George Bond, TC Education Anthropologist, Dies at 77 | Teachers College Columbia University

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George Bond, TC Education Anthropologist, Dies at 77

A noted Africanist who studied the making of black elites, he helped refute a Eurocentric view of colonized peoples

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 last week 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.

Click Here for a recent interview with Professor Bond.

Click here for remembrances of Professor Bond by members of the TC community

“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  

Published Wednesday, May. 7, 2014


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  • I am deeply saddened by news of George's death. To his family, please extend my and my family's heartfelt sympathies for their loss. He was a great inspriation to me as a graduate student and contributed much to my development as an anthropologist and as a person. As well as his concern for his students, I remember also his caring and devotion to his family. He was always delighted to meet my children, and seemed tickled by the fact his daughter married a young man from my home town in Wisconsin. eWhen I returned from fieldwork and showed him pictures, I recall him saying, "now that's real anthropology," and after my thesis defense, "now you're one of us."

    Despite sadness at his passing, I feel very grateful and proud to have known him and his family, to whom we all send our deepest condolences. -respectfully submitted, Bill, Vivian, Chris and Jessica Heaney
  • I was much saddened to hear of the passing of Professor George Bond, as I have fond memories of the long hours I spent in his classes and colloquia. I remember my former mentor as an honest and serious scholar, a teacher committed to the Socratic method of intellectual development, and a gentleman of the most punctilious manners. My informal generation found all those tweed-cloth manners a bit off-putting at times, and perhaps he hid much of his complex personality behind that shield of etiquette.

    But as I grow older and witness the savage trajectory of the 21st Century, I now value more highly the social lubricant of common-sense manners and thoughtfulness to the feelings of others that his code of behavior represents. Regardless of our personal research interests, all of the TC anthropology students of my era respected and admired his long years in field research, and commitment to helping those whom he studied to negotiate and reshape their national and cultural identity in the post-colonial world. He was an anthropologist of the old school, but very much aware of the impact of the ever-changing modern world. I knew little of his personal life, but by all accounts he was a loving and committed husband and father. No small accomplishment in our society. As the Irish say, "I'll not see his like again in this world."
  • I was sad to read this evening in "TC Today" that Professor, a powerful intellect and a true gentleman, passed away last May. He was a kind man, a mentor, and the best teacher I ever had. What I learned from him some 20 years ago very much continues to shape how I interpret the worlds in which I live, how I think about myself within them, and how I approach any work that I do. Thank you forever, Professor Bond, and my deepest condolences to his family, colleagues, and friends. - Maria Carmona
  • We will also remember Professor Bond for his intellectuall rigor and his English accent, of course, but also his modesty about his considerable accomplishments that have come to light. I also experienced first hand George's devotion to his family and his genuine interest in mine and where I came from. Yet, as a student of his when he first came to TC, as one who felt his encouragement to do "real" fieldwork, his enthusiastic support, and in many warm reuniions since, I did not know that, underneath his outward manner and our friendship, there lay this deep devotion to Black American education and equality. His legacy and acomplishments are awe inspiring. - William H. Heaney
  • As I searched online for a certain book, I came across a reference to the Aldon Morris book on WEBDuBois, A Scholar Denied, which led me immediately to thoughts of Professor George Bond, which led me to search online for him. I was stunned and saddened to learn of his death a year ago. It was in Professor Bond's seminar many years ago that I drafted my dissertation proposal and benefited from the insights and challenges of him and my colleagues. Even more importantly, it was he who introduced me to the idea of the fascinating "undersides" of the social sciences and the sometimes surprising human "connections" that influence what become accepted hierarchies of scholarship. So my searching today was to try to contact him again and thank him for the insights he generously shared with me and so many others. I thank him belatedly and deeply. I give thanks for his gifts, and trust that his family continues to be comforted in his absence.. - Laura Pires-Hester
  • I knew George well for several years when we were young lecturers at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, England. George had a permanent effect on me because of his shrewd and detailed observation of social situations. When our Social Studies Board met many of us younger lecturers would contest the authority of the Dean. George would be silently making a map of the seating positions in the room, working out exactly what the hierarchies were and what were the exchanges which decided issues. On occasion we would leave the meeting exhilarated by some piece of contestation but George would simply laugh and then carefully show exactly how the Dean had in fact survived the charge and how those who had made most of the noise had in fact lost. It was salutary.

    I remember once George coming to me very distressed because his cousin Julian had written to him saying it was time for blacks to take up arms and fight back. George made it clear that he sympathized with a number of armed struggles in the Third World but he utterly disapproved of this. When you are only 11% of the population you should never dream of starting a war with the 89%, he said. It may be less glamorous but Martin Luther King's turn-the-other-cheek strategy had the effect of mobilizing liberal white opinion behind the civil rights cause, and that way you could win. So why go for a deliberately losing strategy, he argued ? George always believed in facing facts, no matter how uncomfortable or unfashionable. Thus too his frank appreciation of white philanthropy and even white paternalism as positive forces in black history. He believed that you couldn't ever really win unless you faced up to the complete truth of the situation. He taught me intellectual lessons that I have never forgotten. - RW Johnson (Cape Town)