REVIEW OF “OF CONJUNCTIONS, COMPORTMENT, AND CLOTHING: THE PLACE OF AFRICAN TEACHING ASSISTANTS IN BERLIN AND HAMBURG”

Pugach, Sara (2007).  “Of conjunctions, comportment, and clothing: the place of African teaching assistants in Berlin and Hamburg, 1889-1919.”  In Tilley, Helen and Robert J. Gordon (Eds.), Ordering Africa: Anthropology, European Imperialism, and the Politics of Knowledge (pp.145-172). Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

In writing this chapter, Sarah Pugach argues that she is attempting to draw African teaching assistants into German colonial history (120).  In doing so, Pugach is helping to illustrate the ways in which African scholars played an important role in contributing to and shaping German academe (120-121).  Furthermore, she also draws attention to colonialism’s role in early anthropology, arguing that in fact the earliest “anthropologists” were missionaries, who produced and wrote ethnographic works in colonial settings (122).  This chapter speaks to the complex entanglements and power relations that are created when ethnographic knowledge is being produced; in essence, Pugach illustrates the ways in which people use each other for academic and social gains.   Africans who contributed to academia in both the colonies and in Europe did have agency, and even often used stereotypes to their advantage, however at the same time the Germans were afraid of allowing them “too much power” (121) and thus ensured that they were squelched in various ways.

It is important to be aware of the intricacies of historical contexts in order to understand how knowledge is produced in Anthropology today, particularly in relation to societies and cultures outside of our own contexts.   Thus, in writing this chapter Pugach is enabling us to open our eyes to so much more than simply the position of African teaching assistants in late the 1800’s to early 1900’s in Germany.  African informants’ roles in German history were carefully documented, with their significant contributions to linguistic works and ethnographies having been particularly well-documented although Pugach argues that many of the aforementioned works remain unpublished, and are thus hidden from common knowledge (122).  Often, informants were unacknowledged in written work, though, and Pugach argues that they were certainly almost never recognized as co-authors of those works that did end up getting published nor were they given praise for their contributions to Anthropological works; even the ones that would have been impossible without an informant who knew the language and culture well (123).  In fact, even in texts that were about them informants were not directly quoted or even mentioned explicitly, particularly not by name (123).

Teaching assistants living in Germany at the time had quite a different experience than those who remained in colonies, serving as informants.  Through virtue of having more access to academic institutions, they were able to attain greater status and also had a tendency to be more educated, Pugach argues (123).  In drawing attention to academic knowledge, Pugach opens a space in which one might question how education contributes to knowledge production in Anthropology.  Also, she raises the issue of access to education by illustrating the ways in which social class in Africa played a role in enabling wealthier people to be educated and thus work as teaching assistants in Germany, while those who were not educated could only stay in the colonies and be informants whose contributions to academia were largely unrecognized.   Does access to academic education contribute to the production of knowledge in Antthropology, then, or simply more to the recognition of a person’s contributions based on his or her position within the academic institution?  In essence, while it may not have been her ultimate goal in writing this chapter, notions of contributions and recognition were central to Pugach’s chapter, and she quite clearly delineates it through illustrating the differences between African teaching assistants in Germany and colonial African contributions to ethnographic texts.  It is of course no coincidence that those who remained unnamed and thus unrecognized were also those who were less educated.

Furthermore, Pugach writes that Africans teaching in Germany had to be sure to dress the part (wearing western clothes, usually) as a part of the façade necessary to enable them to allow them to play the role of fitting in to German society (125-127).  However, it is important to note that although Pugach makes sure to establish that while African academics in Germany did quite well at playing the role of fitting in to German society, there was always an underlying fear on the part of the Germans that they could suddenly revert to being fully African, which was arguably synonymous with primitive (125-126).  Thus they were still considered suspect, and definitely did not get to be on par with white Germans (124), nor even with North African and Asian teaching assistants in similar positions (127).   In addition, Pugach argues that among African teaching assistants in Germany, some had a higher status than others. Often status depended on social class and cultural background (125-127), although most still occupied marginal positions in European society (129).  Limiting Africans’ mobility within German society was in large part due to the realization that African were not actually inferior to Germans (physically and mentally), which Pugach argues led to increased feelings of inferiority on the part of Germans (129-130).

The final question that arises when regarding Pugach’s chapter is that of why African assistants were willing to produce “ethnographic texts for a German public” in the first place (135).  Although Pugach initially argues that it is difficult to assess their reasons for doing so, I would argue that it is indeed possible to discern the probability that financial reasons definitely played a role (there are mentions of sending remittances home as well as instances where Africans and Germans bickered over the teaching assistants’ pay, throughout the chapter).  Pugach also points to the issue of intended audience, arguing that African teaching assistants’ ethnographic texts didn’t always conform to German readers’ expectations (138).  Further, Pugach argues that quite often African academics “used scholarship as a means of promoting” personal goals (138).  Finally, the argument Pugach most clearly seems to want to make in this chapter is that although there isn’t much published on the history of African-German relationships during the colonial period, what we are able to discern is that they were complex, but most importantly that they allowed Africans, through their contributions to ethnographic texts as well as their positions within German academia, to contest German ideals of “what it means to be African” (139).

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