Interiews in African Studies at Michigan State University
Michigan State University, university with its long history of serving the people of Michigan, also has developed the largest U.S. faculty with expertise on Africa. By 2007, 170 MSU faculty have conducted research, taught, or worked in Africa across 12 colleges and many departments. As a result, MSU graduate students have completed more Ph.D. dissertations on Africa than other universities for several decades, teaching 9-12 African languages for students planning research in Africa.
This extraordinary history began in the 1960s in support of African independence with the partnering with Nigerians to build the University of Nigeria-Nsukka. The return of many MSU faculty who worked in Nigeria resulted in the building of the African Studies Center and its program in the 1970s and 1980s. Two key faculty in Nigeria were Prof. George Axinn (Resource Development) and Nancy Axinn (Human Ecology), who tell their story of work in Nigeria and beyond. (George Axinn later became the UN FAO Representative in India and Nepal.)
Prof. John M. Hunter, geographer of the Gold Coast/Ghana and much of Africa, served as director of the Center in the early 1980s and recruited several new faculty in various disciplines, who became leaders in the 1980s and 1990s.
Dr. Howard Wolpe was a political scientist at Western Michigan University, having written his dissertation on Port Harcourt, Nigeria. MSU published one of his books on Nigeria, and he taught briefly at MSU. From 1979-93, Wolpe represented Michigan's Third Congressional District (Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Lansing) in the House of Representatives in Washington, where he became Chair of the House Africa Subcommittee. In that post, Wolpe actively worked for U.S. disengagement from the white minority governments of Southern Africa and from support for African dictators, such as General Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo. Wolpe worked with the Congressional Black Caucus to pass over presidential veto the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which clearly separated U.S. support from South Africa.
In that same period, Harris Frank Beeman, MSU Tennis Coach and a pioneer in the U.S. in democratic intramural sport, was one of the leaders of the faculty-student Southern Africa Liberation Committee (SALC). SALC mobilized campus support for MSU to divest of stock holdings in companies working inside South Africa and for the three bills of sanctions on South Africa passed by the Michigan Legislature.
Harris "Frank" Beeman was a long-term faculty member and coach of tennis and intramural athletics at MSU. Frank was the first National Chair of Intramural Section of AAHPER and co-chaired the first National Conference on Intramurals for College Men and Women. Some termed him “the father of democratic sport in America.” He and his wife Pat were passionate about civil rights issues and racial oppression at home and in South Africa. They marched in Mississippi and regularly supported student education at Rust College, a historically black liberal arts college located in Holly Springs, Mississippi. In the 1970s, the two joined the MSU Southern African Liberation Committee (SALC) which campaigned successfully in support of divestment of funds from MSU and the Michigan State Pension Fund that were invested in corporations operating under the apartheid government of South Africa. In the 1970s and 1980s, Frank and his wife, Pat, were tireless in organizing film showings, literature tables, and other events at MSU and the State Legislature to expose the repression in South Africa. They also supported various other campaigns of SALC including the Coca Cola Boycott on campus and nationally and the “McGoff Off” campaign to remove that name from the MSU Wharton Center because of Michigan businessman John McGoff’s unregistered activities for the South African apartheid government. The Beemans received the first Peace and Justice Award from the East Lansing Peace Education Center. Born in Detroit in 1921, Frank died on May 15, 2011. His wife and co-activist Patricia lived 1925–1996.
Bill Derman (Ph.D. University of Michigan, 1969) is Professor of International and Environment Development Studies, Norwegian University of the Life Sciences, and Professor Emeritus, Department of Anthropology, Michigan State University. He was Professor of Anthropology and African Studies at Michigan State University from 1979 to 2008. He has published many books and articles on Africa, most recently on contestations over land and water and human rights in southern Africa. His fields of specialization include: Environmental Anthropology, Political Ecology, Sociocultural Change, Agrarian Transformation, Anthropology of Development, River Basin Development, Social Impact Analysis, Economic Anthropology, Southern Africa, West Africa. His most recent books include, with Anne Hellum and Kristin Sandvik, Worlds of Human Rights: The Ambiguities of Rights Claiming in Afric (Leiden and Boston: Brill 2013) and Citizenship and Identity: Conflicts over Land and Water in Contemporary Afric edited with Rie Odgaard and Espen Sjaastad. (London, Durban, East Lansing: James Currey, University of Kwazulu Press, Michigan State University Press, 2007).
Robert Vassen was born in South Africa from which he escaped to London in the 1960s. For a decade, he was Associate Director of the MSU English Language Center. Before coming to MSU in 1990, he lived in London, England, where he was an active member of the African National Congress. At MSU he edited Letters From Robben Island: A Selection of Ahmed Kathrada's Prison Correspondence.
For 30 years Peter Davis has been a producer, director, scriptwriter, cameraman and editor of documentary films on social and political issues in 30 full length documentary films including South Africa: the White Laager, Generations of Resistance, Remember Mandela, In Darkest Hollywood, and Side by Side: Women and AIDS in Zimbabwe. His films made a significant impact on many American activists and, thereby, on U.S. policy in the 1970s and 1980s.