I am currently enrolled in HIS265 — Black Canadian History — at UTSG, taught by the exceptional Professor Funké Aladejebi and assisted by Arshad Suliman. In this course, I was introduced to the phenomenal scholarship of Barrington Walker, a historian of modern Canada whose research focuses on the histories of Black Canada, race, immigration, and the law.

We studied his featured article, “Critical Histories of Blackness in Canada,” in the 2022 book Unsettling the Great White North: Black Canadian History, co-edited by Aladejebi and York University Professor Michele A. Johnson. In his article, Walker urges Black Canadian historians to ask the question, “what do we want Black history to do?” in research. He urges historians to use their work as a means through which they can help the Black Canadian community “secure the liberation of Black peoples from the terror of the racial state.” 

I highlight Walker’s scholarship here because it raises awareness of the importance of understanding that research has more purposes than knowledge production. I believe his work pushes scholars to think of their scholarship as bigger than themselves and be cognizant of the impact of their work — particularly when it involves representing the cultures, ways of being, and lives of people within communities that the work centres on.

Why thinking bigger than yourself is important

Drawing on another exceptional work of scholarship, Amanda L. Logan, in her book The Scarcity Slot: Excavating Histories of Food Security in Ghana, talks about how anthropologists, in the past, had consistently made ignorant assumptions about food systems in Africa because of their assumed racist perception of Africans and the African continent. Colonial legacies, as a result of imperialism, have evaded critical analysis by researchers when it comes to investigating and addressing issues of food insecurity in the African continent. 

Logan notes that ethnographers, anthropologists, and archeologists should combat these harmful misconceptions, as they affect policies and plans that are deployed on the African continent. For example, international bodies, informed by these common misconceptions, seek to solve food insecurity in Africa by making active efforts toward increasing food production rather than acknowledging that high food prices are what hinder food accessibility for those most vulnerable.

I believe Logan’s work provides an essential empirical example of the importance of thinking bigger than yourself and beyond what your work does for your career. These assumptions and ideas around Africa — which Logan points to having been reproduced through many scholarly works — have had far-reaching consequences on how nations are treated on the international stage and how misconceptions of them are entrenched into the ways people within the communities think about their individual identities. 

Thus, thinking bigger than yourself demands that researchers be aware of the broader implications that their work serves and encourages a more reflective and responsible approach to academic work, understanding the broader implications it has on a global stage.

Similarly, Joseph Hanlon argues in his article, “Power Without Responsibility: The World Bank & Mozambican Cashew Nuts,” that the conception of African governments being incapable of pursuing pragmatic development policies has played into the ways aid is deployed in African countries and the Global North’s choice to deploy aid to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) rather than national governments. 

In Mozambique during the late 1980s, the oversaturation of NGOs completely stripped the nation of political sovereignty and the ability to pursue economic development policies that do not advocate solely for capitalism and market economies. These ideas of African politics and economies in academic research have significantly shaped how Africans are perceived in the global world and even sometimes how Africans perceive and seek to solve problems within their environments. 

Walker’s work reminds me in my research to always think about how our academic work affects how people within our community are perceived. Research can be critical and based on empirical facts, but I believe it can also be empathetic. Researchers should remember and be aware that the people they talk about and represent in their scholarship are affected by their choices and the facts and opinions they report. Academic institutions put researchers in a space of power, and this positionality allows them to define the peoples and communities that their research focuses on in a larger global context. 

Erinayo Adediwura Oyeladun is a second-year student at Trinity College studying African studies. She is the director of education and outreach for the African Studies Course Union.

Editor’s note (March 13, 2024): a previous version of this article stated that “[i]n Mozambique during the late 1980s, the oversaturation of NGOs completely stripped the nation of political sovereignty and the ability to pursue economic development policies that advocate solely for capitalism and market economies”. In fact, it should have referred to the ability of the nation to pursue economic development policies outside of capitalism and market economies.