Ghettoising African History

Philip D. Curtin’s Perception of African History in America


  • Any segregated mode of living or working that results from bias or stereotyping
  • Formerly, the restricted quarter of many European cities in which Jews were required to live


  • Put in a ghetto

|Wordweb dictionary|

I am troubled by increasing evidence of the use of racial criteria in filling faculty posts in the field of African history. ~ P. D. Curtin 1995

Above is an opening remark in Curtin’s article, Ghettoizing African History. 

The General background

Being a professor at the University of John Hopkins in the USA Curtin felt the negative issues which came along with the development of African history. In response, he wrote an article condemning the university authorities for isolating the study of African history. Since 1995, Curtin’s controversial ghettoisation issue received much scholarly attention probably more than any of the issues concerning  African history to date.

At first, whites played a leading role in establishing African history as a standalone and well-considered academic discipline, and Curtin is not an exception to the crew that constructed a proper methodology of dealing with African history. It seems, at a later stage, the whites began to face an extreme defect detest as universities began to consider, mostly, blacks other than whites scholars.

African history and tertiary education| during the infancy

The University of London set up a separate School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and from 1943 commissions, working with African colleges, were set up to offer solutions and ideas needed to develop African universities in Anglophone African countries.

In America, as Curtin stated, Boston University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison had fully established African history by 1957. Most of the blacks attending university education were not willing to join the African studies.

In the case of SOAS, J.D Fage was appointed as a fieldsman to work at the University of Ghana. In British colonies, during this period (1948-56), four of the African universities were upgraded to offer degrees of the of the London university standard. Initiatives of the SOAS led to a rampant and ever-increasing attention to African history, but, at first, the heroes of this movement were mainly European especially before some African Universities were not yet dependent.

Starting from the 1970s the white force was faced by massive attenuation as blacks become more and more active in the field, more specifically African history.

These are the drives that increased black presence and scholarship in African history at the University level:

  • An increasing number of  African blacks (in Africa) pursuing in African history.
  • Cultural pluralism/ethnic consciousness.
  • Students increasingly demanded to be taught by  African-Americans or African, the latter was perceived to be the master of understanding the African past and heritage.
  • Pressure to increase black membership in the faculty exacerbated and ghettoisation became inevitable.

Various scholarly fields at the tertiary level are meant to share knowledge closely without the involvement of sectarian thinking, based on races or skin colour. This becomes the main idea behind Curtin’s campaign.

It seems a schism split itself off from the main church and it has developing its own creeds. This new authority under control was, tacitly, eliminating whites off its own ship. It is from this defective situation that Curtin discovered job vacancies at the university level, to a larger magnitude, was increasingly becoming open to the black minority.

Sometimes an opening is advertised in a way that makes racial requirement clear.~P. D. Curtin

He used an example of the Duke University job allurement indicating that the recruitment was specially reserved for the minority, in his perception minority points to the blacks.

Curtin also used an illustration of the 1993 survey which was carried out by a certain professor clarified that half of the vacancies available were available for the black minority. Here, the professor identified no names of those who carried the survey and no one never heard of where it was actually carried out. Thus, a group of black African scholars responded emotionally;

Professor Curtin’s intervention is sweeping and all-encompassing​, yet it is neither factually nor logically grounded–so much so that it constitutes a departure from elementary professional ethics.

Open page 6 here


How Curtin described this situation?

Curtin saw this elimination as an open intellectual ‘apartheid’. Racism can take place in many forms, but when it reaches the apartheid stage, social, political and economic strangulation over a certain race becomes a legal or a government initiative, sometimes existing in the constitutionᅳCurtin’s article was virtually hyper-accusing.  He further clarifies that this wave of ‘ethnic consciousness’ has been around for the several past decades. Albeit, it seems illogical to contend that he was expressing his hatreds over the black sentiment in the field because the professor usually denounced racism in many of his articles, even when white scholars trespassed the code of harmonyᅳ less Eurocentrism, more African intellection! He surely believed that the historical arena should be checked and become less corrupt, and never to be grounded on racial sects. In the first UNESCO volume, when he undertook to address the problem with Eurocentrism, Curtin aforementioned; ” Owing to its protean character, racism is one of the most difficult scourges to stamp out”.. He never tried to take sides, whenever his race was concerned, he judged everything fairly. Now, on ghettoisation, many critics simply crushed his complaints without considering his past works.

If ghettoisation was a problem what was going to be the solution?

To Curtin, the reserving of job vacancies to the Africans at the tertiary level was weakening the advancement of African tertiary historical studiesᅳAfrica is facing a defect of ‘brain drain’. He recommended university authorities to give job opportunities without any partiality for races. The black scholars from Africa and Carribean should not be restricted to migrate into the US but if there is a capable white scholar the university must consider him/her, other than placing a higher priority on either an African-American or an African. This would allow an absolute system of diffusion through which whites and blacks can participate, in harmony, on each ‘other’s grounds’.

Sources and annotations

P. D. Curtin, “Recent Trend in African Historiography and their Contribution to History in General”, In J Ki Zebo (ed.),  UN E S C O General History of Africa.Vol 1: Methodology and African Prehistory, Paris, Heinemann, 1981, pp.54-71

Professor     P. D. Curtin 1922-2009

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