John Edward Philips, Ph.D.

Just the FAQs, man!

Homo sum. Humani a me nihil alienum puto. -Terentius Afer

(There is no such thing as foreign studies.)

Q. Why do you make such a big deal out of having a Ph.D.?

Q. So what's with all the American stuff, like the Constitution Quiz?

Q. How did you get involved in African Studies?

    A. I think all of us in African studies, at least those of us who are white, get asked this question so often we become numb, and prepare several answers.

    The short answer is that Africa is an intrinsically fascinating place, full of friendly, hospitable, intelligent and interesting people. Its history is so fascinating, but difficult to comprehend, and its contemporary problems are so challenging to overcome, that we who study Africa are surprised more people don't want to be involved with Africa. Maybe everyone doesn't relish the intellectual and physical challenge of studying Africa the way we do. We feel sorry for you.

    The long answer goes back to seventh grade, when I found out that Africa HAD a history. It also involves having to defend my own African cultural heritage (e.g. a taste for banjo music - ever hear "Blackgrass" by Bad Bascom?), finding that many of my other intellectual interests, from folklore to archaeology to religious studies, were useful in the study of African history, and all kinds of other boring details that make the eyes of most people asking the above question glaze over. If you still want an answer, find out more about Africa, and see if you don't find it a place you want to know still more about yourself.

Q. So how did you wind up in Japan, married to a Japanese?
    A. My wife, Ritsuko Miyamoto, is a Japanese Africanist who was sent to UCLA on a Japanese Ministry of Education scholarship to study African languages, including Hausa. We met, fell in love, got married and left for Nigeria on my Fulbright scholarship, all in the space of a few short months. We now live in Japan together, teaching at neighboring universities while we try to raise kids who are multilingual, multicultural and binational.
Q. Why do you make such a big deal out of having a Ph.D.?
    A. I don't. Other people do. It's a credential people look for in academics, like a CPA for accountants. So I make sure people know I  have it.

    My two best undergraduate professors had no Ph.D.s.  They didn't need any Ph.D. to be the top experts in their fields.

    One of them was Garma C. C. Chang, a Chinese scholar who had spent years in Tibet studying Buddhism intensively.  He was outside Tibet when the Chinese army invaded, and couldn't return to the adopted country he loved.  He probably knew as much about Tibetan Buddhism as anyone outside the country, and he was a master of skillful means of transmitting that knowledge.  My own philosophy of testing owes much to him.

    The other professor I had without a Ph.D. was Samuel P. Bayard.  He had spent years studying and collecting local folklore in southwestern Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia.  He was related to most of the families in the area and he had no trouble getting people to trust him and teach him their personal beliefs and traditions.  He had a wealth of knowledge about the old people and what they had learned from their parents and grandparents.  He was a specialist in fiddle and fife music and ballads (try searching his name on this site.)  Like Professor Chang, he knew more about his subject than anyone, even before he went to graduate school. Today other people write Ph.D. dissertations based on Sam's ideas.

    Sam went to Harvard and got an M.A. under the famous folklorist and Shakespeare scholar, George Lyman KittredgeKittredge became a figure of folklore in his own right, and has his own entry in the Funk & Wagnall's Standard Dictionary of Folkore, Mythology and Legend.

    Sam used to tell us stories about Kittredge.  One of my favorites was about when someone once asked Professor Kittredge why he never got his Ph.D.  Kittredge reportedly replied Who would examine me?"

    That pretty much sums it up for Professors Chang and Bayard, too.  They didn't need Ph.D.s to prove they knew their subject.  No one else was in a position to challenge their knowledge.  Maybe you think you're their equal and don't need a Ph.D. to be an expert about something.  Maybe you are and you don't.  I know I don't have anything like their expertise, so I need a Ph.D. to validate what I've got.

Q. Well, what's that funny writing on your awards page supposed to be, anyway?
    A. The stuff that looks like Arabic is my Hausa name (Yahaya Danjuma) in Arabic script Hausa (Ajami.) Yahaya is "John" and "Danjuma" means "born on Friday." In Ghana they call me "Kofi John" which means the same thing. (And yes, if you were wondering, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was also born on Friday.)

    The next graphic is "John Philips" transliterated into Japanese katakana. Unlike American and Hausa societies, Japan is not an assimilative culture. While adopting a Hausa name has been useful to me and appreciated by most Hausa (especially those who have trouble pronouncing my original name) adopting a "Japanese" name would strike me (and probably most Japanese) as a silly affectation.

Q: How come there's no picture of your Ph.D. advisor, Professor Obichere?

A: Good question. I didn't take pictures of a lot of people when I was in grad school, and now I wish I had. Not just my dissertation advisor<, Boniface Obichere, but other friends I now wish I had pictures of from the time, such as Robin D.G. Kelley, Allison Drew, John Thornton and too many former roommates to mention, not to mention all those other great professors I had at UCLA. Most of the pictures I was taking in those days were for special occasions, especially of trips to Africa. In fact, the only picture I have of my M.A. advisor, Merrick Posnansky, is one I took during an archaeological expedition to Ghana. Some of the others on that trip were, from left to right, Candace Goucher, Marla Berns, Phil DeBarros,and Doug Armstrong. It's too late for me to take a picture of the late Boniface Obichere now, and I'll regret that for the rest of my life. Most of the others are still alive. I'll have to wait until I run into them at an academic conference, or maybe in the field. Keep coming back here, and eventually, if I (and they) live long enough, you'll see their photos here.

