For over 40 years, the Gerda Henkel Foundation has supported ground-breaking research in the sciences and the humanities. In 2006, it established the Gerda Henkel Prize to recognize scholars doing outstanding work in their fields of research. This year, the German foundation made history by awarding this bi-annual prize to an African scholar. In a joint statement made by the award jury, Professor Achille Mbembe was announced as the 2018 recipient of the Gerda Henkel Prize. This makes him € 100,000 richer and attests to the global influence of his work.
The selection committee for the Gerda Henkel Prize receives hundreds of nominations from universities and research institutions the world over. Mbembe’s work in philosophy, history, and political science stood out for the huge impact it has had on the understanding of African modernity within broader histories of global capital and politics.
He is most widely know for his book On The Postcolony published in 2002. The book uses a critique of western philosophical traditions and an in-depth analysis of African art, history, and culture to present a new perspective on what it means to think Africa after the wreckage of colonialism and the failure of post-independent states. His latest book, titled Critique of Black Reason, was published in 2013 (English translation in 2017). The book ties representations of blackness in European philosophical and cultural discourses to the centuries long exploitation of black lives by global economic interests. Some of the key arguments in the book shine a much needed light on a range of contemporary issues, including the on-going loss of African lives on the mediterranean Sea and the recent reports of slavery in Libya.
Mbembe’s work is particularly relevant in a place such as Germany where public discourse on race tends to be steeped in racist assumptions and ideals. In its joint statement, the jury notes that Mbembe’s work “on Africa’s place in the global order are both controversial and unsettling and have made an enduring mark even far beyond fundamental debates on post-colonialism.” Also highlighted in the statement are the ways in which Mbembe’s interventions have taken the study of Africa “beyond all the customary stereotypes and highlight links between colonialism, racism and capitalism.”
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Congrats to Mbembe and cheers to producing scholarly work that truly makes a difference.