Carleton Connects: Professor Thabiti Willis, History

6 April 2016

This program took place on Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Video for this program is not available

“Endeavoring to challenge the dominance of the Atlantic world in the study of the African Diaspora, at Carleton I have initiated a number of research projects, created a new course (“Africans in the Arab World’), and developed a study abroad program related to the history of African peoples in the Middle East. One project focuses on the use of images of black pearl divers at Dubai heritage sites as part of a broader narrative about the patronage of Dubai sheikhs. Another project, which will serve as the basis for my Carleton Connects presentation, draws on manumission records that incorporate  the testimony of enslaved East Africans and their descendants in the Gulf region. I challenge the representation of early twentieth-century divers as forming a new upwardly mobile class. 


Thabiti Willis received his Ph.D. from Emory University in 2008. He spent two years conducting research on the masquerades of the Yoruba people in Nigeria, serving as a Fulbright scholar in 2006. He has participated in international faculty seminars in Cape Town, South Africa. His courses cover the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-independence periods and include such topics as the slave trade, gender and ethnicity, nationalism, expressive culture and performance, and religion as well as the African Diaspora in the Arab world.

Professor Willis invites students to approach African history as a journey in collective self-discovery. He and his students explore names, places, events, and practices that may initially seem foreign and tend to carry a stigma of backwardness. As a step toward overturning the sense of Africa as a foreign or backward place, he introduces the historical origins and politics of this perspective. He incorporates secondary literature that identifies it as a consequence of the biases, misconceptions, and exploitations of the continent, whether by westerners, easterners, or segments in African societies for their own parochial interests. Drawing inspiration from humanistic values in many African societies, e.g. “ubuntu” (which means “I am because we are”) in South Africa, he cultivates a learning environment in which students may come to see themselves as co-participants in reconstructing the African past. He bridges interactive teaching and international sharing using global web-dialogues with foreign institutions and students to help to cultivate a respectful appreciation of differences and perspectives across cultures.

Currently, he is exploring the ways in which masquerades shaped and were transformed by changes in Yoruba social, economic, and political history in the pre-colonial period. One of his future projects focuses on how British Victorian values influenced how nineteenth-century Yoruba missionaries viewed the relationship between art and religion. Future projects include a study of the intersections of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and music.