Ali Mazrui and Me

A fateful meeting with Mazrui, the famed Kenyan historian and broadcaster.

Ali Mazrui, via Twitter.

I am asked on a regular basis, on campus and off, a question I assume is posed to many scholars of Africa, especially non-African ones like me: “What made you decide to teach African history?” And whether I give the long or short answer, my reply always begins with explaining the pivotal role Ali Mazrui played in that decision. Basically, I can say with certainty that I would not be a historian of Africa if it were not for Ali Mazrui.

As a high school student in suburban New York, I always sought books, documentaries, maps, and even travel brochures that depicted places we did not learn about in the classroom. For a while, I was particularly obsessed with Australia, and regularly wrote to the Australian tourism agency for literature. Africa was a preoccupation, too, but it was much harder to learn about the continent beyond South Africa, and the mainstream news on that country was grotesquely distorted by American Cold War propaganda. Today, I still recall the excitement I felt, in 1986, when the Public Broadcasting Service advertised a new series called “The Africans: A Triple Heritage,” written and narrated by a Kenyan scholar named Ali Mazrui. When the program aired, I eagerly watched every episode and recorded each one on my wood-paneled VHS recorder. It was thrilling to view snapshots of life in Africa, hear Mazrui’s critical viewpoints on western imperialism, and get an accurate description of the vicious apartheid system that was on its way to defeat.

Three years later, the popular news magazine Time ran an article about academic superstars wooed from top universities by rival institutions. I read with delight that Mazrui was leaving the University of Michigan for the State University of New York, Binghamton – now known as Binghamton University – where I was set to begin my sophomore year. I resolved to meet Mazrui as soon as I got to campus just to tell him how much I enjoyed “The Africans.” In retrospect, my determination seems absurd, but it turned out to be a meeting that would change my life.

I did exactly as planned: I showed up one morning at Mazrui’s new Institute of Global Cultural Studies and introduced myself to his long-term assistant Nancy Levis. She directed me into Mazrui’s office and there he was: sitting behind his desk, welcoming me to sit down with what I would come to recognize as his trademark smile. I explained that I wanted to meet him to express my appreciation for his television series. We discussed the program briefly and then he asked about my personal background and plans. At the end of our conversation, Mazrui commented on what he perceived to be my passion for Africa, and he made a suggestion that had never crossed my mind: “Why don’t you study African history?” This was a revelation to me since, like many first generation college students, I did not realize all the choices before me and I focused on German history only because of my ancestry. Mazrui’s question led me on a journey that began that semester, enrolling in my first undergraduate African history course at Binghamton, and continues to this very day, teaching my own African history courses at The University of Memphis. And throughout, Mazrui was an advisor, an inspiration, and a role model.

Mazrui’s humanity and decency, his faith in people, and his genuine warmth were all manifested in that first meeting I had with him. His proposal that I study African history was remarkable beyond the fact he had just met me, a 19 year old white undergraduate without any meaningful understanding of Africa or connection to it; I also walked into his office on crutches, as I suffered from Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis which at the time left both of my legs immobile. And, despite my disability, Mazrui never ceased encouraging me, both of us knowing my studies would lead me to graduate school somewhere in the country and extensive fieldwork across the ocean.

All through my undergraduate education, Mazrui guided and supported me. Two examples of his mentorship at Binghamton stand out for me. The first was when he advised me to enroll in his graduate seminar, Africa in World Politics, where I found myself the only undergraduate in a room full of PhD students from around the world. He always seemed to take a special interest in my contributions, certainly another expression of his encouragement. That same year, as I was preparing for graduate school, he invited me for what I would describe as a “debriefing” or “exit interview.” In a very frank, paternal talk, he cautioned me that I would encounter resistance to my chosen scholarly and career paths, as some would question my right to teach African history. And, reminiscent of his question to me the first time we met a few years earlier, Mazrui asked, “Are you prepared to deal with this?” I felt confident that I was, for many personal and ideological reasons, and indeed I have faced occasional resistance, even hostility, over the years, but that conversation with Mazrui serves to reassure me on those difficult days.

Since then, we kept in touch, through letters, then emails when the latter became more widespread in the 1990s, chance encounters in Ghana, and sitting down to chat at the annual meetings of the African Studies Association. I particularly enjoyed those occasions, when Mazrui, walking in the midst of an entourage of colleagues and assistants, students and admirers, would beam his big smile when he noticed me, stop the train of people behind him, and ask about my family and work. It was an honor and privilege to invite him to Memphis in 2003 when he delighted a filled-to-capacity auditorium with a typically Marzurianaist lecture entitled “The African Predicament: Legacy of Partition, Lure of Reparations.” And, as he had done with me and countless others during his many decades of teaching, Mazrui took time to meet with my students, and later wrote me to ask for their contact information so he could continue to stay in touch.

Further Reading

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Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.