The African Studies Association has selected Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí, professor in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Sociology, as the winner of the 2021 Distinguished Africanist Award, which recognizes and honors individuals who have contributed a lifetime of outstanding scholarship in African studies combined with service to the Africanist community.
“In the 38 years since this award has been conferred, more than 50 percent have been given to white men and six to white women; no African woman has ever been recognized with this award,” said Professor Oyěwùmí, who also serves as professor in the departments of Africana Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. “Thus, I am the first African woman to win this prestigious African Studies prize. The statistic makes explicit the racial and gender exclusions that are a fact of academic institutions, and American life. These numbers make even more poignant the widespread call for need for diversity, equality and inclusion, including here at Stony Brook.”
Professor Oyěwùmí’s research caused a paradigm shift in the academic study of gender. Her research exposed the global narrative on gender as an ethnocentric discourse in which a Eurocentric, cultural and historically contingent category was imposed, and propagated worldwide as universal and timeless. At the center of her scholarship is the award-winning book The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses (University of Minnesota Press, 1997) in which she documents the biological determinism embedded in Western knowledge systems, and the colonial origins of contemporary African gender organizations. The monograph won the 1998 Distinguished Book Award of the American Sociological Association, Sex and Gender Section, citing, in part, “the major value of this book to sex and gender scholars is the way it forces us to examine the Western character of our fundamental assumption that gender is a major organizing principle of social life.” The book was also selected as a finalist for the 1998 Best Book Prize of the African Studies Association.
The work has had an impact beyond Western societies as attested by an invitation Professor Oyěwùmí received from the Center for Gender Studies at the University of Kazakhstan, Almaty in Central Asia, citing that her conceptual work on gender discourses became familiar to them through the work of a Russian author. The Invention of Women has been translated into Spanish, and Portuguese in Brazil, where the book has a wide following.
“It is so exciting that Professor Oyěwùmí received the Distinguished African Award,” said Kathleen Fallon, professor and chair of the Department of Sociology. “This is especially impressive, as it is the most prestigious award given to a scholar within African Studies. It shows just how transformative her work is and how wide reaching it is — from Sociology to African Studies and beyond. We are all lucky to have a scholar like ‘Ronke, who challenges and transforms existing academic paradigms, here at Stony Brook University.”
Professor Oyěwùmí’s body of work includes two monographs, three edited books, and numerous journal articles and book chapters. The monograph What Gender is Motherhood is about the subjugation of indigenous knowledge and the marginalization of local epistemes as a result of European colonization and continuing dominance of European languages, systems of thought and institutions in Africa. Her latest book, What Gender is Motherhood? Changing Yoruba Ideals of Power, Procreation, and Identity in the Age of Modernity (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2016) makes explicit the entangled relationship between global coloniality and local colonialisms and the unequal power relations between Africa and the West that structures knowledge production.
The first of Professor Oyěwùmí’s three edited collections, African Women and Feminism: Understanding the Politics of Sisterhood (2003), interrogates the representation of African women in various feminist discourses. In 2005, she edited African Gender Studies: A Reader, and her third anthology is Gender Epistemologies in Africa: Gendering Traditions, Spaces, Social Institutions, and Identities (2011). These books have been a boon for teachers across disciplines.
Apart from scholarship, the Distinguished Africanist award rewards service to the community. Professor Oyěwùmí’s contribution to the teaching of Africa is remarkable.
“Professor Oyeronke Oyěwùmí, or better, ‘Ronke, as I call her, is the teacher’s teacher, the professor’s professor, simply the best mentor any colleague and student could wish to have,” said Patrice Nganang, professor and chair, Department of Africana Studies. “It is not surprising that she is the first faculty I had heard about before coming to Stony Brook University; she has a resonance that goes beyond her field of expertise to touch the human. I am particularly happy that she is recognized for what she is — a Distinguished Africanist.”
Teachers of Africa in all disciplines faced distinct challenges in finding resources for teaching an American audience that has been exposed to negative images of Africa in the popular media and academic texts. The need for appropriate sources was especially evident when Professor Oyěwùmí started teaching gender courses on Africa in the 1990s. Her response to this challenge was to publish African Gender Studies: A Reader (Palgrave 2005), a collection of articles that present African women as more than mere victims and the continent as something other than a place of pathology. This anthology has proven to be an invaluable and much appreciated text in classrooms across the U.S. and around the world.
It was the same impulse to see a broad representation of African experiences that led Oyewumi and two other colleagues to establish the online journal Jenda: A Journal of Culture and African Women’s Studies. This journal has become a lively forum for showcasing gender research on Africa and Diaspora. It is also an important resource in teaching about Africa, feminisms and global issues. Similarly, in 2013, Professor Oyěwùmí inaugurated a new book series at Palgrave/Macmillan titled Gender and Cultural Studies in Africa and the Diaspora. The objective was to bring in new scholars and emerging perspectives in a range of interdisciplinary work on Africa and its many Diasporas.
Professor Oyěwùmí’s immense gratification of her receipt of the Distinguished Africanist award is even more heightened when she reads appreciation of her works by her peers and students, including Marius Kothor, a graduate student in the Department of History at Yale University, who wrote, “Like so many African scholars, I have been fundamentally transformed by Professor Oyeronke Oyěwùmí’s scholarship. “The Invention of Women,” “What Gender is Motherhood?” “Gender Epistemologies” (among many others!) are texts that have given so many of us the language and tools to make sense of the ways we are positioned within the world and the confidence to reclaim our epistemologies.”
Many of Professor Oyěwùmí’s writings appeal to interdisciplinary audiences, leading to the reprinting of numerous articles and chapters in the disciplinary anthologies including “The Invention of Women” in Anthropology in Theory: Issues in Epistemology. She has given keynote lectures nationally and internationally including Germany, the United Kingdom, Brazil, South Africa, Spain, Portugal, Jamaica, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Mozambique, Sweden, Norway and Holland.
Professor Oyěwùmí was born in Nigeria and educated at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, and the University of California at Berkeley. She has been widely recognized for her work, garnering many prestigious awards including Fulbright, Rockefeller, Ford Foundation and Presidential Fellowships. In 2014, she received the Distinguished Africanist award of the New York African Studies Association (NYASA).
The Award will be presented at the African Studies Association’s 64th Annual Meeting, which will take place virtually from November 16-20, 2021.