2019 LSA DISTINGUISHED SCHOLAR AWARD: JONATHAN HAYNES (PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH AND FILM STUDIES, LONG ISLAND UNIVERSITY, USA)

Nomination Submitted by

Paul Ugor, Associate Professor, Illinois State University, USA

 

It is indeed my pleasure and honor to nominate Professor Jonathan Haynes of Long Island University, New York as the LSA Distinguished Scholar for 2019. I have known Prof Haynes for eighteen years and I know of no other Africanist scholar who is deserving of this prestigious award than him. Not only has Prof Haynes been a consummate scholar of African literatures and cultures for the past twenty years, in those two decades, he has been an incredibly gracious and generous mentor, ally, advocate, and guardian to many Africanist scholars in the humanities.

Prof. Haynes’ research work in African literature and cinema marks him out as a scholar of towering international reputation whose persistence of scholarly inquiry into African modes of self-expression has secured legitimation for a field of study now known globally as Nollywood studies. To get a sense of Haynes’s scholarly achievements, it is important to remember that only a few years ago, Nollywood was a film industry scoffed at by mainstream cinema directors and elite scholars in the humanities. With his longtime friend and research associate, Prof. Onoookome Okome, Prof Haynes worked tirelessly to make sense of the artistic worth of Nigerian video films and to defend the legitimacy of the industry as a remarkable mode of African self-expression worthy of critical attention. Today, Nollywood it is at the centre of scholarly inquiries in prestigious scholarly fields such as Media Studies, Popular Culture, Film Studies, Anthropology, English and Cultural Studies, History, Linguistics, and other disciplines in the humanities.

Haynes’s scholarship on African literature and cinema is not the typical account of African misery so prevalent in Africanist scholarship. It is rather an account of stunning social and cultural change in Africa. Here is what he tells us about Nigeria’s current economy: “Nigeria is indeed changing fast. The economy has been growing at nearly 7 percent a year for a decade—not quite a Chinese rate, but truly impressive. The telecommunications sector is the largest in Africa and one of the fastest growing in the world. In 1999, less than 1 percent of the population had access to a telephone; now there are 116 million active cell phone subscriptions. Forty-seven million Nigerians are on the internet, more than in France” (Nollywood 301). This is not the record of a nation in misery; it is a fabulous story that shows irrefutable evidence of social change, innovation, creativity, and resilience, all happening in the face of near insurmountable odds against a people and their culture. What Haynes’ work uncovers about Nigeria is an incredible history of a dynamic nation constantly in the process of reinventing itself, and doing so in the face of near impossible conditions of survival mostly brought about by a mean global neoliberal political-economic order and the crass idiocy and ineptitude of African ruling elites. What his body of work on Nollywood unravels is significant, for not only does it tell us that there’s more to come from this modest film industry built by the hard work, creativity, patience, and dedication of ordinary people, but that the creative power of a disempowered people, however feeble, should never be underestimated!

As a pioneer in Nollywood studies, what Prof Haynes has achieved in African studies is truly remarkable and unprecedented, for very few people who invented a discipline still live amongst us in flesh and blood. Prof Haynes and other Nollywood pioneers literally picked up the art and stories of ordinary people in West Africa from the streets, traced their social sources, made sense of their narrative logic, mapped out their aesthetic coordinates, theorized their cultural and philosophical foundations, and convinced the global academic community that Nollywood films deserve scrutiny because they hold the secrets of contemporary postcolonial life in Africa. The particular claim Haynes makes about Nollywood is powerful: “Nollywood deserves credit for its roles as a chronicler of social history, as an organ of cultural and moral response to the extreme provocations and dislocations of contemporary Nigeria, and as the bearer of a true nationalism. It arose in Nigeria’s hour of need, when everything was crumbling, including the ideologies on which the state was based” (2016, xxviii). If this claim he makes about Nollywood is remarkable, what is even more astonishing is the extraordinary ways in which his work marks him out as a public intellectual, that kind advocated by Antonia Gramsci in his “philosophy of praxis”. In advocating for a powerful social role for what he called “the organic intellectual,” Gramsci made clear the moral responsibility of intellectuals to stand with and for the people and work not just as a part of the collective of “organizers of culture,” but to rescue the downtrodden from being trampled by the dominant and powerful. While everyone else dismissed Nollywood as a tacky genre invented by uneducated and unemployed urban youth seeking avenues to quick wealth, Haynes stood with the young Nollywood artisans, insisting that there was something in their films; that the films narrativized something crucial and meaningful, and that we needed only to pay attention to the unique cultural logic of the artists and their iconoclastic films. And by standing with the people, rather than the traditional elites in world cinema and African studies, Haynes demonstrated convincingly how Nollywood films functioned as alternative cultural texts that manage, in spite of the enormous odds against the industry, to “stage debates about fundamental issues” and the extraordinary work it does to sustain “an image of the nation as resilient, grounded, tolerant, plural, certainly tormented and suffering but also managing to laugh and to get on with life” (xxviii).

With five books, an edited journal and about three dozen peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, and a thirty-year teaching experience in prestigious institutions in the United States, Germany, and African universities such as the University of Kumasi, Ghana (where he was the founding director of the West African Center of the Friends World Program from 2001-2002; the American University in Cairo (Egypt); the University of Nigeria-Nsukka; Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria; and the University of Ibadan, Prof. Haynes’ scholarly profile clearly puts him in the class of star scholars and trailblazers. His phenomenally insightful research on what African popular arts tell us about bustling and innovative African cities such as Lagos, is particularly salient to the Lagos Studies Association. Through his perceptive analysis of city life in Nollywood films, Haynes was perhaps one of the first wave of Africanists to reveal how African literature, film, and arts in general essentially function as social maps of Africa’s complex but fascinating urban cultural life.     

It is on the basis of this remarkable academic record as a teacher, researcher, advocate, and promoter of African literatures and cultures that I nominate Prof Haynes as the 2019 LSA Distinguished Scholar of the year. The award will be an incredible mark of respect for a man who has not only given so much to Africa, but who has also given a lot of Africa to the world.