Africana and Latin American Studies Department Presents W.E.B. DuBois Lecture

Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí, a Nigerian gender scholar and sociology professor at Stony Brook University, gave this year’s Shirley Graham and Du Bois Lecture, sponsored by the Africana and Latin American Studies program (ALST), on Oct. 18 in 105 Lawrence Hall. Held every year since 1998, the lecture rotates between the different regional concentrations within the ALST department, which include Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Nicole Carvell, ALST academic department coordinator, discussed the evolution of the speaker event.

“This lecture started out with African American studies and they did it for quite a number of years,” Carvell said. “Once a new director came on, he switched it to be rotating within the four concentrations, so this year it was Africana studies. It has been in rotation for quite a while to give all the different concentrations a chance to bring a speaker from their field to come to speak to the students.”

Oyěwùmí — who has received many awards such as the 2021 Distinguished Africanist Award of the New York African Studies Association — was introduced by Kezia Page, associate professor of English and Africana and Latin American studies, and Kwasi Konadu, professor of Africana and Latin American studies.

The lecture focused on the inherent epistemological flaws in the field of sociology by comparing American and African sociology. Oyěwùmí discussed how she became interested in the practice of the latter field, an “oxymoron” as she said, from the perspective of American sociology. There was no sociology department where she studied at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. As a discipline started by Western men from modern Europe, sociology has always been centered on a Euro-centric history, seen as a science of new industrial society, excluding transnational politics and processes.

The dominating notions about sociology are that it is a study of modern society and that Africa is not included in this because it does not meet Western standards despite the fact that it is impossible to understand modernity without its contextualization in racial hierarchy, white supremacy and patriarchy. This is a clear example of institutionalized racism in knowledge production. Modernity and society are seen as synonymous, a notion that is based on Euro-centric standards of civilization rooted in the global dichotomy of what it is to be “civilized” or “uncivilized.”

Oyěwùmí also discussed how African sociologists were trained as anthropologists in the West. Anthropology is what she called “the epistemology of alterity,” reproducing the global dichotomy notions of otherness to which white supremacy is central. The American sociology emerging in the 19th century, which she labeled “Jim Crow Sociology,” came from all-male white schools and was rooted in a hegemonic narrative. There are inherent problems of access and representation when it comes to the scholarly narrative. There was no recognition of Du Bois in the field of sociology despite his groundbreaking contributions. Du Bois was one of the first scholars to conceptualize race as a social construct, giving way to a new type of sociology that recognizes white global and epistemological domination. His scholarship was intentionally excluded because it framed race as a foundational concept of sociology used to explain social conditions and the racially divided state of society.

Oyěwùmí also talked about how feminist African scholarship is the most revolutionary form of sociology and its epistemology. She employs a lens of feminist African sociology in her book, “The Invention of Women,” where she compares Yoruban (a West African ethnic group) and European conceptualizations of gender. She discusses how gender differences are not inherent in human nature but have become universal through processes such as colonization; gender is central to euro-centric patterns of organizing knowledge.

Junior Emma Barrison, who attended the lecture for her Black Diaspora class taught by Konadu, reflected upon the speaker’s lecture.

“[Oyěwùmí] was talking about sociology and how there is this intrinsic racism that comes out of sociology because people don’t consider Africa to be a sociologically modern continent,” Barrison said. “She brought in her own experiences of being in an institution in Nigeria that didn’t have a sociology program and still does not today, and there is so much more to be done.”

Many students and faculty attended the lecture and stayed to discuss what they had learned.

“I learned that sociology is constantly adapting, and previous concepts of ‘modern’ hinder many from studying diverse communities outside of the US and Europe,” Junior Daniel Rodriguez said. “The lecture really made me reimagine the ways in which racism and prejudice can influence academia. I had not considered the impact of bias in various fields like sociology mostly because I usually associate academia with being on the brink of social progress. It was quite the revelation.”