Republished from Columbia University Teacher’s College Media Center
George Clement Bond, TC’s William F. Russell Professor of Anthropology and Education, Director of the College’s Center for African Studies and former Chair of the Department of International and Transcultural Studies, passed away in 2014 at the age of 77.
An authority on the African diaspora and a member of TC’s faculty for 40 years, Bond was widely credited with identifying and representing the historical narratives of indigenous African peoples. An old-time “dirty anthropologist” whose decades of field work in remote African villages left him fluent in Bantu and afflicted by the effects of at least two bouts of malaria, Bond devoted much of his career to demonstrating that the classes of intellectual and political leaders known as elites create themselves by taking control of their historical narratives. He argued that this process is essential for a colonized people to assume its own identity and assert itself against its masters.
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“Social construction of local histories is crucial in the process of domination and subjugation by rulers of those they rule,” Bond wrote in “Historical Fragments and Social Constructions in Northern Zambia: A Personal Journey,” a monograph he published in the June 2000 issue of The Journal of African Cultural Studies. “Authority and legitimacy are conjoined through the fabrication, inscription and recitation of historical narratives and are an essential part of governance. I have sought to represent the voices of Africans as they contributed to the making of their own history.”
In taking such an approach, Bond pitted himself against a longstanding colonialist tradition in his field, exemplified by the now infamous assertion of the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper in 1963 that “there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness.”
“In the 1960s and ’70s, George, particularly as an African American, was a key actor in an international conversation that sought to frame a de-colonized social sciences,” Mamadou Diouf, the Leitner Family Professor of African Studies at Columbia University, who collaborated with Bond on projects in southern Africa, said in a profile of Bond that appeared in TC Today magazine in 2009. “He was asking, what does it mean to be an anthropologist, when anthropology is so linked to the colonial project, when it, itself, has been a colonizing intervention? Others among his cohort had begun calling themselves ‘sociologists,’ to distance themselves from these associations, but George chose to work from within the discipline and reframe it.”
Bond’s interest in the making of black elites grew directly out of an acute sense of his own family history. White-haired and goateed in recent years, Bond was in many ways the portrait of the courtly, patrician professor, favoring tweeds, sporting a cane, and speaking with an English accent – something, he admitted, that even family members wondered about, since he was born in Tennessee. Yet his ancestors were brought to the New World as slaves in the 1680s (his family is also part Creek and Cherokee); his grandfather was a freed slave who attended Oberlin College; his father, J. Max Bond, served in the U.S. State Department, corresponded with Eleanor Roosevelt, and helped found the University of Liberia; his mother, Ruth Clement Bond, was famous for having sewed the first black power quilt in Tennessee during the 1940s; and his uncle, Horace Mann Bond, was the author of the landmark social science texts Black American Scholars: A Study of Their Beginnings and Negro Education in Alabama: A Study in Cotton and Steel. Bond’s late brother was the internationally known architect J. Max Bond, Jr.; his sister, Jane Bond, is a noted French historian and professor emerita at Baruch College; and his cousin is the civil rights activist Julian Bond.
“One of the aspects that I can’t escape – and it’s my sociological interpretation – is that blacks within the U.S. have always been demeaned by other people,” Bond said. “And as a people they have not been acclaimed. So they have turned to their families, stuck as units to their families, hailed the accomplishments of their families. So I stand with my father, his brothers, my mother, my sisters, my cousins. So it’s difficult for me to remove myself. So that if you write about me, I would like it to be contextualized.”
Yet even as Bond took pride in his family’s remarkable accomplishments, he sought to remind people – including members of the American black elite themselves – of the institutions that helped shape them. These included historically black colleges and universities, but also Ivy League schools and their ilk.
“Black elites send their kids to Harvard and Yale, and they don’t talk about it, but the fact that you go to Harvard or Yale puts you at an advantage,” he said.
Bond was particularly fascinated by the Rosenwald Fund, a scholarship program created by Julius Rosenwald, a German-Jewish immigrant who founded Sears Roebuck. Between 1928 and 1949, the Rosenwald Fund created 5,000 schools for black children in the American South and provided more than 200 blacks with funding that enabled them to earn Ph.D.s and conduct research in their various fields. The list of beneficiaries includes Bond’s father and uncle, as well as the poets Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps; the pan-Africanist scholar and author W.E.B. DuBois; the political scientist and diplomat Ralph Bunche, who became the first black Nobel laureate; the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier; the anthropologist Allison Davis, the first black to hold a full faculty position at a white university (the University of Chicago); the pioneering research chemist Percy Julian; and the historian John Hope Franklin.
