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African history has always been an innovative field with an experimental edge, distinctive for its new questions, approaches, methodologies, and frameworks of interpretation. African historiography presents the rich possibilities of an evolving scholarship, and the productive tensions of working on unsettled epistemic ground.

The University of Michigan is one of the world’s premier sites for training in African history. Our program is distinctive for its attention to historiography, anthropological history, and science and technology studies (STS). Our research interests, scholarship, and teaching embrace all the continent’s major regions. Core faculty and their specific interests include:

  • Gabrielle Hecht:  labor, health, technology, mining and natural resource governance; southern Africa (especially South Africa and Namibia), as well as Gabon and Madagascar
  • Nancy Rose Hunt:  medicine, healing, reproduction, gender, semiotics, and violence; central Africa (especially Congo-Kinshasa, Rwanda, Burundi), as well as Ghana
  • Derek Peterson: religion, literature, vernacular culture; east Africa  (especially Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania)
  • Rudolph Ware:  Islam, precolonial Africa, Africa and the Atlantic, epistemology, colonial situations; west Africa (especially Senegal and Western Sudan), slavery

Africa figures in the work of a number of other historians at Michigan. Professor Emeritus David William Cohen, one of the architects of our field, plays an active role in our intellectual community. Several faculty members work on North Africa in various time periods, among them Joshua Cole, Juan Cole, Hussein Fancy, and Ian Moyer. Brandi Hughes has published on the history of African-Americans’ engagements with Africa. Farina Mir and Mrinalini Sinha study the relationship between eastern and southern Africa and the world of the Indian Ocean.

This unusual combination of strengths in the canonical and the fresh mixes the latest approaches to matters vernacular, medical, religious, technological, political, environmental, economic, and digital with 21st-century versions of teaching about historical and anthropological processes in Africa.

Our undergraduate students meet us in small seminars and lectures courses, learn to do primary source research in Ann Arbor, and travel to Africa for summer research in order to write original theses under our supervision. Several core classes are regularly offered: History 246, a survey of African history from ancient times through the early modern period; History 247, a survey of modern African history; History 355, on health and illness in African worlds; History 362, on the history of African literature; History 357, on Islam in African history; and a topics course on the history of technology in Africa.

Our doctoral students work with complex, layered, and sometimes multi-sited methodologies, and attend to multiple time depths and scales. They track social reproduction and violence, read bodies and texts, and interpret objects and signifying speech. They examine power, everyday life, as well as therapeutic, religious, technological, and linguistic mediations. We particularly encourage our doctoral students to learn vernacular languages and engage in long-term fieldwork.

Current doctoral students work on a great range of subjects: Rwandan immigrants’ unsettling presence in twentieth century Uganda; the genealogy of fictional writing in the Zulu language; decolonization and the 1968 generation of university students in Congo-Zaire; the politics of dissent in independent Mozambique; epistemologies of Islamic scholarship in precolonial West Africa; the architecture of road transport in Madagascar; missionary labors in nineteenth century Sudan; regional traders and informal energy infrastructures in Guinea; and maternity nursing care in Sierra Leone. In the last decade, our graduates have accepted positions at Concordia University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, Queens College, Rice University, University of Johannesburg, University of KwaZulu Natal, University of Manchester, and Vanderbilt University.

We regularly convene the African History and Anthropology Workshop (AHAW), which engages our own faculty and doctoral students as well as graduate students and faculty in African studies from across the university. Founded in 1997, this workshop is an important venue for jointly training doctoral students in historical and ethnographic thinking and practice, and offers a forum for U-M and visiting scholars to share and debate precirculated works-in-progress in regular sessions and small conferences.

Outside the History Department, U-M offers many opportunities for students to enrich their study of Africa. The Department of Afro-American and African Studies offers a range of classes at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Its distinguished faculty come from a variety of disciplines, do research in many African countries on such themes as environmental politics, health, postsocialism, religious cultures, extractive economies, music and dance, nationalism, cinema and performance, and development economics.

The African Studies Center, founded in 2008, coordinates the research that U-M scholars do in collaboration with African colleagues. The ASC annually hosts a cohort of 14 Africa-based scholars, who come to Ann Arbor for six months of sabbatical. The ASC also supports a series of academic conferences—in the humanities, the social sciences, and the hard sciences—that rotate between Michigan, Ghana, and South Africa, and collaborations are currently being developed with specific African universities.

African language training is a collective undertaking with the ASC and DAAS working in concert. Three years of Swahili are currently on offer, and U-M students can also study Akan, Bambara, Zulu, and Wolof in Ann Arbor.

For more information on our allied programs, click on the following links: African Studies Center, Department of Afro-American and African Studies, the Joint Program in Anthropology and History, and the Science, Technology, and Society Program.  

Click here for a listing of faculty and graduate students currently associated with this program area.