Faculty voice:

Walter Hawthorne: African history at MSU

March 14, 2017

Walter Hawthorne is a professor of African history and chairman of the Department of History. His areas of research specialization are Upper Guinea, the Atlantic and Brazil.

So what accounts for MSU’s number one ranking in African history? First, the university has long had a commitment to the program and to African studies broadly. A program does not become number one on its own. It rises in large part because of institutional support. And today, President Simon, Provost Youatt and College of Social Science Dean Croson support Africa initiatives.

MSU touts one of the largest Africana library connections. It has one of 10 federally funded Title VI National Resource Centers. It has a press that has become known for its African History and Culture Book Series. It is the home of the Journal of West African History, and it offers a broad range African language courses.

Second, MSU’s program in African history is buttressed by strong connections to MSU’s digital social science and humanities center, Matrix. Matrix has partnered with MSU’s Africanist historians for a broad range of public digital projects, many grant-sponsored, that have garnered international attention. Among them are the podcast Africa: Past and Present, and digital galleries Slave Biographies, Islam and Pluralism in West Africa, African Oral Narratives, and Overcoming Apartheid.

Third, the collection of historians of Africa that history has assembled is truly remarkable. The Department of History has the largest number of Africanist historians in the United States and together they have published a tremendous number of books and articles, been at the cutting edge of digital work focused on Africa, and produced some of the best graduate students to enter the professorate in the U.S. and abroad.

Finally, MSU’s Africanist historians have maintained the commitment to the engaged Africanist scholarship that early MSU African professors Harold Marcus and David Robinson pioneered decades ago.

Currently, the Africanists in history are training 18 graduate students. And since its start in the 1960s, the department has graduated more than 60 doctoral students. Those students came to East Lansing from places as far afield as Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia, The Gambia, Senegal, Zambia, Cuba, China and Nigeria.

The department is known for its commitment to crafting diverse cohorts of students, both international and domestic. It stresses the importance of language training and of spending time in the region that is the focus of one’s studies. It has a firm commitment to scholarship that advances social justice and new understandings of the historical roots of issues that Africa and the world face today.

Learn more about the program and faculty