Associate Professor of History
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
I’ve been working for a few years now on a project on the history of reproductive technology in Africa in the 1960s through the present day. It’s not an urban history project in the conventional sense, but it did grows out of my first book, which has a section examining the role of Tanzanian family planning nurses as public intellectuals who shaped public debates about gender, national sovereignty and youth sexuality in a city filled with newly arrived youth migrants. In the process of interviewing some of these retired Tanzanian nurses, I became interested in a more transnational story about the circulation of biomedical contraceptives in Africa. So far, this project has taken me to archives in the US, UK, Switzerland, Kenya and Tanzania, and in the near future, I’m hoping to travel to several archives in Nigeria.
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
This semester I am teaching my Twentieth Century African History Survey and an MA thesis writing colloquium. One of my favorite classes to offer is an undergraduate course called The Global African City, which explores themes in global urban history through three case studies: the Swahili coast, Johannesburg and Lagos. In the future, I’m hoping to include Cairo as well, but I need to read and learn a lot more before I can teach with any confidence about that city. For that class, I’m always looking for interesting primary sources to share with my students—archeological site maps, works of art, noir fiction, Onitsha market literature, graffiti, pop songs, pamphlets, photography—and of course, this feeds into my interest in “street archives.”
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
I am very excited about two recent books in African urban history—one that I have already read, and one that I have not yet read. The first is Kenda Mutongi’s book Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi. Matatus are the vans and buses that are Kenya’s main mode of urban transport. They emerged in the 1960s out of an ad hoc informal sector venture, and over time, became the public transportation system, serving 70% of the population. They are an essential part of the infrastructure of urban Kenya: when the matatu drivers go on strike, the city grinds to a halt. Through ethnography, archival research and interviews, Kenda Mutongi uncovers a vast urban network of matatu owners, drivers, passengers, mechanics, graffiti artists, sound system engineers, politicians, gang members and investors. She uses the fascinating history of the matatu industry as a critical lens into the complex political, economic and cultural history of Nairobi.
The second, which I have not yet read, is Joanna Grabski’s book Art World City: The Creative Economy of Artists and Urban Life in Dakar. I love the idea about thinking about a city, its economies and its global linkages, through the lens of the art world. Plus, Dakar has such an amazing art scene, so the book is sure to be a visual treat as well. I’m really looking forward to reading it.
What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?
I would say cast a wide net when it comes to thinking about what constitutes an archive. I did not go into my dissertation research planning to use pulp fiction and Christian self-help books and family planning pamphlets and pop songs as my main sources, but I ended up learning more from them than I ever could have anticipated.
For you first book, you worked with unconventional sources that you called a “street archive.” What would you collect if you were to build an archive of the street on which you currently live?
That’s a neat question. OK, here’s one idea. For at least the past two years, all over Madison, people have been putting signs on their front lawns that say “In this house we believe: Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights are Human Rights, No Human is Illegal, Science is Real, Love is Love, Kindness is Everything.” Of course, I agree with all of these statements. But I wonder what kind of work these signs do in a place like Madison: a predominantly white liberal enclave in a state that voted for Donald Trump, and a state that consistently ranks among the worst in the country in terms of the wellbeing of Black people. Who is the intended audience for these lawn signs? How do households collectively decide to put them up? What is the actual effect of these signs on how people feel moving through Madison? Do these lawn signs do anything to make Madison a more inclusive, equitable, diverse place? Conversely, to what extent do the lawn signs serve some kind of emotional need of the white middle class families who live in these neighborhoods? I don’t want to be a cynical jerk about it, but I can imagine some really interesting insights coming from an analysis of these signs as a kind of street textuality. I think you could write an interesting history of Madison liberalism through a collection of signs that people have posted on their front lawns over time. I wonder if anyone has been collecting or archiving these.