Multiculturalism and Cosmopolitanism: Why Nineteenth-Century West African Thinkers Matter in the Twenty-First Century

Saturday, January 8, 2011: 3:10 PM
Room 104 (Hynes Convention Center)
Esperanza Brizuela-Garcia , Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ
The ideals of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism inherent to the  study of world history are neither new to our twenty-first century,  nor unique to our Western ethos. It is probably safe to say that all  societies that have faced a cultural encounter have been challenged to  reflect on the meaning, value and mechanisms that shape and  characterize multicultural exchanges. What do we know about such  reflections and how can they inform our sense of what multiculturalism  and cosmopolitanism are or should be? This paper will explore this  question by interrogating the intellectual history of West Africa  during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

During the nineteenth century, many of the coastal communities of West  Africa were among the world’s most vibrant intellectual centers, home  to some of the continent’s most accomplished thinkers and writers.  Throughout its history, first as the site of important European  trading posts, and later, as a formal British colonies, West African  centers such as Accra, Freetown and Lagos housed socially and  culturally diverse communities from which emerged a popular reading  and writing culture and sustained an active press.  Men such as John  Mensah Sarbah (1864-1910), Carl Christian Reindorf (1834-1917), and  J.E. Casely Hayford (1866-1903) were just three of an outstanding  generation of West African writers that illustrate, though not fully  represent, the diversity and depth of West Africa’s intellectual life.

This essay will explain how ideas about multiculturalism and  cosmopolitanism were among the central preoccupations of West African  elite and popular thinkers. Moreover, it will argue that these  reflections constitute valuable and relevant contributions to recent  debates on what the notions of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism  mean in the context of world history.