African Research & Teaching
In Ethiopia I grew up near monasteries that contained a thousand years of African literature. In Ghana I knew families whose ancestors had written dissertations in eighteenth-century Germany. In both countries, I was an omnivorous reader of the classics that the British colonialists had left behind (medieval epics, restoration dramas, eighteenth-century novels, and a variety of travel accounts) as well as the novels and poetry being written on the continent (from Ayi Kwei Armah, Ama Atta Aidoo, and Peggy Appiah to Amos Tutuola, Chinua Achebe, and Nadine Gordimer).
Yet, when I returned to the United States at the age of fourteen, I found that this continent I thought of as intellectually effervescent, was to most Americans a place of barbarous darkness. This was the beginning of my research and teaching, trying to show to others what I knew as a child: Africa is an illuminating immenseness, as recently reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I do this work on four fronts.
I have written several books on Africa. Most recently, I have published the first English translation of the earliest-known book-length biography of an African woman, and one of the few lives of an African woman written by Africans before the nineteenth century. The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman (Princeton University Press, 2015) was the product of a collaboration with Dr. Michael Kleiner, and provides an exceedingly rare and valuable picture of the experiences and thoughts of Africans, especially women, before the modern era. We have also published a student edition, of 160 pages, titled The Life of Walatta-Petros: A Seventeenth-Century Biography of an African Woman.
Before that, I published a case study of the influence of African thought on European literature. Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author (Oxford University Press, 2012). As a young man, Samuel Johnson, one of the most celebrated English authors of the eighteenth century, translated A Voyage to Abyssinia by Jeronimo Lobo, a tome by a Portuguese missionary about the country now known as Ethiopia. Far from being a potboiler, this translation left an indelible imprint on Johnson. My book highlights the lasting influence of an African people on Johnson’s oeuvre.
I also have several book projects in progress. My next research book is The Black Queen of Sheba: A Global History of an African Idea, about how medieval Ethiopians wrote an entire book about the biblical figures of Solomon and Sheba, in 1322, and how this story circulated around the world, influencing art and literature in Europe and the Americas for centuries, and even becoming the founding text of a new religion, the Rastafari. another is Ladder of Heaven: The Miracles of the Virgin Mary in Ethiopian Literature and Art.
I am also at work on a collection titled Early African Literature: An Anthology of Written Texts from 3000 BCE to 1900 CE . The purpose is to demonstrate that Africa has plenty of written texts before the 1950s and also to provide a text for undergraduate instruction.
Then, Michael Kleiner and I have embarked on another translation project, of the Ethiopian text the Kəbrä Nägäśt (The Glory of the Kings), perhaps the most important medieval text you’ve never heard of. Although an English translation was published in 1922, that translation was problematic for a number of reasons and its introduction is not just outdated but quite wrong. We are translating this text for the general public, but also so that it can be assigned in global medieval undergraduate courses. Finally, I am working with Jessica Wright and Leon Grek to prepare a translation called Selected Latin Letters of the Jesuits in Ethiopia (1609-1641). Few of the reports and letters that that Jesuits wrote about Ethiopia while there in early 1600s have ever been translated. This will provide additional material for historians of the period and particular insight into perceptions of Ethiopian royal women.
And, long before that, I wrote a memoir about my experience of returning to the West African country where I grew up, trying to figure out what my relation as a white American woman could be to Ghana. Honey from the Lion: An African Journey (E. P. Dutton, 1988).
I have been teaching courses about African literature and thought at Princeton University since 2008.
An important course that I teach almost every year is Introduction to African Literature and Film. This gives me a chance to teach undergraduates about the richness and diversity of foundational African texts (some in translation), while foregrounding questions of aesthetics, style, and humor.We start with medieval and early modern African texts and end with novels written in the 2010s.
More recently I’ve started teaching a course called Sisters’ Voices: African Women Writing, about the amazing poems, novels, and memoirs written by African women, to expand students’ understanding of the long history of women’s writing across Africa and a range of languages and as an antidote to misconceptions of African women as silent.
I have also taught a course called African Vampires, Zombies, and Other Phantoms, studying African vampires, witches, zombies, mermaids, and ghosts as a way of thinking about how Africa is constructed in the global imagination as well as how African and African diasporic artists use magic to analyze the dynamics of power. Its an interdisciplinary anthropology, political science, literature, and history course, looking at several bodies of literature (twentieth-century African American and Francophone fiction; twenty-first century African science fiction; West African popular film) as well as the latest in theorizing about magic, culture, and the state.
In the past, I’ve taught a course related to my book, titled Representing the Queen of Sheba in the Islamic, Jewish, and Christians Traditions, about one of the most famous women to ever appear in literature, depicted for two thousand years in three great world traditions. The course allowed us to compare representations of the queen across these traditions and gain insight into the complex ways that groups think about national identity, gender, and race.
