Stephen Smith is an American journalist specialized in African studies. He worked as deputy editor of the foreign desk at Le Monde and, as the Africa editor of Liberation. He is the author of multiple academic publications about African culture and history in both English and French. Since 2006, Smith is a professor of the practice at Duke University.
1. Can you introduce yourself briefly?
My name is Stephen Smith—and by the way, just then I pronounced it in French, as I have for quite a long time. I was born in Connecticut, so in the United States. My father was American, my mother was German, and so I lived for quite a long time in Paris, where each time I picked up the telephone I had to say “Stephen Smith” because if I didn’t, no one understood.
2. When did you first come to Durham?
The first time I came here was in 2006. I was « Media Fellow ». I had worked for a long time as a journalist specialized in Africa for « Liberation », and, then, « Le Monde ». Afterwards, I left – I had published some books and I wanted to become an independent journalist. In that context, I was invited here for six weeks as a « Media Fellow ». I did not know anything about Duke before I came, but then I became visiting professor for a semester and after that I was offered a contract.
3. When did you start learning French?
I started learning French when I was 17, so I did not have any family connection – as I was telling you, my mother was German, so, I spoke German with her, and English with my father, who died very quickly… I arrived in Paris at a very advanced age. They always tell you that you cannot learn a language correctly at a certain age. And so, I told myself : ok, if I am, let’s say, a doctor learning French at a certain time would be enough to work as a doctor but as a journalist that will be harder.
However, in reality, when you are an adult, and learning a language, you truly baptize each word. When you are a child you just breathe the word in certain type of situations, but when you are an adult you reflect on each word, and each one is tied to a situation. For me, learning a language as an adult, baptsising each word under pressure worked really well. As a adult, the words started to come very easily because everything was constructed – nothing was natural.
4. How did you become interested in African Studies?
I was first interested in Africa before being interesting in African Studies. An in reality in ’75 I had to go to China for a year, but that didn’t end up happening, so at the last moment I wanted to take a year off. I no longer knew where I was really going with my studies, and so I left at the last minute for Sub-Saharan Africa. It wasn’t’ my idea, it was the mother’s idea. She said, “If you go there and then come back, you will know what you want to do” and she was right. I had no money, had no scholarship, so I had to work. It was a difficult and quite complicated year from that point of view, but it brought me back to reality and when I came from there, I told myself that I would return to my studies, and even specialize in Africa, and I worked my whole life on Africa. I wrote books, I worked as a journalist, and I teach as a professor. So, my passion is Africa and the field is secondary. I try to think about and talk about Africa, whether it’s in a book or in the classroom, it is relatively indifferent to me. I am very happy that I can do that here at Duke, of course. It’s a department that, truly as soon as I stepped foot here it I really liked it because it is very open—not in the American sense of diversity—but very open in the sense that I have colleagues that work on Hip Hop and others who work on diasporic communities, and I’m crazy about Africa, and I like that conversation between us so I am very happy to be here.
5. What were the biggest challenges and biggest rewards of living and working in Africa?
The biggest challenge is probably suspending judgment in order to better understand it from the inside, and taking that seriously. I don’t think that’s specific to Africa, if I wanted to work on Durham and wanted to understand the people of Durham—and there I am not talking about the black community but in general—in order to understand you need to really go inside, and that means suspending your judgment, because as soon as you judge you have already seen the results before having seen the process. And to be ready to put yourself in another’s place. This means that the other person is like you in another circumstance, that is the biggest challenge. And of course, Africa is very different from the rest of the world, very different from the world in which I grew up. I am white, I am relatively privileged, I didn’t know a lot about Africa before when I went there the first time (it was, I don’t know, forty years ago). So having the attitude to put yourself in another’s place is the biggest challenge. And of course very often we pass by because we think we already understand, but in reality we understand nothing. And it takes a long time and the longer you stay in Africa, the more complicated things become.
The biggest pleasure, that’s something relatively personal. When I introduced myself I told you, I come from a family that is a little different (my grandmother was Russian, etc.). Going to Africa was a great pleasure for me because it’s an anthropological laboratory. Everyone speaks many languages, it’s totally commonplace there. You can be born in a village and end up at la Sorbonne or Harvard, it’s quite possible, and I find this trajectory absolutely unique. It is not a shortcut of the European or American story, it’s something unheard of because huts and cell phones exist at the same time in Africa. And this mixture between this laboratory personally attracted me enormously. How do you fit into a world where you are something totally colorful that doesn’t exist anywhere else, or you do not have what we call roots or “rootholds”. In this regard, I always like going to Africa under any pretext just to revitalize myself around people who try to do odd jobs like all of us, and me too.
The interview, videos, transcription and translation were done by Josie Holasek, and Patricia Deza