How one student is using cloth to tell the story of the “triangular trade” that moved humans, crops, and goods between Africa, the Americas, and Europe from the 16th to 19th centuries
By the time he started his PhD in the Department of African and African-American Studies (AAAS), Jody Benjamin had already won awards for his coverage of immigration issues in South Florida, earned his MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and served as an associate editor of the African American National Biography.
It was the first of these experiences, his coverage of the Haitian migrant detention crisis in the South Florida community where he worked, that spurred him to pursue doctoral-level work. “I wanted to learn the stories behind the stories, to do more complicated, advanced research.”
When he spent the summer following his first year at Harvard in Mali studying the Bamana language, what struck Benjamin most was the way some Malians spoke about the history of slavery in West Africa. He recalled how surprised he was to hear one Malian jokingly refer to another as a former slave. “People are always talking about lineages and family lines there in one way or another. They joke constantly about how they are related to one another, and even slavery is used as a punch line that can send people into belly laughs.”
Although Benjamin had never heard anyone joke in that way before, it gave him a window into how different societies remember and grapple with the past in everyday speech. He came to understand that “joking about slavery was a mechanism for thinking and talking about it historically.” Encountering this unexpected perspective on such a painful aspect of world history also led Benjamin to observe that “North American historians of Africa tend to emphasize the slave trade for obvious reasons, but focus on the slave trade with respect to West Africa also tends to overwhelm consideration of any other aspect of social life in the region.” He decided to tell a different kind of story.
Inspiration for his dissertation came from an unlikely source: during his time in Mali, Benjamin observed the lively markets of Bamako and their myriad purveyors of colorful, patterned fabrics. “There was so much activity around cloth,” Benjamin recalls. I wanted to learn the stories behind the stories, to do more complicated, advanced research. By focusing on a major commodity like cloth, he could nuance our understanding of the famed “triangular trade” that moved humans, crops, and goods between Africa, the Americas, and Europe from the 16th to 19th centuries. There must have been bountiful trade, too, Benjamin realized, among Africans themselves and also between Africa and Asia—as mediated by European traders—that gets short-shrift in the history books. “We know, for example, that weavers in India produced varieties of cotton cloth especially for consumers in West Africa based on information provided to them by European traders,” Benjamin explains.
It occurred to Benjamin that by writing about cloth, he could address not only the imbalanced emphasis on the slave trade in precolonial African history, but questions of agency with regard to West Africans as well. “I wanted to think about West Africans as actors,” Benjamin says. “By asking about cloth and clothing, you’re asking social questions about how people interact with one another.” For Benjamin, self-presentation is “ultimately about power, identity-making, and claim-making.”
At the onset of his graduate career, Benjamin wanted to focus his study on Mande-speaking peoples found in Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and several other countries in the region. He planned to do fieldwork in Mali, but circumstance led him in another direction. When Mali experienced a military coup in spring 2012, Benjamin’s plans to return there were unexpectedly put on hold. Benjamin calls the result a very happy accident—he ended up in Guinea, which shares a language group with Bamana. Guinea’s geography, with its inland region, access to the Niger River, and its considerable coastline made it the perfect place to study both the trade relationships among West Africans and between West Africa, Asia, and Europe, thereby nuancing the traditional understanding of triangular trade. Today, Guinea has become the central focus of Benjamin’s dissertation.
To be sure, Benjamin’s months abroad have not been the only thing that shaped his project and how he sees his academic future. Equally formative have been Benjamin’s experiences right here at Harvard. AAAS’s emphasis on collaboration and professional development has been crucial in shaping Benjamin’s current path and future plans. Due to the broad scope of the AAAS program, says Benjamin, “you’re encouraged from day one to think across boundaries.” While his emphasis is primarily on history, his colleagues’ interests range from American gospel music to East-African architecture.
As a result, Benjamin says, “part of what our conversations are about is how we engage with interdisciplinarity.” Those conversations, as well as the structure of AAAS’s program, have enabled Benjamin to push the boundaries of the disciplines with which he engages, primarily those of history. This approach has encouraged him to try to “make interventions in history and move beyond its limits and hang-ups.”
At Harvard, Benjamin has been inspired by his fellow students. As part of an attempt to allow for more valuable conversations like the ones they were having informally, Benjamin and other members of his department founded a forum that brings in a variety of speakers, from fellow graduate students who share their experience on the job market to faculty who can speak to the process of getting hired and all that comes after. “There’s so much talent around us,” says Benjamin, “and it’s great to be able to share that knowledge.”
Equally eye-opening has been Benjamin’s experience teaching at Harvard: “For the first time, I thought about teaching and how that interacts with my research.” Given his growing passion for research as well as for teaching, Benjamin intends to stay in academia.
As a faculty member, Benjamin hopes to extend his teaching beyond the classroom. He plans to consult with museums in order to help increase the public’s education about and awareness of Africa. “There’s so much people still don’t know about Africa, and it’s in a period of significant growth and transition,” he says. With Benjamin’s talent for communicating his research interests to others and for telling a story, there’s every reason to think this won’t be the case much longer.