Oftentimes, we are so immersed in our day-to-day that we forget to remember the pioneers who built the foundations we live upon. How different would life be if the right people hadn’t spoken up at the right time, if no one gave any thought for the wellbeing of others, if we had fewer leaders interested in progress and development? There have been many luminaries who have walked the halls of the University of Michigan and made their mark on the world. Amid them all, there was one notable professor responsible for the legitimization and scholarship of Afrocentric studies in the University of Michigan. Her name was Niara Sudarkasa.
On October 3rd, 2021, the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies held an all-day memorial to celebrate the life of scholar and activist, Niara Sudarkasa. The virtual symposium, titled From Gloria Marshall to Yeye Olokun-Igbadero: Niara Sudarkasa - Activism, Anthropology, Africa and its Diaspora, consisted of four panels led by her family, friends, and associates. Her son, Michael Sudarkasa, opened the event by paying homage to his mother’s contributions. In honor of his mother’s legacy, Michael Sudarkasa stressed the importance of expanding African scholarship and activism within academia. His words are reflected in Sudarkasa’s granddaughter, Maya Sudarkasa, a fellow moderator of the event and current Ph.D. student in the University of Michigan’s History Department. The memorial was a tribute to the principle of community and care, a fitting end to the spirited history of anthropologist and activist, Niara Sudarkasa.
On August 14, 1938, Niara Sudarkasa was born Gloria Albertha Marshall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Sudarkasa grew up to be an excellent student who graduated high school early. Sudarkasa briefly attended Fisk University before transferring to Oberlin University for a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. Sudarkasa continued her education at Columbia University and received her master’s degree and doctorate degree. In 1969, the University of Michigan appointed Sudarkasa to the Department of Anthropology. Niara Sudarkasa became the first African-American professor in the department. Niara Sudarkasa became the first female director for the Center for AfroAmerican and African Studies. Sudarkasa conducted research in numerous African and Caribbean countries, as well as the United States on race and ethnicity, trade, migration, education, the role of women, and family structure. Sudarkasa taught at the University of Michigan for a total of seventeen years before her departure.
Most people have long since known the University of Michigan as an institution distinguished as the locality of intellectuals originating from cultures all over the world, but truthfully speaking, this reality did not come to fruition out of random circumstance. In 1969, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. ignited a spark within black people in the states and across the diaspora. From activist to ally, people began to take a deeper look at their institutions and the insidious racism surrounding them. Particularly at the University of Michigan, students found that they could no longer overlook the general disregard for black courses, students, and faculty. When inquired about the lack of diversity in cultural courses, an administrator remarked that the university would not be able to hold courses on black history as there was no such thing. Sentiments such as these deeply unsettled many of the university’s black staff and students, who began to understand how much their intellect and personhood were being undervalued.
Soon after, several black students banded together to advocate for an increase of black enrollment and integration at the university. Before doing so, the students decided to approach Sudarkasa and other trusted professors for help. Admiring the youth’s passion for social justice and change, Sudarkasa agreed. This led Sudarkasa to become a leading spokesperson for the Black Action Movement, a movement formed by black academics to resurrect marginalized voices and decolonize academia. Together, this spanned a series of protests against racism in thought, action, and policy, resulting in the university’s shut down for a total of eighteen days. Eventually, the university gave into their requests, incorporated more academic and financial support for minority students, and established a Black studies program. Although Sudarkasa was primarily hired as an anthropology professor, her time at the University of Michigan has been characterized by her support for minority students and demolition of academia’s oppressive structures.
“If you fail to take away a strong man’s sword when he is on the ground, will you do it when he gets up?” - Nigerian Proverb
There aren’t enough words to encapsulate how Niara Sudarkasa shaped the history of activism and academia while paving the way for the many generations of black scholars to come. Sudarkasa possessed a profound love for the African diaspora. Living through eras where segregation was believed to be a moral necessity and activists who spoke up were brazenly assassinated, Sudarkasa emerged with a determination to protect the legacy of those who came before her and a refusal to be silenced. Sudarkasa recognized Africa, its people, and its history as a diamond in the rough, concerning its documentation which had been mainly authored by Eurocentric establishments. Through her words and actions, Sudarkasa drew together a community of kindred spirits who found a home in a world determined to shut them out.
Sudarkasa inspired courage, pride, and self-confidence in all those she came across. Unfortunately, Niara Sudarkasa passed away on May 31st, 2019 in her hometown, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. As a woman for others, Niara’s love for culture and community has personified itself in the memories held by loved ones, the institutions she transformed, and the lives she changed. The University of Michigan and its Department of Afroamerican and African Studies are grateful to have had Dr. Niara Sudarkasa grace their halls. As they say, lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice.