A Trinidadian Friend in former Upper Volta, Eliott P Skinner Pt 1.

Africanist from below

The Trinidad born Professor Eliott P. Skinner (1924-2007) taught at Columbia University from 1954 to 1994  and was appointed US Ambassador in the then Upper Volta from 1964 to 1967. His works range from contributions on Harris’s Global Diaspora (“The dialectic of homeland and Diaspora”) to the political anthropology on the Mossi people and Ouagadougou city in Burkina Faso. However this original intellectual and cultural back to Africa itinerary is ignored compared to other authors literature such as Walter Rodney or the “American African in Ghana”.

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The study of his research on Ouagadougou, particularly described in the book “African urban lifeThe Transformation of Ouagadougou”, and in his oral testimony recorded by Celestine Tutt in 1981, shows how he perceived his return to Africa and his contribution to the comprehension of Burkina Faso’s political culture, marked by early revolutionary events. At least one anti-colonial war in 1915-1916, and two popular insurrections in 1966 and 2014 characterize in his opinion Burkina Faso’s political culture.

In a sense, even if he was not involved in African politics as was W. Rodney or W.E.B Du Bois, Skinner highlights another pattern of Pan-Africanist agency through knowledge and interaction with African governments and social actors. Though his move to Africa is not a way back to Africa the epistemological approach dating year 1955, the Bandung year, has some flavor of Marcus Garvey and V.Y. Mudimbe.

“Well, I think that being a black man representing the United States, that was the big thing. I saw it primarily in terms of what my ambassadorship meant in terms of the struggle of a race of people for recognition in the world system”.

E.P. Skinner in an interview with Celestine Tutt, p. 48

SkinnerElliott 4 mossi people Princess Yennenga(Mother of Mossi)


  1. P. Skinner wrote in the Introduction to The Mossi of Upper Volta:  “My own interest in the Mossi grew out of early curiosity about the cultures and societies in Africa. It was born of my parents’ concern over Ethiopia’s struggle to remain free and nurtured by the writings of Mr. Marcus A. Garvey, Dr. W.E.B Dubois sic), and Professors Melville J. Herskovits and E. Franklin Frazier

It is in this perspective that his life must be studied. As Cheryl B. Mwaria (Professor of anthropology at Hofstra University, New York, USA) said, his life and work must be taken as exemplar of the African-American/African dialectics that he himself studied (see second part of the paper).

He was born in Trinidad: a Caribbean island that as Pan-Africanist we can call an African island in the sense that she gave to some of the Pan-Africanist movement’s major figures such as C.R. James, George Padmore and Eric Williams who was a statesman and a scholar at the same time. This Pan-Africanist tradition of Trinidad is present in Skinners’ vision.

He was born on June 1924 and belonged to the generation of nationalist and Pan-Africanist scholars who challenged the colonial empire and gained independence in the Caribbean lands and in motherland Africa. His father was from Trinidad and his mother from Barbados. It’s interesting to notice that the fact that his mother belonged to an immigrant community in Trinidad, added to his separation from his father, provoked a first identity split, a kind of cultural double-consciousness. In a long interview with Celestine Tutt , the 60 year old Barbadian-Trinidadian-African-American professor, Skinner says :

“I was very much concerned about relations with Afro-Americans. I knew about the problems of the Afro-American with the West Indian as a stranger. I myself grew up in a house in the West Indies, in Trinidad, where as a born-Trinidadian I did not like, did not appreciate my mother’s family which came from Barbados but had no…no love for Trinidadians. So my feeling then was that they should go back to Barbados”.

This divisive effect of identity/identities is both a common observation in Pan-Africanism political philosophy and a problem for achieving “unity of action”.  Aimé Césaire from the neighboring Martinique wrote about the throng, another name for what Spinoza or Toni Negri called multitude.

In this inert town, this strange throng which does not pack, does not mix: clever at discovering the point of disencasement, of flight, of dodging. This throng which does not know how to throng, this throng, clearly so perfectly alone under this sun”.

This early experience of division, both along maternal and paternal lines, and along the Caribbean micro-nationalism that Kwame Nkrumah and Eric Williams tried to overcome in different kinds of federalism, this early experience, was also a crucial experience. Skinner’s vision tries to unveil the transnational black nationality behind various nations, because he learned from Garvey, Du Bois and even from the American musician Cab Calloway admired by Caribbean when he was a teenager.

As with many Africans, Skinner belongs to the many nations of ours: Barbadian, Trinidadian, African-American and Mossi by assimilation. He must have been subject not to a double consciousness but at least to a “four-consciousness” effect if we consider these inter-, counter- connected and transatlantic identities:

  1. Barbadian-Trinidadian
  2. Caribbean-African-American
  3. Black vs American Citizen
  4. African from abroad vs African from the continent

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After joining the USA in 1945, he first visited Upper Volta when he was 31 years old, from October 1955 until January 1957, as a Columbia scholar. Though many African –American and Caribbean scholars visited neighboring Ghana or Nigeria, very few visited this country in the north. He lived in the Nobere village, in the Southern region of Burkina Faso, close to Ghana border. He returned again in 1960, with students, “under the auspices of Crossroads Africa”, to build a school.

In 1964 he went back in Ouagadougou and spent six months there preparing his important book on the transformation of Ouagadougou. By doing so, he was following the historical trajectory of the Mossi people who came from northern Ghana (Dagomba) and expand northward. He left the village for the city, the small Mossi principality of Nobere, for the capital of the kingdom, Wogdôgô, Ouagadougou.

In 1966 he was appointed Ambassador of the USA in Upper Volta and remained there four years. Meanwhile President Maurice Yameogo, the first president of the former French colony, was overthrown after a popular insurrection led by workers and students trade unions.

