Department of Social Sciences
Henderson State University
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
Presently, I am working on two book manuscripts. I am currently finishing up the manuscript for my first book which is based on my doctoral dissertation. Tentatively titled Kingdoms of the Confluence: Ritual, Politics, and Sovereignty in the Niger-Benue Region 1500-1920, this work examines the interactions of Niger-Benue kingdoms and their emergence as a network of states from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries in a region located in present day Nigeria.
Kingdoms of the Confluence explores the interplay of religion, economics, politics and urbanization in the Niger-Benue confluence, emphasizing the transformative changes that took hold across the region from the trans-Atlantic slave era through the early British colonial period. This study argues that the Niger-Benue Confluence region, even before the slave-trade era, served as a major crossroads in the flow of goods, people, and ideas between the Western Sudan and the Confluence itself and between the Central Sudan to the north and the Atlantic coastal hinterlands to the south. The advent of trans-Atlantic commerce in the sixteenth century and subsequent penetration of British commercial activities and colonial administration into the region over the course of the nineteenth century both re-directed regional commercial relations, religious beliefs and political relations. For instance, from 1500 to 1800 many Niger-Benue kingdoms adopted new deities and theological concepts strongly associated with the Atlantic World. These new ideas in turn transformed the ways that both spiritual and political leaders conceptualized power and wealth.
I first became interested in researching the Niger-Benue Confluence after studying with Dierk Lange, a specialist in Medieval Africa, at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. At Professor Lange’s urging I wrote my MA thesis on the adoption of Islam by the kingdom of Kano. While reading through Arabic texts, I came across references to the Nupe kingdom. Digging further, I learned that due to a paucity of written primary source documents and absence of archaeological data scholars did not know much about Nupe. Intrigued, I made this the topic of my doctoral dissertation, written under the guidance of historian and historical linguist Christopher Ehret and historical anthropologist and historian Andrew Apter at UCLA.
My second book project is entitled Kaduna: Islam and Urbanism in Northern Nigeria, 1913-1963. This book represents a social history of Kaduna, one the largest Nigerian cities and former provincial capital of British Northern Nigeria. It addresses such topics as migration to the city, segregation of neighborhoods based upon ethnicity, race and religion, and the political methods local elites used to control this social development. In many ways, my monograph projects complement each other. Kingdoms of the Confluence discusses the Niger-Benue kingdoms and the ways in which they interacted to form a network of shared cultures. My second book project grew out of my dissertation research too and made me also move more into the direction of colonial African history while exploring the specific nature of colonial cities.
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
I currently teach African, Middle Eastern and World history at Henderson State. Research is an essential contributor not just to my scholarship, but also to my teaching. Because my training at UCLA included anthropological and linguistic studies as well as history, I am able to apply a variety of interdisciplinary tools to my teaching endeavors. These tools have included the filming of video footage of masquerades (both urban and rural), which are performed at religious and political festivals. The masquerades vividly express, through dance performances which reenact historical stories, the ways in which tradition interacts with modernity through popular culture. Having lived in different areas of the Niger-Benue confluence amongst 25 different Nigerian ethnic groups, and having personally undertaken this kind of filming, I am able to introduce students in close-up fashion to the cultural diversity of Africa. My experiences living in Nigeria have also given me a close understanding of the contemporary nation state, including recent issues like religious factionalism.
At Henderson I teach a newly created pre-modern African history class titled “African Kingdoms” where I connect my expertise in pre-1900 history (often referred to as pre-colonial African history) to my teaching. In this class I expose my students to a wide range of primary sources, which include a small number of written texts (mostly historical accounts originally written in Arabic), oral traditions, and ethnographic and linguistic data. Throughout my lectures, I try to instill in my students the knowledge that cities and urbanization were an important part of Africa’s pre-modern history.
I am excited to be teaching a modern African history class titled “From Conquest to Independence” in fall 2020 which incorporates material from my second book project. Among other things I will discuss with my students how urbanization progressed within colonial cities. Before coming to Henderson, I taught as a Visiting Assistant Professor at small liberal arts colleges, such as Dickinson and Connecticut College where I was able to teach special topics classes on African Cities and urbanization in Africa.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
I am excited about Laurent Fourchard’s book Trier, Exclure et Policer. Vies Urbaines en Afrique du Sud et au Nigéria (Presses de Sciences Po , 2018 (coming out in 2020 with Wiley-Blackwell as Classify, Exclude, Police: Urban Lives in South Africa and Nigeria), and Rosalind Frederick’s book Garbage Citizenship: Vital Infrastructures of Labor in Dakar, Senegal (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2018). Personally, I am looking forward to have an article coming out in a special issue on “Woman and Trade in Africa” with the Canadian Journal of African Studies titled “Women and Trade in the Nupe-Borgu Region during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.”
What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?
Read comparatively and be prepared to include knowledge of a wide range of disciplines into your work. Urban history and urban studies are a growing and exciting field within African Studies. But compared to other regions there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in this subfield. I would therefore advise young scholars to take up the challenge and write about less researched places and times in African urban history. Furthermore, I would encourage them to look beyond the region they are working on and to seek conversations with scholars across disciplines, either at their own institution or at academic conferences.
What’s the biggest difference between living in Los Angeles, where you did your PhD, and Little Rock? And what’s your favorite thing about Arkansas’ capitol?
I live about 100 miles south of Little Rock, in a small town called Arkadelphia, which has a rather rural feel to it. I loved Los Angeles and my time there, mainly because I could take public transport to wherever I wanted to go. In fact, having grown up in Germany with a well-developed public transportation system, I did not find it necessary to have a car. It was not until my last year at UCLA when I started driving in LA. I loved the multicultural feel of Los Angeles, the wide streets, the many different neighborhoods, and of course the climate. I lived in Westwood Village, located within walking distance of UCLA, and loved walking to campus, passing by gardens with beautiful flowers. Unlike many of American towns Los Angeles actually has pedestrian sidewalks, and due to the city’s horrific traffic I found it advantageous to either walk or take the bus. I also loved walking to “Little Persia,” a neighborhood of Westwood filled with Iranian bookstores, ice cream shops and restaurants. As graduate students we would often go to Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica and watch public performers or walk along the beach. Los Angeles is home to a wide range of immigrant communities, which was one of the most interesting aspects of living in Los Angeles. UCLA even offered languages such as Farsi, Chinese, Korean, or Arabic for heritage speakers. And, not to forget, it was and still is home to the best African, Mexican, and Thai restaurants I have encountered in the US, including my favorite Nigerian restaurant in Inglewood, Veronica’s Kitchen.
Many people have asked me over the years whether it was a “cultural shock” to move from LA to Arkansas. But I have come to love Arkansas, in particular, its amazing natural environment complete with state parks, lakes and mountains and, of course, southern hospitality. Depending on where you travel in Arkansas you are either part of the greater South or the West. In fact, the part of southwest Arkansas to which Little Rock belongs is culturally very similar to Eastern Texas. Compared to Los Angeles, and California in general, of course, there is not as much social diversity here in Arkansas, but in addition to a traditional mix of white and African American Arkansans we have a growing community of people from Latin America or Latin American descent Becoming acquainted with Arkansas’s African American community has been very exciting for me. Little Rock, in particular, offers many places for furthering an understanding of local black history such as the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies or the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. I also like the William J. Clinton Presidential Center. One of my favorite places in Little Rock is the River Market, which houses a food hall, outdoor amphitheater, riverfront park with splash pads, and a farmer’s market.
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