anta Babou), Pan-Africanism (Hakim Adi), illicit financial flows (Masimba Tafirenyika) and more throughout the continent and beyond.

Africa is an extraordinarily vast and diverse place. Yes, there are regional differences in language, heritage, history, and politics. But to ignore the interconnections among regions, or to reify and reproduce a false belief that the continent is divided by a vast “empty space” into two starkly different halves, obscures the vibrant flows and entanglements of people, ideas, and practices across these areas. As scholars, we have an obligation to confront such false assumptions and racist imaginaries with stories, histories, and other evidence that reflect and represent the continent as a whole.

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Read Chapter 1, the Introduction, of Global Africa. And see more titles on African Anthropology and African History. Global Africa is part of the Global Square Series.


Dorothy L. Hodgson is Professor of Anthropology and Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the Graduate School – New Brunswick at Rutgers University.

Judith A. Byfield is Associate Professor of History and Director of Undergraduate Studies at Cornell University.