How was this encounter with Africa? We know that when returning to the motherland every African from abroad asks himself or herself the questions asked by Countee Cullen or Richard Wright: “What  is Africa for me?”

According to the former Prime Minister of Upper Volta Joseph Issouf Conombo (note the Muslim and Christian first name), in the 50’s of the 20th century, Nobere’s people used to see a boy-scout: “on the field, Skinner appeared as a tall boy scout, wearing a jacket and a kaki short, with a US  soldier cap on the head. With his “kit” on the back and a pilgrim staff he traveled in the Zund’ Weogo principality: Kombissiri, Toécé, Djiba, Manga, Béré, Sondré, Koundré, Kaïbo, Sihengaand, above all, Nobéré and Nobili, where he often lived in the open or under a tent, living intimately with the village, the clans and the tribes”.

This description means that Elliott Skinner practiced immersion as a tool for participatory investigation. It was helped by the fact that he could be taken for a Moaga (a Mossi man) as he spoke the language and was a black man. The process of linguistic enculturation is a pillar of Pan-Africanism. It is the reason why Swahili was chosen as the “lingua franca” by certain circles in the Pan-Africanist movement. Skinner, though not a recognized or revolutionary Pan-Africanist scholar, practiced it. He certainly was the first African-American anthropologist to do so in West Africa, thus challenging an academic version of colonial European supremacy. He did it because he was a student of the famous linguist, Joseph Greenberg, who taught anthropology at Columbia University since 1948 and advised him to make researches about Mossi. He was preparing his Studies in African Linguistic Classification, a major book treating of African linguistics, published in 1955. But the politics of knowledge that E.P. Skinner was thus inaugurating and can be qualified as a bold and pioneering irruption of Caliban in Prospero’s laboratory. As Cheryl Mwaria puts it, “this vignette is all the more remarkable because at that time research in Africa was firmly in the hands of white people, either European or American”. There was a discrimination based upon the false principle according to which African-American students “were not able to conduct research in Africa under the pretext that fieldwork must first be managed by a population quite different from one’s own”. So the trip of Skinner to West Africa was done between the epochs of Garveyism (Garvey died during this period), and before the massive wave of the sixties, when the Civil Rights Movement and the African revolution would be at their apex. But his refusal of white supremacism in African studies can be interpreted as a mark of Garveyite culture. He used scientific objectivity in anthropology as a mean to preserve his independence and not to be misused by some Peace Corps members, who were there in order to spy.

As an Ambassador, Skinner was close to different circles. In his diplomatic life, he was a friend of Issouf Joseph Conombo (1917-2008), Pierre Ilboudo (1936-2014)Frederic Guirma (born in 1931) and their families. Frederic Guirma, a historian trained at Loyola University, California, who was Upper Volta Ambassador to the USA in the 60s, contributed to Skinner’s researches. Joseph Ki-Zerbo, the director of the first volume of the general history of Africa (n) published by UNESCO in 1981 was also a connection but it seems with no strong affinities.

Being always at crossroads, Skinner used to live with the upper-class African and the masses (as his contemporary Maoists would have said) as well. An example of this would be his drinking of the local millet beer.

His scientific work was made easier by his socialization with Africans: “I would be invited to things that the other ambassadors would not be invited to – a baptism or a wedding – by persons who would not seem it proper to invite the Ambassador of France (…). Sometimes my staff was shocked. The people from the rural areas would come with their hoes on their shoulders. (…). They would be kneeling and sitting down on the ground and I’d be talking to them”. (…). And one of the things I find difficult with many white anthropologists is that they can’t have normal conversations with Africans. (…) There’s no freedom, there’s no exchange.

In these (testimonies) records about black and white people’s intercourse’s, the black man speaking as an ambassador sees himself and seems to be seen as a friend in the scene that unfolds before the auditor or the reader, while the European is described as a racist ethnologist. So doing, Skinner touches the important issue of power in the production of knowledge in Mudimbe’s framework. According to Mudimbe: “the development of anthropology, which up to the end of the 18th century was sought within traveler’s narratives, now takes a radical turn. From now on it will develop into a clearly visible power-knowledge political system”.  Though the move to Africa is not a way back to Africa, the epistemological major factor of 1955, the Bandung year, has some Garveyite and Mudimbian accent. The issue of intellectual counter-sovereignty and black friendship (not brotherhood) is embedded in the travel of Skinner to the then Upper Volta. We should consider seriously Michel Foucault’s expression quoted by Mudimbe: “ethnology can assume its proper dimension only within the historical sovereignty (…) of Europe”. Counter sovereignty is searched through a counter-hegemony  hidden in US imperial rivalry with France, that did not take place in Upper Volta but was a matter of fact in cold war politics. Skinner mentions in an interview his competition with the French Ambassador, considered in the neocolonial protocols, as the dean. French domination on Upper Volta during the first Republic (1960-1966) was felt by Skinner as a violation of what he would later called Black nationality, an expression coming from the Garvey vocabulary. In his professional practice, for instance, unlike the other ambassadors, he would not like to have the President of the Republic as an interlocutor because; in his opinion his homologue was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs:  “the American Ambassador, the French Ambassador, or anybody could see the President. But I felt that I didn’t’ want to be faced with the charge that we had access to their President whereas they had no access to our hierarchy. So I told the Foreign Minister that I would do work with him. I would not deal with the President. (…) It was my responsibility, I think, to…have people show respect to African Governments”.

To be cont…….

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Written by Dr. Lazare KI-ZERBO (Burkina Faso)

Vice Chairman International Joseph Ki-Zerbo Committee for Africa and the Diaspora –  lazarekz@yahoo.fr

Funeral of Mogho Naba, Emperor of the Mossi People


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