“Without the Rosenwald Fund,” Bond said in an interview several years ago, “I may not be sitting here. I don’t attribute that to my independent brilliance, but to their efforts and to my father’s and uncle’s brilliance.”
Ultimately, Bond’s acknowledgement of his debt to the Rosenwald Fund and a number of other institutions goes to the heart of a paradox that he, unlike many younger African scholars, tackled head on: that for a colonized people to tell its story, and ultimately to “de-colonize,” it must first become educated – a process that cannot occur without the assistance of the colonizers themselves.
“This generation doesn’t like to talk about missions and philanthropy and how that has contributed to the making of an elite,” Bond said. “One should say that the elite made itself. But I would argue that they did not make themselves. They went to good schools, usually, got good jobs. That is what made them.
“I hate colonialism – I’m dead set against it, don’t get me wrong. But I also like a sound education. And that makes me a conservative – in the sense of conserving that which is worth conserving – and a radical in the eyes of others, in the sense of going to the root of things.”
Bond’s own educational pedigree included a prestigious boarding school in Woodstock, Vermont, where he was the only black student, and Boston University (where, among other things, he played varsity soccer). By the time he was a young man, he had met or learned about, through the firsthand accounts of his father and uncle, nearly everyone who was anyone in black intellectual life. He had also traveled extensively. Because of his father’s peripatetic career, Bond grew up, variously, in Tennessee, where his parents studied and organized black laborers working for the Tennessee Valley Authority; Alabama, where Bond père was the dean of the education school at Tuskegee University; Haiti, where the elder Bond was head of Mission for the State Department, and where George went to a local school and spoke French even at home; Monrovia, Liberia, where, at the behest of the State Department and working directly with the country’s president, William V.S. Tubman, J. Max Bond reorganized Liberia College into a university; and ultimately, Afghanistan, where George went to high school in Kabul.
Bond earned his Ph.D. at the London School of Economics, where he studied with Lucy Mair, Raymond Firth and A.E. Evans-Pritchard, and knew David Levering-Lewis and M.G. Smith. His early influences included structural functionalists such as Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown and Bronislaw Malinowski, who viewed society as an organism that shapes people’s actions and beliefs, but Bond subsequently incorporated the thinking of Antonio Gramsci and others who look at the cultural mechanisms employed to perpetuate power.
He made his first trip to Zambia in 1962 and subsequently lived for long stretches in the Uyombe region, a chiefdom in the northern Isoka district. There he interviewed scores of elderly Yombe men and women as a counterweight to his study of records kept by British colonial administrators. In 1975, he published a book, The Politics of Change in a Zambian Community, which traced the political and intellectual development of the Wowo, the ruling Yombe clan, from the late 1800s up through the modern era, as they navigated conflicts within their own ranks, converted to Christianity, were educated in mission schools and forged a working relationship with British colonial rulers, and, ultimately, secured their place in Zambia’s independence movement. The WoWo have since formally adopted Bond’s account as their official history.
In his writings on AIDS, Bond argued that Uganda, considered one of the few African success stories in fighting the epidemic, was able to limit contagion only when it rejected standard Western public health approaches and focused instead on mobilizing women, children, orphans and the elderly. His co-edited study, African Christianity, explores the ways that African politicians like Alice Lenshine and Kenneth Kaunda used religion to create nationalist independence movements. And his most recent volume, Contested Terrains and Constructed Categories (co-edited with Nigel Gibson) brings together essays—most authored by Africans—that challenge Western techniques of “manufacturing Africa’s geography, African economic historiography, World Bank policies, measures of poverty, community and ethnicity, the nature of being and becoming, and conditions of violence and health.”
In 2008, when the United States elected its first black President, Bond praised Barack Obama as “a fascinating political figure who transcends racial politics.” Yet that very attribute, as well as the expectations Obama faced, gave him pause.
“I thought I’d never see a black man or woman in my lifetime as president of the United States,” he said. “But hopefully he won’t forget history. Together with Carnegie and Rockefeller, the Rosenwald Fund essentially enabled virtually every major black intellectual you can think of from the 1930s and 40s to obtain a Ph.D. Dunbar High School, in Washington, D.C., also created the elite. They had a policy of largely open admissions – they took large numbers of people from poor backgrounds, but involved people from institutions like Howard. I hope this is remembered, because education, from my viewpoint, is fundamental to any society.”
by Joe Levine