Forging a New Path Together

2020 President's Incoming Address

Ghirmai Negash, ALA Incoming President

Dear Colleagues,

It is a great honor to take the mantle of ALA Presidency. I thank everyone who participated and worked to make the 2020-2021 ALA annual elections timely and successful. I am humbled by the messages of solidarity and camaraderie many of you have sent my way, and the faith and trust that all of you have placed in me to represent the association. Thank you.

I also would like to extend special thanks to my immediate predecessor, Ann Beth Willey. She led the organization with skill and patience, especially during the early destabilizing months of the coronavirus pandemic. I would like as well to commend the entire ALA Executive Council for their unfaltering spirit and commitment to ALA’s mission; the Awards Sub-Committee members for their important work in reviewing the submissions and nominations; and the newly-elected Executive Council members for stepping up to serve the organization as leaders during this difficult time.

Allow me also to recognize Carli Coetzee’s major efforts to help safeguard JALA’s continuity as a peer-reviewed publication with Routledge and Taylor & Francis imprints, and Moradewun Adejunmobi’s crucial sharing of her expertise with the ALA leadership at critical times.

In particular, Moradewun generously stepped in to take up the position of editor- in-chief of JALA, after the sudden passing of Professor Teju Olaniyan. As our community reflects on Teju’s life and work, it is important to carry on his legacy of scholarship, friendship, and selflessness. Teju was undoubtedly one of the best African minds of his generation. The ALA and wider scholarly community will be challenged to overcome the void left by the absence of such a revered intellectual.

Representing ALA and its resilient, dynamic, and talented body of members is both a privilege and a challenge. I am acutely aware of the added significance of leading our amazing organization during the COVID-19 pandemic, with its attendant anxiety and uncertainty for our individual lives and our communities. We are living in guarded co-existence with global devastation and insecurity.

During this crisis, we’re all called upon to work harder together, with more resolve and drive than ever before. We must forge a new path for the ALA by developing ideas and practical measures that safeguard our organization through this difficult transition. These measures, however, will only be effective through collaboration across our diverse membership. Our work must focus on the pressing current challenges of seeing our association through the global pandemic, while maintaining and renewing the continuity and vitality of the organization as we move into the post-COVID-19 era.

To that effect, I would like to outline a few ideas and measures to start and guide our introspective conversation.

A post-COVID-19 ALA Will Be a Changed ALA:  As we explore our path to the future, it is imperative that we accept the fact that we’re already working—and will increasingly do so—in a radically re-structured and re-cultured environment. For one example, the ALA likely will experience difficulty in asking many of its members to contribute financially and otherwise in the same ways as in the past.

ALA Members and Universities: The coronavirus pandemic will impact different sectors in different ways. According to communications from a wide assortment of university leaders, institutions of higher education expect to see significant losses in student enrollments this year, triggering corresponding revenue and budgetary losses. The budget cuts especially in public universities, where the majority of ALA members work, probably will reduce existing appointments and hiring of new faculty for African literature positions. If this scenario plays out to the extreme, ALA membership likely will suffer and its pool of new members will shrink. The potential stakes are exceedingly high.

Building up ALA Online: In consultations with the ALA leadership, including five past presidents, considering the urgency and gravity of the challenges we all face, we agreed on the importance of keeping ALA active and visible chiefly through its journal, JALA. Consequently, I will devote extra attention and work collaboratively with the editor-in-chief to ensure its uninterrupted continuity and also elevate the journal’s profile by placing the association’s resources at JALA’s disposal.

Broadening Membership and Forging Alliances: Another pathway for strengthening the organization is to broaden its intellectual base. This will be accomplished by creating alliances and opening up and diversifying membership to scholars and practitioners in related fields. An efficient way to reach out to those professionals – especially those working in the fields of African linguistics, film, and other arts – is to send them formal invitations to publish in JALA and participate in the ALA annual conferences.

Launching ‘ALA Lectures Series’: Initiating an online ‘ALA Lectures Series’ will elevate the activity of the association. Accessible to all members and associates via Zoom or similar technologies, this virtual event – with both internal and external presenters invited to participate – will help support and promote the research and creativity of ALA members. Depending on feasibility (viable lecture material, sustained audience, etc.), we may consider making this a monthly event, on the last Friday of every month. In due course, selected lectures can be posted on YouTube and given wider circulation through deliberate promotion of each item through effective media strategies. In addition to its scholarly importance, such a forum would serve as an intellectual life-saver for many ALA members while opening a window of opportunity for all who seek to create connections with colleagues working in different continents.

Series of EC and Members Meetings: Forging a new path will not be possible without regular meetings and consultations among the ALA leadership and members. Understandably, this commitment will go beyond the call of duty for many, as everyone is already stretched thin by current circumstances. Yet, re-imagining the future of the organization, and that of the next generation of African literary scholars, cannot be effectively accomplished without a series of scheduled meetings. The decisions we make and measures we take today are incredibly consequential for the long-term viability and success of our organization.

Finally, I want to reiterate the important point that we increasingly will be working in a fundamentally changed post-COVID-19 social and institutional environment. Accordingly, we will need to adjust our ways of thinking and doing to meet the challenge. We can achieve this by together forging a new path for our association. As we proceed through this process of quest and reflection to re-energize ALA with new insights and practices, I invite each and every one of you to join in the conversation. Please send any thoughts and suggestions, in fact any form of feedback, you deem important to the betterment of the organization. I will heartily welcome any ideas toward that end and work to ensure that my team and I do everything possible to accommodate these suggestions, with a genuine and achievable goal to transition ALA to a new era, together and collectively.

Wishing you a safe and healthy year, I thank you!

Ghirmai Negash
President, African Literature Association
Professor of English & African Literature, Ohio University