Dr. Bettina Ng’weno’s class African-descent Communities and Culture in Asia (AAS 107C) examined the histories and legacies of African-descent peoples living in Asia. The course covered the differing religious customs, identities, languages and geographies of these populations and offered critical insights from sociological, historical and even anthropological perspectives. It was an enriching experience, which shed light on an overlooked topic in world history.

One of the things that became immediately apparent was how little information existed on these communities. Much of the historical information on Africans in Asia has been lost or imprecisely recorded, and the research of today is still ongoing. This meant that many of the readings for class were fairly recent, giving us a real sense of being on the precipice of the topics and questions being discussed. On the other hand, the lack of a large body of knowledge spoke to a need for more research of these communities.

Another thing that sticks out in my mind is how my understanding of slavery was challenged. For most of my life I thought of slavery as this monolithic thing, with the classical imageries of the Atlantic Slave Trade (slave ships, conquest, Europe, Africa, racism, etc.) influencing notions of what I thought all slavery must’ve been worldwide. But this class greatly complicated my idea of it, and now I view the institution in a more complex way. I learned that the Indian Ocean Slave Trade was quite different than that of the Atlantic: all people could be enslaved, for example, from women to Europeans to children; some of the enslaved even had servants themselves; there was also more upward mobility. I thought that my reassessment of the institution of slavery showed how little I actually knew about it in the first place, a humbling experience for any up-and-coming scholar.

By far the best part of this class was gaining an appreciation for my place in the African diaspora. I identify as both Dominican and African American, and I valued greatly the opportunity to put my ethnic identity in the context of African-descent peoples migrating around the world. It was a way to view my analyses as contributions to the cultural diversity so well explained in Dr. Ng’weno’s lectures. I remember, for example, a reading called “Ethiopia’s First Fruit” about Sheedis, which is an African-descent population in Pakistan. A Sheedi man who was interviewed had spoken about African Americans, saying, “Sheedis in America and Europe call themselves ‘black’: To us it is an insult.” The way in which the man used “Sheedis” in that sentence, so off-handedly, really made an impression on me upon first reading. I remember thinking, Wow, so I’m a Sheedi, too? The moment gave me great pause, for it was then that I realized I am also part of a continual movement of African people that’s been going on for some 2,000 years, so in a sense this Sheedi man and I have something profound in common: we are both Sheedis.

So I would certainly recommend the class African-descent Communities and Culture in Asia to other students, especially those looking to broaden their scope of history, culture and research. The course is an invaluable resource for insights into a not-so-talked-about subject. In fact, I’ve noticed that when I tell people about this class, the response I usually get is: There are black people in Asia? And I think this class adds a much-needed perspective to a historical discussion, which is perhaps overly concerned with the historical actions of Europeans, and I am glad that I got to experience it from someone like Dr. Ng’weno, who is in the field doing the research.

Avi Gindratt


17 December 2015