How British Empire Unwittingly Connected Black Intellectuals

Khwezi Mkhize
Assistant Professor of African & African American Studies Khwezi Mkhize joins the Duke faculty this year. (John West/Trinity Communications)

Khwezi Mkhize’s career as a scholar has followed a global flow of youth movements and Black intellectuals — both in his research and his life.

After earning an undergraduate degree in African literature from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, the Johannesburg native began a Ph.D. in Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania just as the Arab Spring began. As he was watching that uprising from afar, the Occupy movement began and he watched it up close.

Mkhize later spent a few years teaching at the University of Cape Town before returning to Wits just as #FeesMustFall, a national student protest in favor of increased educational support, took off in 2015.

“I could see the connections between the three,” Mkhize says. “Those are very formative moments for me emerging out of graduate school and into a career. Thinking in relation to the moment was also about thinking in relation to broader Black experiences in the diaspora and thinking in relation to the continent.”

Now that he has crossed back over the Atlantic to join Duke’s Department of African & African American Studies as an assistant professor, Mkhize sees an opportunity to deepen his research into Black culture without being contained by borders.

“African & African American Studies is an interesting configuration for thinking about these kinds of things in relation to each other, rather than using national histories as organizing principles and ideas for thinking about life experiences,” he says.

Like many families from around the globe, Mkhize’s settled in Johannesburg for the economic opportunities, which were better there than in their native Umlazi, a township on the east coast of the country. The move was intellectually fortuitous because Wits, located in the city, also happens to be home to the only department of African literature on the continent.

Though he didn’t know it until later, the chair of the department, Es’kia Mphahlele, had been an English professor at Mkhize’s future alma mater, Penn.

“I got pulled into a discipline that centers African writers and African experiences,” Mkhize said. “In some senses, this is logical on the continent and in South Africa. But it was a bit of an unusual education.

“Nowadays, in South Africa and the U.S. and globally, with discussions around decolonization, I have a much deeper appreciation of having been in a space that was formed in relation to those debates, but within literature and cultural studies.”

In part because of the country’s unique political history — it was in the throes of the anti-apartheid movement when decolonization was sweeping the continent — studying South African cultural movements has led Mkhize to focus on a more nuanced connection between Blackness and colonialism.

“For me, before one gets to the question of decolonization and the nation state, framing Black engagements with colonial subjectivity around empire and imperial liberalism gives a much more global scope to imagine the kinds of colonial relations that inform political desires,” he says.

Mkhize’s current book project, “A Home-Made Empire: South Africa’s Imperium,” asks those questions through a particular study of Black intellectual culture that formed during the early 20th century, when the country gained independence. The framing gives a central role to colonialism in forming a Black identity, even when that identity resists the injustices of colonialism.

Because they were British citizens, Mkhize notes, Black people from the Caribbean, Malawai, Zimbabwe and other parts of the globe ended up in South Africa. One of them, Henry Sylvester Williams, also organized the Pan-African Conference of 1900 — featuring Black luminaries from across the anglophone world, including W. E. B. DuBois — in London.

“I gained the imagining of empire as not only a kind of geopolitical network in which racial inequalities were formed,” Mkhize says, “but also as a geopolitical network of Black mobility, of the exchange of ideas, of convocation.”

Print culture, and especially small Black periodicals, played a central role in allowing these thinkers to read and cite each other. Though the magazines and journals they printed were often short lived — only the ones with colonial backing, and thus approval, had the resources to last for long — they were traded across the British empire by travelers and sailors.

“One cannot appreciate or understand these figures before decolonization — their mapping of the world, their migrations and intellectual conversations with each other — without thinking about empire,” Mkhize says.

And when you do, Mkhize adds, you see that the nation state was always a contested idea, even among the African political figures most associated with it, like Patrice Lumumba and Kwame Nkrumah.

“I’m similarly interested in the alternative geopolitical arrangements we can recuperate outside the nation state,” Mkhize says.

At the moment, though, after a long move complicated by the mundane realities of visa issues and global travel, Mkhize is just glad to be settled and excited to get into the archives.

“Thinking about empire is important for me because it’s another way of imagining a global community,” Mkhize says.