Skip to main content

Frederick Cooper: Antinationalism and Anticolonialism in Africa

Professor of History at New York University
December 2, 2014

Frederick Cooper (PhD 1974, History), professor of history at New York University, returned to Yale in October to present “An Antinationalist Anticolonialism: Politics in French West Africa, 1945-1960,” as part of the Council on African Studies lecture series.

His talk looked beyond the conventional narrative of nationalism in post-World War II Africa to explore the process by which African political activists pushed — with a degree of success — claims for political, economic, and social rights on the imperial state and tried to devise forms of government based on federation and confederation that could be alternatives to both colonial empire and the nation-state.

Cooper specializes in colonialization and decolonialization, social theory, modern Africa, and African history. He has done research in both English-speaking East Africa and French-speaking West Africa. He has written or co-written eleven books and edited an additional five scholarly volumes. One of his earliest books, From Slaves to Squatters: Plantation Labor and Agriculture in Zanzibar and Coastal Kenya, 1890-1925 (Yale University Press, 1980), won the Herskovits Prize from the African Studies Association. Empires in World History, Power and the Politics of Difference (Princeton University Press, 2010), co-authored with Jane Burbank, won the World History Association prize and has been or is being translated into seven languages. In March 2014, Harvard University Press published his Africa in the World: Capitalism, Empire, Nation-State, which discusses the importance of Africa in the rise of global capitalism, the variety of forms of empire that are part of African history — in which Africans were the builders of empire as well as the objects of colonization — and the alternative pathways out of empire that were debated in Africa in the post-World War II era. In July, Princeton University Press issued the book that resulted from over a decade of archival research in France and Senegal:  Citizenship between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945-1960.  A French translation of this book was published by Payot-Rivages at the beginning of October.

Cooper has been a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the Wilson Center, the Rockefeller Study Center in Bellagio, the Institut d'Etudes Avancées de Nantes, and the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin. His work has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim, ACLS, and other fellowships. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2001, and in 2012, he delivered the McMillan-Stewart lectures at Harvard University.

Cooper taught at the University of Michigan (1982-2001) prior to his appointment at NYU. His first job after completing his graduate studies at Yale was as an assistant professor at Harvard. He has been a visiting professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, the Ecole Normale Supérieure, and the Université de Paris VII.

At Yale, his dissertation focused on plantation slavery on the East Coast of Africa and was published a few years later by Yale University Press. He was advised by Leonard Thompson and also benefited from the guidance at Yale of other scholars, including David Brion Davis and Emelia Viotti da Costa, working on different aspects of slavery in different parts of the world.

Cooper is married to an historian of Russia, Jane Burbank (PhD Harvard, 1981). After several years of commuting between universities in different corners of the country, they came to roost at the University of Michigan and moved together to the Department of History at NYU in 2002. Their work began to converge in the late 1990s out of a shared skepticism about the emphasis on “nation” and “nationalism” in the study of both Africa and Eurasia. They developed graduate and later undergraduate courses on the study of empires, a project that some ten years later resulted in the publication of Empires in World History