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Bond. George Bond.

By exploring the politics of identity, TC's venerable anthropologist has been an agent for change in his field.
In 1981, during a field trip to Uyombe, a chiefdom in the Isoka district of northern Zambia, the anthropologist George Bond had a particularly vivid experience of the Orwellian dictum that “who controls the past controls the future and who controls the present controls the past.”

Bond—today the William F. Russell Professor of Anthropology and Education at Teachers College, Director of the College’s Center for African Studies and Chair of its Department of International and Transcultural Studies—had been studying the Yombe people since 1962. In 1975, he had 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.

Now, five years after the publication of the book, Bond was in Uyombe to attend a ceremony celebrating the naming of a new Wowo chief, Edwall. He received a visit from two of Edwall’s sister’s sons.

“I was told that I would have to type the Wowo history,” Bond writes 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. “My supervisors… who had finished secondary school and worked on the Zambian copper belt as civil servants…handed me a copy of my book… and together we went through the version of the history that suited them best. They came with prepared ‘corrections’ and instructed me to type them into the new version. It was apparent that the written text had been transformed into a spoken narrative, open to debate, negotiation and revision. It was now a living text with its own meaning, power and instrumentality.”

To someone less schooled in the Wowo’s history, the changes might have seemed obscure, but to Bond, their thrust was unmistakable: to deprive four of the six Wowo branches of their right to participate in the selection and appointment of chiefs, thus elevating the other two branches to supremacy. The revisions also recast the story of the Wowo founder—Vinkakanimba, who had supposedly arrived from afar and settled Uyombe two centuries before—so that he now became the father of all peoples in the region and also a figure who embraced a vision of Africa as a unified continent.  

For Bond, the moment was an apotheosis of the idea to which he has devoted his career: that the classes of intellectual and political leaders known as elites create themselves by taking control of their own historical narratives, and that this process is essential for a colonized people to assume its own identity and assert itself against its masters.

“Social construction of local histories is crucial in the process of domination and subjugation by rulers of those they rule,” he writes in “Historical Fragments.” “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 working from the historical narratives of colonized people, Bond has 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 essence, Bond has defined his thinking in opposition to that view, which at the time was shared by most of the Westerners who dominated the field. He came of age in the camp of the structural functionalists—Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, Bronislaw Malinowski—who view society as an organism that shapes people’s actions and beliefs, but has since incorporated the thinking of Antonio Gramsci and others who look at the cultural mechanisms employed to perpetuate power. 

During his many trips to Africa (which have left him both fluent in Bantu and with the after-effects of at least two bouts of malaria), Bond has lived for long stretches among the Yombe, interviewing scores of elderly Yombe men and women as a counterweight to his study of records kept by British colonial administrators.

The result has been a gradual re-limning of various historical moments in the lives of the Yombe, and also of the histories of other Africans. In his writings on AIDS, Bond has 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.”

The result, some say, is that Bond has helped to change not only the study of Africa, but anthropology itself. 

“There are roughly two traditions in anthropology,” says Mamadou Diouf, the Leitner Family Professor of African Studies at Columbia University, who is collaborating with Bond on projects in southern Africa. “One, which is heavily marked by the colonial legacy, defines societies as traditional and tries to change them. The other, which George belongs to, pays attention to how a people deal with their own environment—with, say, how an African people deals with living in a post-colonial nation-state, and how they are modernizing themselves in this context.

“In the 1960s and ’70s, in particular, George, particularly as an African American, was a key actor in an international conversation that sought to frame a de-colonized social sciences. 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.”


Amid the clutter of the conference table in Bond’s third-floor office in Grace Dodge Hall is a well-thumbed blue book titled An Investment in People. It is the story of the Rosenwald Fund, a scholarship program created by Julius Rosenwald—a German-Jewish immigrant who founded Sears Roebuck (and also the grandfather of current Teachers College Trustee E. John Rosenwald, Jr.). 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 of between $1,000 and $7,000 that enabled them to earn Ph.D.s and conduct research in their various fields. The list of beneficiaries includes the poets Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps; the pan-Africanist scholar and author W.E.B. DuBois; the political scientist and diplomat Ralphe 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.

Also on that list are George Bond’s paternal uncle, Horace Mann Bond (author of Black American Scholars: A Study of Their Beginnings and Negro Education in Alabama: A Study in Cotton and Steel), his father, J. Max Bond, Sr., and therefore, by extension, his cousin, the writer and civil rights activist Julian Bond, and, of course, George Bond himself.

“Without the Rosenwald Fund,” Bond says, “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, tackles 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 says. “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.”

At 72, Bond has surely honed his own narrative. He is in many ways the portrait of the courtly, patrician-seeming professor. White-haired and goateed, he favors tweeds, walks with a cane, and speaks with an English accent—something, he freely admits, that even his English wife wonders about, since he was born in Tennessee and did not live in London until he was in his early twenties.

