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Searching For Truth

Searching For TruthAssociate Professor of Political Science Pearl Robinson, director of Tufts’ Africa in the New World interdisciplinary minor, has dedicated her career to the hands-on study of African politics, culture and life.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [01.29.07] Since the age of 19, Pearl Robinson, an associate professor of political science at Tufts, has made it her mission to deepen her understanding of African culture, politics and life, and share that knowledge with others. She describes the opportunity to build her career around the study of Africa as a privilege.

"Africa has come to define who I am," says Robinson. "It's what I do and it shapes the meaning of my life."

At Tufts, Robinson has helped to create both the Africa in the New World minor, which enables students to explore Africa through a range of academic perspectives, and the Tufts-in-Ghana study abroad program. She was also instrumental in the development of the Ghana Gold study tour, an annual, two-week trip during which students investigate corporate social responsibility, environmental issues and Ghanaian culture through the study of the country's gold mining industry.

Robinson recently talked with Tufts E-News about the birth of her career, what brought her to Tufts, and her current and future goals.

Q: What sparked your interest in Africa?

RobinsonRobinson: My earliest interest in Africa was sparked by rivers -- in particular, Langston Hughes' poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." I was in junior high school -- 12 or 13-years-old -- when I first read the poem. It talks about the Mississippi River, the Congo River, the Nile River and the River Niger. I was born in New Orleans, on the Mississippi River, and the poem gave me a sense that the Mississippi was somehow connected with these rivers in Africa. I can still remember the tingle I got reading the refrain: "My soul runs deep like the river."

When I went to college, I became a French major. During my sophomore year I discovered the négritude poetry produced by African and French West Indian writers living in France. The work of these writers was not taught in any of the French courses I took, but it fascinated me. It talked about black cultural identity and its African roots. It reminded me of Langston Hughes's poem about rivers. I learned that the négritude movement and the Harlem Renaissance were in fact linked.

I spent my junior year on a study abroad program at the University of Bordeaux. I became friendly with African students who were studying political science, French literature and medicine. They all read and discussed the négritude writers. This was the 1960s, and their countries were newly independent. We talked a lot about African independence and the civil rights movement in the United States. That year I took my first courses in political science. At the end of my year in Bordeaux, I decided to add a second major in political science, and to focus on Africa.

Q: Have you always wanted to teach?

Robinson: From the time I was in second grade, I wanted to be a teacher. But my goal was to be a primary school teacher. When I went to college, I became aware of a much bigger world - with so many different careers. I spent my first two years in college taking many different courses, shopping around. At one point I even thought about being an astronaut! When I decided to major in political science and to focus on Africa, I was 19 years old. I didn't have a specific career in mind, but I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life learning about Africa, and sharing that knowledge with other people.

Q: What brought you to Tufts?

Robinson: In graduate school I focused on comparative politics, with an emphasis on African and African-American politics. When I began looking for jobs, there were only two in the entire country that fit this bill: one at Tufts and one at Atlanta University (a historically black university). I was fortunate enough to be offered both jobs, and I chose to come to Tufts. My decision was largely influenced by the welcoming presence of Bernard Harleston, a Tufts trustee who was then the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences .

Q: At Tufts, you have been the driving force behind a variety of projects and programs, including Ghana Gold: A Corporate Social Responsibility Study Tour. Can you discuss how the tour came about and some of its goals?

Robinson: I've long been bothered by the tendency to think of Africa solely as a place with problems. In my role as director of Tufts' Africa in the New World interdisciplinary minor, I work with faculty colleagues who help students understand Africa in all its diversity and complexity. Ghana Gold: A Corporate Social Responsibility Study Tour has been introduced as a new structural element in the Africa in the New World minor. Students combine a winter break study tour with a spring semester colloquium. The focus on gold is our first iteration. At some time in the future, we may introduce another theme.

The goal of the study tour is to get students to take a holistic look at an African country -- its history, its economy, its culture and its people -- and to see first-hand how Ghanaians from diverse backgrounds are addressing the challenges of life in the contemporary world. The theme of corporate social responsibility fits well with Tufts' emphasis on civic engagement. The juxtaposition of gold (a highly valued precious metal) and Africa (a continent that has been exploited and de-valued) encourages reflection on the sources of inequality. The study tour includes a visit to Elmina, Ghana, a coastal town where both gold trading and the slave trade flourished. The itinerary is designed to reveal the ways that we are personally connected to Africa's problems and to spark ideas about the range of durable solutions.

The interdisciplinary tour is the collective product of the intellectual interests of four Tufts professors: Edward Kutsoati (economics), Christina Sharpe (English literature), Peter Probst (art history) and me, a political scientist. For two weeks, students and professors travel and learn together as they meet with high level officials, environmental activists, policy analysts, university lecturers, mining company officials, traditional authorities and community folk. I think of the experience as a personal tutorial in a small group setting.

