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Manthia Diawara - Biography

Manthia Diawara, Ph.D., is a writer, cultural theorist, film director and professor of comparative literature of Malian origin today living in the United States. He was born in 1953 in Bamako, West Africa, south of Algeria. Manthia Diawara spent his youth in Kankan, the largest city in Guinea, Africa until 1964 when his family was expelled from Guinea. Manthia Diawara first went to Graduate School in Bamako. There he was part of a group called “Rockers” and listened to James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Ike and Tina Turner. Manthia Diawara’s group was against the Vietnam war and apartheid and aligned itself with Black Power, the Black Panthers and the Black Muslims. His heroes were Angela Davis, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. In those days Manthia Diawara called himself J. B. (James Brown) and his best friend, Sly.

Manthia Diawara then went on to study literature in France. However, he completed his doctorate in 1985 at Indiana University in the US. He ended up settling in the United States. Manthia Diawara is Professor of Comparative Literature and Cinema at New York University (NYU). There he also heads the Department of African Studies and the Institute of African American Affairs. He is the founder of the publishing house “Black Renaissance”. Manthia Diawara belongs to a generation of African scholars trained in France who made a career in America. Manthia Diawara also teaches an intensive summer seminar at the European Graduate School (EGS).

Manthia Diawara specializes in black literature. In 1991, Manthia Diawara joined the University of Pennsylvania, one of the most prestigious institutions in the United States. There he worked in the English department. In 1992, Manthia Diawara created the Department of Africana Studies at New York University (NYU). Manthia Diawara is one of the leaders of the pressure group called “Transafrica”. Alongside Harry Belafonte (1927-), Danny Glover (1946-), and the writer Walter Mosley (1952-), he supported the candidacy of Barack Obama (1961-) for the presidency of the United States in 2008.

The biography of Manthia Diawara predestined him to be a world citizen: born in Mali, he spent his youth in Guinea, studied in France, teaches and lives in the United States, traveled throughout Africa, speaks Sarakole, Malinke, Bambara, French and English. Manthia Diawara’s work focuses on literature in the English and French languages, be they African, Caribbean, African or American. He does not oppose high culture and popular culture. Manthia Diawara is interested among others in films by Sembene Ousmane, Spike Lee, music, and fashion. Manthia Diawara seamlessly crosses geographical boundaries, linguistic and otherwise, and he writes with sensitivity and humor of his complex identity and his need to return to Africa periodically to check that he still has a life outside of university life in New York City.

Manthia Diawara has collaborated with the renowned Kenyan writer Ngûgî wa Thiong'o (1938-) in making the documentary “Sembène Ousmane: The Making of African Cinema” (1994). Manthia Diawara has also directed the documentary “Rouch in Reverse” (1995), which was produced by Germany, and in which he does the critique of visual anthropology through the work of the French filmmaker, one of the founders of cinéma vérité, and anthropologist Jean Rouch (1917-2004). In addition, Manthia Diawara has more recently produced and directed Bamako Sigi-Kan (2003), an intimate look at his hometown.

Manthia Diawara has also taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He has written extensively on film and literature of the Black Diaspora. Manthia Diawara is the author of “African Cinema: Politics and Culture” (1992), “Black American Cinema: Aesthetics and Spectatorship” (1993), and “In Search of Africa” (1998). There he recounts his journey back to Africa. Married in the United States, father of two, Manthia Diawara is, in some ways, almost more American than African. The esteemed professor, whose work is cited among its American counterparts, however, has not forgotten where he comes from. One day in 1996, he decided to return to his home country of Guinea, which he and his parents were expelled from thirty-two years earlier in 1964, like thousands of other foreigners, by the regime of Ahmed Sékou Touré (1922-1984). This book is Manthia Diawara’s opportunity to share his thoughts on the Africa of today. He takes us into a kind of philosophical journey in which he takes up virtually all topics of interest for intellectuals passionate about African and African-American cultures.

Also most interesting in the work of Manthia Diawara are his reflections on the disillusionment that followed the independence of African countries whose heroes were Sékou Touré, Modibo Keita (1915-1977), Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972) and Patrice Lumumba (1925-1965). Importantly, Manthia Diawara evokes African American intellectuals such as W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963), James Baldwin (1924-1987), Richard Wright (1908-1960), Malcolm X (1925-1965). Noteworthy also is Manthia Diawara’s borrowings from the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), but also Manthia Diawara’s criticism of Africanism practiced by the “white” centers of ethnic studies. Manthia Diawara has also offered an analysis of the hip-hop generation in the United States. Finally, let us not forget Manthia Diawara’s brilliant defense and illustration of the informal sector in African economies, and his redefinition of racism in a world subject to globalization.

Manthia Diawara is also the author of “We Won’t Budge: An African Exile in the World” (2004), “African Film: New Forms of Aesthetics and Politics” (2010). Never does Manthia Diawara essentialize cultures, because for him, conflict and constant change are the very building blocks of it. He notes the permanence of the class structure in Africa and points out, for instance, there is no griot (traveling poets or musicians and storytellers in West Africa) song that celebrates the emancipation of women, the dissolution of caste and power sharing.

In 2007 Manthia Diawara wrote an important book entitled “Bamako-Paris-New York” and first published in France by the publishing house “Présence Africaine” (African Presence). The book is a comparative view of two social systems: Race Relations in America and in France where we find, he tells us, on the one hand, identity politics and multiculturalism, and on the other hand individualism and universal rights. In Bamako-Paris-New York, Manthia Diawara reveals new fractures that exist in French society. For him, the suburbs are a clear indication that France is becoming like America: a society divided between rich and poor. In spite of the extensive studies that he did in America, despite his status as professor and all his titles, Manthia Diawara wonders if he has become the cosmopolitan man that he dreamed of being, or if he is still a prisoner of a racial or ethnic group. In “Bamako-Paris-New York” Manthia Diawara also launches a challenge to all those who want to actively participate in the construction of adoptive identities as a way not to be stuck in their own culture.

Manthia Diawara is a professor at the European Graduate School. where he teaches an intensive summer seminar.