Personally Speaking: ASA President James Pritchett

James Pritchett was born and spent his early years in Hale County Alabama, which he points out, was one of the poorest counties in the United States at that time. Hale County comprised mostly of black rural farming communities…parallel in many ways to parts of Africa, and James early memories consisted of a busy beehive of black folks farming and raising their food (pigs, chickens, goats and guinea fowl).

James did not stay in Hale County for too long, and was eventually taken to Columbus Ohio as a young schoolboy. He still remembers the culture shock of moving from the almost extreme rural environment of Hale, to the stark and industrial urban city that was Columbus. In his twenties, James experienced a profound sense of frustration with being a young black man living in the United States. This frustration was served by the fact that America was fighting in the Vietnam war at the time, and the very nature of the war politicized people, and especially young men who were under pressure to go fight in the war. This opened the world up to James, perhaps sooner than would have been otherwise the case. A second significant influence in James life was Malcolm X, whose speeches mapped out a methodology of learning for him which was based on engaging “blackness” from a world perspective.

 

James learned from Malcolm X that it was okay to be exposed to a world beyond his immediate context, and that as young man he did not necessarily have to stay in the ghetto. This opened up new possibilities for James, who in his twenties decided to travel around the Caribbean. This wanderlust was inspired mostly by James search for a more shared sense of identity, a search which eventually led him to the continent of Africa.

Somewhere during his travels, James became taken with the idea of becoming a teacher. He had studies Aeronautical Engineering at Ohio State University however any interest he might have had with space and aviation was abandoned, because it would link him with the U.S. government (lets not forget that at the time, James was highly politicized and anti-government). Instead, he decided to capitalize on his interest in people. This led him to focus on community activism, looking at issues that affect black people in the USA and ultimately the African Diaspora as a whole. 

That desire led him to Harvard University to pursue a PhD as a first step toward that dream. At Harvard James studied Afro-Brazilian culture, and in particular he researched questions of identity and belonging within that constituency. He started off wanting to go to Angola to conduct his research, but instead because of the war, he ended up in Zambia, which is close to the Angolan border and Zambia quickly became home. He learned Lunda, one of the primary languages spoken in both Zambia and Angola. Even after the Angolan war ended, he chose to remain in Zambia especially when life took him down the path of fatherhood, and his daughter was born there.

James has not yet gotten around to his "Great Diaspora Project," which he hopes to work on when he retires. However when he returned from Zambia, he not only quickly became busy with life as an academic, but he also started pursuing another important cause. He realized that many of the issues and causes that were fought in the 60’s (some of which he was a part of), remained in memory but were never institutionalized.  He therefore took up the cause of transforming the architecture of African studies programs in institutions of higher learning in the United States. Committed to improving, for example, libraries, language training, research methodologies related to the study of Africa, James is actively engaged in policy and funding spaces in addition to teaching. 

James is an accomplished scholar, but what sets him apart is his commitment to bringing about transformation in any area or cause he commits himself to.  Not one to remain satisfied with the status quo James has spent much of his life pushing boundaries and fighting for change. The ASA has been extremely lucky to have him as President over the past year. His calm, constant and reassuring presence, coupled with his deep intelligence and sincere concern for people have been a real asset. We thank him for his leadership.