And yet he does not hide his origins. There is a rolling cadence to the way Bond speaks, punctuated by forceful hmmms and yeses that seem to spur him on as though, preacher-like, he were providing his own call and response. He is likely to tell a visitor, on first meeting, that his own ancestors were brought to Tennessee as slaves in the 1680s; that his grandfather was a freed slave who attended Oberlin College; that he himself attended the London School of Economics, where he hobnobbed with the future Pulitzer-prize winning historian David Levering Lewis; that his father served in the U.S. State Department, corresponded with Eleanor Roosevelt, and founded the University of Liberia; that his mother, Ruth Clement Bond, was famous for having sewed the first black power quilt in Tennessee during the 1940s, and that her mother was the first black woman to be named Mother of the Year by American Mothers Inc. (she was presented with the award by FDR’s mother); that the election of his uncle, Rufus Early Clement, to the Atlanta Board of Education in 1953 marked the first time a black had been elected to office in Atlanta since 1871; that his late brother, the internationally-known architect J. Max Bond, Jr., was working on Columbia University’s Manhattanville project; and that his sister was a French historian and Dean at Baruch College. 

“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 says. “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.”

Bond’s educational pedigree also provided him context. It included a prestigious boarding school in Woodstock, Vermont, at which 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, and where he took his son on visits to Rosenwald schools in backwoods communities where the houses were little more than frames draped with tarpaper; Haiti, where his father 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.

“My father was head of the education unit for USAID [the U.S. Agency for International Development], and he was the one who arranged for people from Teachers College to come work on the schools,” Bond recalls of his father’s posting in Afghanistan. “We were there to greet them when they got off the plane.”

Moving in these circles, he came to understand, firsthand, the complex relationships between important whites and blacks, as well as how racism’s barriers could, on some occasions, be fluid and, on others, impenetrable. The Bond home was a place where scholars and thinkers of all races mixed easily, and even though Washington was a segregated town, his father’s career in the State Department was facilitated by a white cousin who was Ambassador to India, and by a personal connection to Eleanor Roosevelt. Bond’s own memories also include being thrown, as a 13-year-old freshman at Woodstock Country School, into the back of a police car; hearing his father warn students at Tuskegee that the Ku Klux Klan was coming into the area; and being unable to buy a cup of coffee in Washington within sight of the Capitol building.

Bond hasn’t yet published on the subject of the making of the black elite in America, though he says a book is in the works, one that will ultimately trace the interconnected histories of “a matrix of old-line blacks.” Nevertheless, he is determined to remind people—including members of the American black elite themselves—of the institutions that helped shape him and many of them. Some of those institutions were built by the black community—for example, Dunbar High School in Washington, the first public school for blacks, which produced, among others, the first black senator since Reconstruction, the first black U.S. general, and the first black to serve as an examiner on the American Board of Surgery. But others are bastions of the white establishment.

“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 says.


Education remains at the heart of Bond’s concerns. His more recent work in Africa focuses on peasants and, more specifically, on how government decisions such as which cash crops to grow for foreign consumption can dictate workers’ migration patterns and thus their ability to send their children to school.

In the United States, he worries whether the nation’s first black president will live up to his promises about education.

Like many people, Bond was inspired by Barack Obama’s election this past fall. He had not, he said, ever expected to see a black president in his own lifetime. Obama’s victory was a seismic shift, an indication of both the depth of the man’s appeal—“he’s a fascinating figure, someone who transcends ethnic and regional categories—clearly one of the most brilliant politicians of our era”—and of “something new in our national character.” 

His chief fear, Bond said, was that “expectations of Obama are so great that he will not be able to fulfill them. He has the opportunity to be one of the greatest presidents, if he solves the problems facing us, or one of the worst if he can’t solve those problems, which are not of his own making.”

Meanwhile, he suggests, the election of one black American who benefited from the imprimatur of prominent establishment institutions does not assure others of similar opportunities. It’s a lesson he hopes that society will not forget, and that the new president himself will not turn away from in the face of problems that seem more pressing. 

“The economy rests on education—you can’t sustain a democratic society without it—and there’s no mystery about how to provide people with an education that will enable them to achieve,” he says. “You need the Dunbar High Schools, you need to be able to send poor kids to the Grotons and Andovers. And you need other kinds of institutions as well. So will Obama look at the churches, the domestic units—not just schools—where people gain training? These are the things that the Rosenwald Fund believed were essential. And other countries have used them to uplift their downtrodden, and so, in the past, have we.”

Bond shakes his head. “We can only hope that he won’t forget our history.”

Published Wednesday, May. 13, 2009


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