Q: You are currently researching and writing a biography of Ralph Bunche. Can you talk about the project and your interest in Bunche?

Robinson: Growing up, I thought of Ralph Bunche as a Harvard-educated black man who won the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize. (He was the first person of color to win the prize.) He also helped write the United Nations Charter and rose to become U.N. Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs. He accomplished all of this before the Civil Rights movement ended official Jim Crow discrimination against American blacks.

I have now come to know of a different Ralph Bunche -- a man who spent the first 13 years of his career as a college professor teaching political science, and doing pioneering research on Africa. In short, this is the Ralph Bunche who did at Howard University things similar to what I now do at Tufts. Despite Bunche's ground-breaking research on Africa during the 1930s, I was never made aware of his Africanist scholarship during any of my undergraduate or graduate school training. He published very little, and his articles only appeared in Negro journals that were never included on the syllabus of any courses I took.

When I began tracking down and reading Bunche's Africa scholarship about eight years ago, I was excited by its brilliance -- and the way he challenged the dominant paradigms. At the same time, I felt academically slighted. People interested in understanding late-colonial Africa have enormous gaps in their knowledge if they're not familiar with Bunche's scholarship on Africa. The research has taken me to Bunche's field notes, the hundreds of photographs that he shot during his research tours, his ethnographic film footage, his reviews of major books about Africa, and scores of letters and personal correspondence. My research has also revealed a lot about Bunche's personal frustrations.

In researching the biography, which I hope will be finished in a year or two, I've worked with Bunche's papers at the University of California, Los Angeles ; the Schomburg Library in Harlem, New York; and the Howard University archives. This has given me access to some of his inner thoughts. When one adds to this the pressures of his post-Nobel Prize fame, his run-in with McCarthyism, the complexities of his personal family life and the ever-present specter of racism in America, it's difficult not be captivated by his life.

Q: You currently serve as president of the African Studies Association. Can you discuss the mission/goals of the organization and its importance?

Robinson: The African Studies Association (ASA) is the largest professional organization in the world of people interested in the study of Africa. Although the majority of our members are professional academics, independent scholars, and librarians, we have always had a contingent of people involved with Africa via their work in the foundation world, government, policy institutes and Africa advocacy groups.

I became president of the African Studies Association in November 2006. The ASA president is typically an academic with a faculty appointment at a major U.S. university. I follow that same pattern. But during the past 10 years, I have also worked with two major East African Universities (Makerere University in Uganda and the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania) to help introduce interactive e-learning pedagogy through a curriculum co-development project that was funded by the Ford Foundation.

The Ford grant associated me with the Higher Education in Africa Initiative, a 10-year commitment by a group of American foundations aimed at revitalizing higher education in Africa. As a result, I move comfortably in the world of African universities and research institutions.

I have also been an Africa activist. I formerly served on the national boards of TransAfrica as well as Oxfam-America. Because of the range of my involvements with Africa, I represent the diversity of our membership base. This is especially important at a time when the ASA is interested in broadening its constituency to draw in the new breed of Africa advocates who are taking up causes like Darfur, HIV/AIDS and poverty reduction.

Being president of the ASA forces me to take a much broader view of Africa. It also enables me to think about and be exposed to a range of issues that extends beyond my own research areas. At the end of November, I was invited to join a high-level delegation to China to participate in a series of dialogues about China's new strategic relationship with Africa. As a result of the briefings, the dialogues and the follow-up activities, I will now introduce this topic into the courses I teach. I have also started encouraging students who are interested in Africa to study Chinese, and learn about China. I plan to reach out to students who are studying China and encourage them to learn about Africa.

Q: Reflecting on your career, what do you consider to be your greatest achievements thus far?

Robinson: I'm rarely satisfied with personal achievements, but I feel privileged to be doing the kind of work that has enabled me to know some extraordinary people. Among those people are some of my former Tufts students. The fact that I've been able to influence the lives of young people who are now making strides towards changing the world for the better - I consider this my greatest achievement.

Q: What are some of your goals for the future?

Robinson: At this stage, there are four major things that I would like to accomplish. I hope to finish the Ralph Bunche book, and to return to Niger, where I did my first research in Africa, and become an active member of its scholarly community. I'd also like to solidify institutional relationships between the African Studies Association and communities of African scholars and research institutions in Africa. At Tufts, I hope to develop the Ghana Gold Study Tour into a regular fixture in the Tufts curriculum.

Q: What does your work - at Tufts and in Africa - mean to you personally?

Robinson: At the age of 19, when I determined to spend the rest of my life learning about Africa, and sharing that knowledge with others, I didn't really know what that meant. As I have become more knowledgeable about things African, Africa has come to define who I am. It's what I do, and it shapes the meaning of my life. As an African-American, I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have found my way back to the continent through a combination of scholarship and activism. Tufts has been my platform for these endeavors.

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