Q. What's that "Homo sum" stuff, something about queer arithmetic?
    A. [sigh] Publius Terentius Afer (Terence the African, 185-159 B.C.) was a Roman slave from Africa who became one of the greatest poets and playwrights in Latin literature, earning his freedom in the process. His most famous quotation is hard to translate literally.  The closest I can get is "I am a human being. I consider nothing human to be foreign from me." My more idiomatic translation is below the quote on my webpages. I am proud of my classical western educational background, but I also realize that that very western classical tradition itself is multicultural.
Q. So what's with all the American stuff, like the Constitution Quiz?
    A. I think international educational exchange should really be an exchange.  I figured that if I was going to visit African countries to learn about their history and societies, the least I could do was to help them understand American society.  That meant getting not just the understanding that any ordinary U.S. citizen might have of his or her own society, but the kind of in-depth understanding that only a specialist in American Studies could have.  My two Ph.D. fields in U.S. history (African-American and U.S. Labor) were in areas which many people outside the U.S. are curious about.

    I wound up doing international educational exchange on a third continent altogether.  Now I not only teach in Japan about the U.S. and Africa, I try to encourage Africans to learn more about Japan.  In the meantime I find I have had more impact in my minor field of American studies than in my major field of African studies.

    But there is an even more fundamental connection between the quote from Terence and my American studies background: my understanding of the nature of American society.  Just as the German and Russian Empires were intended to be new Roman Empires (or didn't you realize that "Kaiser" and "Tsar" were from "Caesar"?) so the United States, with its Senate, was supposed to be a new Roman Republic.  Just as the quote from Terence is the key to the cosmopolitan universalism of Rome, so I take it as a key to the cosmopolitan universalism of American culture.

Q. Hey! What kind of American are you, anyway?!?
Q. You know what I mean.  Where did your ancestors come from and when did they come?
    A. [sigh] I get this often in Japan so I guess I better put the answer up.  It seems to speak to a Japanese inability to comprehend the nature of American society.  Too many Japanese, incapable of imagining any society not bound by ties of blood, assume that there must be a "real" American ethnic group.  One faculty member at a former school even tried to tell the dean that "Philips" wasn't a real American name (is Shalikashvili? No? Tell it to the Marines!) and that I wasn't a real American. But at least the ones who ask have realized the possibility of American ethnic diversity. What they still don't usually get is federalism. Ask me what state I'm a citizen of.

    But let's go back to ethnicity.  On the radio I used to hear about "ethnic Albanians in Kosovo province" of Serbia.  When people talk about "ethnic Americans" it is with an entirely different meaning.  Situations like that of Germany are unthinkable in the United States.  In Germany Turks whose families have spent generations living in Germany are denied citizenship but ethnic Germans whose families have lived near the Volga river for centuries are given automatic citizenship rights. (In fairness I should also point out that German has recently changed its laws to make citizenship easier to obtain, although still not automatic, for persons of other ancestries who were born in Germany.)  For all our history of racism and ethnic discrimination, most Americans recognize that citizenship and ethnicity are best kept separate. We don't have a "nationalities policy" although we do have affirmative action.

    What is an American, anyway?  One of the first and most famous persons to try to answer that question, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, wrote in his Letters from an American Farmer (1782) of "that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country.  I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. . . . Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world."

    If being ethnically mixed qualifies one as an American I reckon I fit the description as well as most folks.  I couldn't marry someone of my own ethnic background, since it's illegal to marry your sister.  No one but us has that same exact mixture.  My surname is Welsh (or Greek, if you want to be fussy about the etymology,) but I don't think I'm more than one sixty-fourth part Welsh, if that. 

    Being a confirmed American I don't put much stock in ethnicity.  During periods of conflict between Jews and blacks back in the States I had blacks accuse me of being Jewish and Jews accuse me of being black.  Since neither had insulted me I felt no urge to correct these misimpressions.  Rather I am amused that people make such a big deal about it.  I'm proud of my ancestors, but I'm prouder of my own achievements.  Those are things I have accomplished myself.  Those are what I think people should be interested in.

    There were Philipses in the American Revolution, if that matters to you.  It doesn't make any difference to the U.S. government, which is one of the things they were fighting for in the Revolution, and the way I think it ought to be.  Crevecoeur also wrote that "He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys and the new rank he holds. . . .  The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas and form new opinions."

    If Crevecoeur had any understanding of what an American is, I plead guilty as charged.

Q. Are you a Muslim?
    A. No, although I have studied Islam, have many Muslim friends, and believe much of the Qur'an. But I don't really believe Muhammad was what his followers believe him to have been, and anyway I like California (and South African) wine (and Guiness Stout) too much. ;-)

    Religious intolerance of any kind bothers me, and the clashes between Muslims and others (especially Christians) in the world today therefore bother me. Blame is not all on one side in this matter, but it is the responsibility of all of us to understand each other and find a way to get along. The Qur'an (5:82) says that Christians are the best friends of the Muslims. I wish more Christians and Muslims knew that.

Q. Can you teach me English? Q. Spare change?
A. [sigh]
Take me home!
last revised November 20, 2005

© 1996-2005 John Edward Philips