Two related courses are based in my interest in African memoirs. The first is Model Memoirs: The Lifestories of International Supermodels, now regularly taught by Imani Perry, and the other is Growing Up Global: Novels and Memoirs of Transnational Childhoods. The latter course emerges from my own transnational childhood–I grew up in Ethiopia and Ghana–and I wanted to teach a course for all those who had a passport from one country, a face from another continent, an accent from yet another, and live somewhere related to none of them.
I have also taught graduate courses. One is Introduction to Comparative Literature, which traces the history of criticism in comparative literature along with recent critical developments such as surface reading, affect theory, necropolitics, queer futurity, the new materialism, thing theory, biopolitics, ecocriticism, world literature, theory from the south, critiques of neoliberalism, and so on. The class does not embrace a mastery posture toward theory, but an instrumental one, aiming to assist graduate students in conceptualizing their particular projects within and against current debates.
I also regularly teach Reading Race and Gender as Publishing Praxis [link], in which we read deeply and broadly in academic journals as a way of learning the debates in students’ fields and placing their scholarship in relationship to them. Students report each week on the trends in the last five years of any journal of their choice, writing up the articles’ arguments and debates, while also revising a paper in relationship to those debates and preparing it for publication. This course enables students to leap forward in their scholarly writing through a better understanding of their fields and the significance of their work to them.
I have also taught a couple of other courses.
If you are someone asking me for a recommendation, please read my instructions for Recommendations.
I have hosted a number of conferences and panels.
“The Future World of Eighteenth-Century Studies: A Conference in Honor of Felicity Nussbaum.” UCLA William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, Los Angeles, CA, November 6-7, 2015. Conference co-organized with Professor Helen Deutsch.
“In the Garden of the Mother Tongue: African Language Literature.” American Comparative Literature Association Annual Conference Seminar. Seattle, WA, March 26-27, 2015. Organized eight presenters on early African-language literature.
“Figuring the Queer in African Literatures and Cultures.” Princeton, NJ, December 12-14, 2014. Conference to revise the articles for the first queer issue of Research in African Literatures, with twelve participants from the US, UK, Canada, South Africa, Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Nigeria.
“African/American Diasporic Literature,” CAAS Faculty-Graduate Annual Seminar. Fall 2013-Spring 2014. Scheduled peakers included Achille Mbembe, Hazel Carby, Ato Quayson, Yogita Goyal, Samantha Pinto, Daniel Kim, Mary Pat Brady, Natalie Melas, Michele Elam, Teju Olaniyan.
“Vampires and Zombies: The Better to Theorize You With.” Princeton African Studies Lecture Series. Princeton, NJ, Spring 2014. Speakers included Jean Comoroff and Tobias Wendl.
“African Language Literature: Capitalizing (on) the Periphery.” American Comparative Literature Association Annual Conference Seminar. New York, New York, March 21-22, 2014. Organized eight presenters on early African-language literature.
“Semaphores and Surfaces: Reading the New African Cinemas.” PIIRS Global Seminar. Princeton, NJ, November 1-3, 2013. Raised funding for and organized a three-day conference on African film. Identified and hosted twelve international scholars.
“Mapping the Circulation of African Literature.” American Comparative Literature Association Annual Conference Seminar. Toronto, Canada, April 4-7, 2013. Organized twelve presenters on early African-language literature.
“Discursive Possession: African Transmission, Western Texts.” Modern Language Association Annual Conference, Boston, MA January 2013. Organized special session with five speakers.
“Looking Forward, Looking Back: Cataclysm, Representation, and African Literature.” American Comparative Literature Association Annual Conference Seminar. Providence, RI, April 30-April 1, 2012. Organized eleven presenters on early African-language literature.
“Northeast African Literature Exploratory Seminar.” PIIRS Global Seminar. Princeton, NJ, March 18-19, 2010. Raised funding for and organized a three-day conference on the indigenous literatures of the Horn of Africa. Identified and hosted eight international scholars.
Memorial for Ken Saro-Wiwa, UCLA, November 29, 1995. Organized thirty-six groups to honor executed Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa with readings and a production of his play “The Transistor Radio.” Attended by 250 people.
“State of African Studies: An Update,” UCLA, March 8, 1991. Organized and moderated follow-up conference on changes in African Studies at UCLA. Attended by 75 people.
“State of the Discipline: African Studies,” UCLA, October 12, 1990. Organized and moderated conference with panelists Merrick Posnansky, Gerry Hale, Teshome Gabriel, Robert Hill, and Masizi Kunene to address the history and direction of African studies at UCLA. Attended by 120 people.
You can watch videos, slideshows, and presentations about various apsects of my research at Belcher Research Videos.
Information about my articles appears at African Literature & Arts, British Literature & Arts, American Literature & Arts, and Other Research. If you are interested in reading my articles, you can go to my Academia site. If you are interested in seeing a list of peer-reviewed journal articles, you can go to my Google Scholar Profile.