Black History Month Series | Joseph K. Adjaye: Pitt professor and Ghana native teaches students to see Africa in its full, global context

Issue Date: 
February 19, 2007

Growing up in Ghana, Joseph K. Adjaye witnessed the country’s fight for political independence from Great Britain. He was a senior in high school when Ghana finally gained that independence, on March 6, 1957.

On Feb. 28, Adjaye—today a professor in the Department of Africana Studies in the University’s School of Arts and Sciences and director of the University Center for International Studies’ African Studies Program—will lead a contingent of about 20, including Pitt students as well as other students and scholars from cities across the country, on a Pitt-sponsored 11-day trip to Ghana to mark the 50th anniversary of his native country’s liberation from colonialism.

Participants in the University’s “Link Africa” trip to Ghana will include first-time visitors to the continent as well as Pan-Africanist scholars like Adjaye. (Pan-Africanism seeks to promote unity among continental Africans and people of African descent living elsewhere around the world, as well as their advancement.) For Adjaye, one of the appealing aspects of the “Link Africa” trip is that his fellow group members, especially students, will learn about Ghana’s rich history and cultural traditions—and, ideally, come away feeling spiritually and symbolically reconnected to the mother continent.

The Pitt-sponsored trip will mark the first time that Eliada Nwosu, executive board member of the University’s Pan African Graduate and Professional Student Organization, will be visiting Ghana, although she has been to Africa before. A doctoral student in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs whose parents are from Nigeria, Nwosu grew up in New Orleans.

Nwosu, whose educational focus is on African economic development, says she’s looking forward to reconnecting with leaders of her generation who are working to build up Africa economically. She’s also pleased that Adjaye is leading the trip.

“He has a very multidimensional interest when it comes to research on Africa and African people. You need a multidimensional lens to better understand societies, African societies in particular,” says Nwosu, whose father is Pitt engineering professor Sylvanus Nwosu.

“Link Africa” trip participants will have the opportunity to see the home where African American writer and educator W. E. B. DuBois spent his last years compiling the Encyclopedia Africana. They also will visit the burial place of Ghana’s founding president, Kwame Nkrumah, who led the country’s independence struggle. (Adjaye noted Nkrumah’s Pennsylvania connection—the future president attended Lincoln University and the University of Pennsylvania. It was while studying in the United States, Adjaye says, that Nkrumah experienced overt racism and discrimination against Blacks, helping to inspire his activism against European rule in Africa.)

As Ghana’s president, Nkrumah declared his Pan-African vision: His own country’s independence would be meaningless unless it was linked with the total liberation of Africa from colonial rule. He advocated a United States of Africa. A believer in forging a national identity shorn of colonial vestiges, Nkrumah also encouraged reviving African cultural traditions—music, dance, language—that had been suppressed or denigrated under colonial rule. Nkrumah believed that total emancipation could not be obtained without cultural liberation, Adjaye explains.

“Then and now,” Adjaye adds, “because of the historical, cultural, and emotional connections between the continent and those in the Diaspora, a momentous event such as Ghana’s 50th independence anniversary will send reverberations throughout the Black world.”

In addition to inspiring other nationalists in Africa, Ghana’s liberation served as a beacon of hope for African Americans in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, says Adjaye, adding that the anticolonial movement also had an impact in the classroom.

“In the waning years of colonialism, political changes were such that they had a profound impact on me,” says Adjaye. “Not only was there an emphasis [among scholars] on specializing in African history, but also I became part of a new generation of teachers that pushed for the indigenization of the curriculum. Under colonialism, we didn’t read our own history. The move was toward teaching our own history and making it more relevant.”

Adjaye says teaching came to him naturally. His mother was a teacher, and his father served in the Ghana Educational Service for 37 years, rising from a job as a classroom teacher to that of a senior supervisor in charge of an entire district. In addition, several of Adjaye’s uncles were teachers and university administrators; of his five siblings, all but one taught at one time or another.

“There is no substitute for the joy one gets in imparting knowledge to others,” he maintains.

Adjaye earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in history with honors from the University of Ghana at Legon in 1963. He served as a history teacher, senior history master, assistant principal, and principal of a secondary school in Ghana, all within nine years after graduating. In 1972, he was recruited as Ghana’s Teacher Ambassador to the United States by the Brattleboro, Vt.-based Experiment in International Living (EIL) program and given a one-year assignment in Binghamton, N.Y. He spent half of his time in Binghamton teaching 9th-grade social studies and the other half on Africa-related curriculum development.

Adjaye remained in the United States following his EIL assignment to earn the Master of Arts degree at SUNY-Binghamton in 1974 and the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at Northwestern University in 1979 and 1981, respectively. He joined Pitt’s faculty in 1987, and chaired the Africana Studies department from 2000 to 2004.

Over the years, Adjaye estimates, he has taught some 3,000 students at various educational levels in Ghana and in the United States. He has received numerous Fulbright-Hays and National Endowment for the Humanities grants, as well as teaching grants from Pitt and Northwestern.

Among Adjaye’s books are Diplomacy and Diplomats in 19th Century Asante (University Press of America, 1984), for which he was a Herskovits Prize finalist and received Choice magazine’s Outstanding Academic Book award; Time in the Black Experience (Greenwood Press, 1994); Language, Rhythm, and Sound: Black Popular Cultures into the 21st Century (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997); and Boundaries of Self and Other: Studies in Ghanaian Popular Culture (Praeger, 2004).

Like his fellow faculty members in Pitt’s Africana Studies department, Adjaye insists that “knowledge must have social relevance,” as he puts it.

“We in the department emphasize that the generation of knowledge on campus must have community application, or praxis,” he says. “There needs to be a connection between academia and the community.”

As a scholar specializing in African history and culture as well as the histories and cultures of Blacks in the Caribbean, Adjaye seeks to help students understand the extent to which Africans shaped their own civilizations—contrary to the racist notion that a higher civilization was imposed on Africa by Europeans. He also stresses the international impact of what goes on in Africa. “We need to see the interconnection of African developments rather than seeing them in isolation,” Adjaye says, “because the true import of African achievement must be weighed within the larger global picture.”

He cites the famous 14th-century pilgrimage of Mali’s King Mansa Musa from Timbuktu to Mecca. Conventional Western accounts emphasize the grand style in which Mansa Musa traveled, accompanied by a huge retinue and camels carrying gold.

“To me that’s all fascinating, but the meaning is lost unless we delve into the global impact of the journey and how it affected Mali diplomatically, politically, and economically,” says Adjaye.

“We have to see the interconnections,” he elaborates. “Musa administered an empire that was larger than all of Europe today. What are the implications? He did it without Air Force I and cell phones. He had to be skilled in administration, in statecraft—a kind of political engineering.”

To truly appreciate their African heritage, African Americans need to do more than learn about African kings and queens, according to Adjaye; they must also study the wider contexts of how Africa has impacted, and continues to impact, the rest of the world.