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The Predicament of Blackness

Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

What is the meaning of blackness in Africa? While much has been written on Africa’s complex ethnic and tribal relationships, Jemima Pierre’s groundbreaking The Predicament of Blackness is the first book to tackle the question of race in West Africa through its postcolonial manifestations. Challenging the view of the African continent as a nonracialized space—as a fixed historic source for the African diaspora—she envisions Africa, and in particular the nation of Ghana, as a place whose local relationships are deeply informed by global structures of race, economics, and politics.
Against the backdrop of Ghana’s history as a major port in the transatlantic slave trade and the subsequent and disruptive forces of colonialism and postcolonialism, Pierre examines key facets of contemporary Ghanaian society, from the pervasive significance of “whiteness” to the practice of chemical skin-bleaching to the government’s active promotion of Pan-African “heritage tourism.” Drawing these and other examples together, she shows that race and racism have not only persisted in Ghana after colonialism, but also that the beliefs and practices of this modern society all occur within a global racial hierarchy. In doing so, she provides a powerful articulation of race on the continent and a new way of understanding contemporary Africa—and the modern African diaspora.

288 pages | 23 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2012

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Sociology: Race, Ethnic, and Minority Relations


“In The Predicament of Blackness, Jemima Pierre makes an important intervention in Africanist anthropology, which is in dire need of analyses, such as Pierre offers, that illuminate the workings of race. This book is in a class by itself. It is not only a welcome addition to the field but will in fact inspire a new generation of African Studies scholarship that is more attentive to the cultural practices of race.”

Bayo Holsey, Duke University

The Predicament of Blackness is not only a theoretical tour de force but also represents the best kind of scholarship that has been generated by the disciplinary rethinking that has gone on within anthropology over the past thirty years. It is rich work like Pierre’s that is paradigm shifting. It allows us to see how pointing out the underexplored and unanticipated dimensions of global processes pushes us to more profound and sophisticated analysis of who we are and who we want to be.”

Deborah Thomas, University of Pennsylvania

“The Predicament of Blackness will simply turn the fields of African diaspora studies and racial formation upside down. By examining the African diaspora and the colonial and postcolonial experiences of the African continent within the same frame, Jemima Pierre throws into sharp relief how the development of modern black identities on both sides of the continent are really one whole story. And she tells this story with penetrating insight, theoretical sophistication, and grace.”

Robin D. G. Kelley, University of California, Los Angeles

The Predicament of Blackness is a superb study of the persistence of white racial privilege and power in Ghana, largely based on ethnographic exchanges with Ghanaians. With roots in the colonial past and the neoliberal present, the fact of “Whiteness” defies clichéd notions of Ghana as a raceless Eden, or as a proud, defiant bastion of pan-African blackness. Pierre’s courageous analysis of modern race consciousness in Ghana is essential reading for scholars in African diaspora studies, and its account of the intersection of race and class is as pertinent to the segregated world of American suburbia as it is to the exclusive neighborhoods, nightspots, and hotels of Accra.”

Kevin Gaines, University of Michigan

“In this magisterial work, Jemima Pierre combines her considerable historical depth, ethnographic grounding, and theoretical sophistication to produce a compelling study of Ghana as a cosmopolitan site of racialization and modernity, contemporaneous with the other side of the Black Atlantic, the “New World” African diaspora. Steeped in a keenly nuanced understanding of intellectual history, Pierre makes an important contribution to studies of postcolonial Africa, diaspora, the global workings of racism, transnational blackness, and the intricate interplay of culture, power, and political economy. This book deserves to be seriously engaged.”

Faye Harrison, University of Florida

“Pierre’s observations provide a rich and textured documentation of the meanings and expressions of blackness—and, ultimately ‘Whiteness’—in early 21st century Ghana. The predicament, she suggests, is that Whiteness serves as a reference point for Ghanaians’ notions of beauty, Blackness, and power, but Ghanaians remain blind to this and the framework of global white supremacy that has contributed to the social and political structure of their society. . . . [Her] book is a welcome addition to an important field within African and African diaspora studies. It sheds new and important light on the contours and limits of European imperial power in Africa, and demonstrates the challenges of upholding social categories in a forever and rapidly changing social and political environment. Most important, Pierre helps deepen our understanding of confluence of race and power as a global phenomenon.”

Ben Talton | Africa is a Country

“This is a book that I highly recommend for graduate courses in African diaspora studies. It clearly pulls the reader away from traditional ethnography making by emphasizing the transnational dimensions of things. It provides so many opportunities to discuss contemporary processes and the diversity of Black subjectivities. As Pierre says, the book ‘reveals, nevertheless, that Ghanaian politics and culture continue to be structured in a way that works to (re)inscribe Ghana’s marginality within various racialized global hierarchies.’”

Jean Muteba Rahier | American Ethnologist

“Jemima Pierre has written a bold, intriguing, and challenging book.” 

Peter Wade | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“The idea that racism only exists outside of Africa, as if black Africans occupy a geopolitical space free from white supremacy, is, as Pierre shows, patently false. Pierre’s project in The Predicament of Blackness is to make racism and self-hate in Ghana visible. In this timely and brilliantly researched and executed text, Pierre unpacks how white financial largesse has made black-skinned people leery of other black-skinned people.” 

Carolyn M. Rouse | American Anthropologist

“This provocative, stimulating study encourages readers to think about what race means—specifically, blackness and whiteness—and how race has historically been constituted in association with the European slave trade, colonial rule, and the global dominance of Western-style capitalism.”

E. P. Renn | Choice

Pierre’s excellent book argues that race impacts just as importantly on culture, politics and lived experience elsewhere in Africa as it does in the South. The Predicament of Blackness is motivated by the urge to highlight the critical failure of thinking that race does not really matter in a context with a majority black population. . . . The Predicament of Blackness is a bold and insightful book and, particularly in its thick descriptions of Accra and other Ghanaian spaces, it offers a valuable and convincing description of how Ghana—and consequently larger senses of Africa—fits within the global politics of racialization and white privilege.”


Table of Contents


ONE / Of Natives and Europeans: Colonialism and the Ethnicization of Racial Dominance

TWO / “Seek Ye First the Political Kingdom”: The Postcolony and Racial Formation

THREE / “You Are Rich Because You Are White”: Marking Race and Signifying Whiteness

FOUR / The Fact of Lightness: Skin Bleaching and the Colored Codes of Racial Aesthetics

FIVE / Slavery and Pan-Africanist Triumph: Heritage Tourism and State Racecraft

SIX / “Are You a Black American?”: Race and the Politics of African-Diasporic Interactions

SEVEN / Race across the Atlantic . . . and Back: Theorizing Africa and/in the Diaspora

EPILOGUE / Writing Ghana, Imagining Africa, Interrogating Diaspora



Association for Africanist Anthropology: Elliott P. Skinner Book Award

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