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Thabiti Willis

Thabiti Willis

  • Associate Professor of History, History

Education & Professional History

Clark Atlanta University, BA; Cornell University, MPS; Emory University, MA, PhD.

At Carleton since 2010.

As Listed on Department Faculty Pages


Since Fall, 2010.  Clark Atlanta University B.A., Cornell University M.A., Emory University M.A. & Ph.D. African & African Diaspora History. Nigeria, West Africa; Yoruba history, culture, and religion; masquerade and ritual performance; gender, slavery, ethnicity, religion, and performance in Africa.  

Africana Studies

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.

Middle East Studies

I am a historian of Africa and its diaspora whose early work focuses on the history and memory of slavery in West Africa and the Atlantic World. My early work has led me to look for comparable models in East Africa and the Arabian side of the Indian Ocean. My new work, titled “African Divers and Arab Merchants: Slavery, Work, and Heritage in the Gulf,” identifies connections and tensions that have emerged within the gender discourses and narratives of the pearling trade, which served as a defining feature of Bahrain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In what ways have heritage sites constructed (or limited) the identities of pearl divers and those of merchants and boat captains? What does an examination of the treatment of divers and merchants in Bahrain’s heritage sites reveal about the socio-cultural and labor hierarchies that inform the selection of particular people as mattering, or not mattering, to the nation-building projects that heritage sites advance? Viewing slavery as a racializing and gendering process, I question whether adult male divers remained effectively “boys” while merchants and captains achieved a status as prominent men worthy of praise by their descendants and state actors who have protected their legacies.

“African Divers and Arab Merchants” builds on a chapter that I wrote for an edited volume titled Museums in Arabia: Transnational Practices and Regional Processes. In this chapter, I analyze a pearling exhibit at the Dubai Museum to illustrate how people originating in Ethiopia, the Sudan, and Tanzania among other places in East Africa have been marginalized within the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE’s) heritage discourse. This group of people includes slaves brought primarily from East Africa via the region’s leading slave trading port in Zanzibar to dive for pearls in the region in the 19th century and descendants of those slaves in modern Dubai. I argue that the striking image of a black-skinned diver wearing a vibrant white diving suit reflects a local and national narrative that obscures the contributions of people of African descent to Emirati history and culture. I use the concept of heritage informed from below as a starting point for interpreting the representations of pearl divers in state-sponsored museums and heritage sites in the UAE. This work connects with a growing body of scholarship on comparative slavery that views pearl diving as challenging long-held views of slavery in Arab and Islamic societies. It also draws inspiration from work with student exhibitions and scholarship that examines museums and their collections in two of my classes.

In addition, I am currently developing an Off-Campus Studies full-term program tentatively titled, “Cultural and Commercial Encounters between African and Arabia.” It draws on the records of runaway slaves to trace their migration from Zanzibar in East Africa through the Omani ports of Muscat and Sur to Bahrain, where many slaves labored as pearl divers before seeking refuge at a local British agent. This program traces this journey by exploring the societies that produced these people and their migrations. Zanzibar, Oman, and Bahrain are places where encounters occurred between Africans and Arabs and where students will study these complex and evolving relations. This program aims to deepen understanding the global connections linking Africa and the Arab world.

Profile updated November 15, 2017

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