To say that Wendy Wilson-Fall is enthusiastic is an understatement.
As Lafayette’s first professor hired specifically for the interdisciplinary Africana Studies Program, she is excited about its growth and future. She is equally enthusiastic about communicating her passion for Africana studies to her students as well as the upcoming publication of her new book.
Inspired by what her colleagues have already accomplished in establishing the Africana studies major, Wilson-Fall, associate professor and chair of Africana studies, has big plans for the program. They include increasing the major’s visibility to draw more students, developing a vibrant and active advisory committee, expanding curriculum offerings (particularly in African American history), and cultivating more study abroad opportunities in Africa and the Caribbean.
Africana studies is inherently interdisciplinary. As such, Wilson-Fall plans to collaborate with other programs and departments to bring visiting scholars to campus and present arts and cultural programming that encourages students of all majors to learn about Africa and African-derived communities. She also hopes to offer field trips to historic sites of the black experience on the East Coast, with students sharing their experiences through blogs and conferences, and in the long term, to organize regional symposia where students and faculty from Lafayette and other colleges and universities can showcase key research issues in the field.
“Lafayette is committed to student success and supporting student intellectual growth,” Wilson-Fall says. ”I want to share my excitement over the material we cover and help students see the relevance of this material to their own lives. I want to stimulate curiosity.
“My goal also is to incite students to take responsibility for their own intellectual growth and their lives as thinking people. I hope to motivate them to reflect on their social, cultural, and political positionality in a fast-changing world.”
Wilson-Fall expects her book, Dignity in Memory: the Performance of Difference, to be published later this year or early in 2014. After years of primary research gathered online as well as through field work in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Madagascar, Wilson-Fall has assembled African American family narratives recounting the presence of an ancestor from Madagascar. Focusing on the stories of arrivals of both enslaved and free people from about 1719-1840, the book explores the interplay between historiography and ethnography in understanding the roles and uses of memory in constructing identity.
“What fascinates me is the resilience of human beings and the ubiquitous importance of the historical setting,” she says. “One can pretend that history is not important, but in my view, this is illusion. Historical context is always a critical factor in understanding contemporary as well as past social conditions. How do people face, resist, or embrace change? How are their social and political lives affected by these responses? In today’s world, will people be able to sustain claims on multiple cultural identities? How does the modern nation-state and its competing constitutive elements deal with transnational identity? This affects many different kinds of communities today.”
Those are the kinds of questions Wilson-Fall loves to explore with her students. From the start of her career, she combined doing with studying. As an applied anthropologist, she worked in the field for many years on rural development projects in Africa, collaborating with villages and poor urban communities to create projects focused on community sustainability and development.
From 1999-2004, she was director of the West African Research Center (WARC) in Dakar, Senegal, where she connected visiting American scholars who were conducting field research with their West African counterparts. Creating networks of scholars and helping researchers focus their studies provided a unique opportunity to observe how research agendas develop from both field experiences and global issues.
Wilson-Fall’s work at WARC was pivotal in shaping her teaching philosophy by growing her commitment to help students tie intellectual experience to real-world conditions. It also helped her anchor her teaching in the reflection of vital contemporary questions about our future regarding the environment, peace and violence, privilege and poverty, and the importance of life-long learning.
“Africa is a fabulous and diverse place. The story of Africa and its diasporic communities touches on all areas of the globe, and is a big part of the history of the growth and development of the modern world,” she says. “To understand conditions of wealth and poverty today, it is important to understand the trajectories of Africa’s economic and social past, and to contemplate the effects of this past on the world’s future.”