New faculty member returns from Africa

Michael C. Lewis

Professor Wendy Wilson-Fall lived in Africa for a few years before returning to the United States to teach at Kent State.

Credit: Beth Rankin

A professor poses questions to her class, which sits in awe as she enlightens them about culture and diversity.

“What is our new language for the week?”

“Tamachek — it’s a Berber language, indigenous to Africa.”

“The people are known as the Tuaregs. They are called the ‘blue men of the desert.’ They were named by the Europeans because their indigo turbans rubbed off onto their skin, turning it blue.”

“What two things make the Tuareg culture African?”

“Their family line is matrilineal (line follows the mother) and they believe in possession cults (spiritual possession).”

Associate professor and anthropologist Wendy Wilson-Fall then engaged her students by teaching them the language.

As the room fell silent and jaws locked, nervous students prepared to say “Matolekh. Al Kharasid?” while the other answered “Al kharas.” If not for the calming affect of Wilson-Fall, and the fur-ball sound she demonstrated, Tamachek for ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ might have resulted in class silence.

Wilson-Fall’s knowledge and experience comes not only from extensive reading and years spent traveling, as well as years spent living in Africa, but also from observing and understanding her surroundings. To put these tools of learning to the test, an anthropologist must immerse him or herself in another culture and become a contributing member of that society. For Wilson-Fall, the last 12 years of her life were spent living in Senegal, a country in West Africa slightly smaller than South Dakota.

As she continued to lecture about Africa, Wilson-Fall began asking more questions about the physical forces that produce the world.

“Is it possible to talk about Africa not in the European context?”

“Am I African if I depend on western philosophy?”

“What are the dynamics of culture in America? What makes us American?”

For Wilson-Fall, her family and her environment served as the catalyst to help manifest an exciting and vigorous pursuit of knowledge.

When she was a little girl, living among the hustle and bustle of Washington D.C., she would receive invitations from the Embassy of Guinea to join her friend, the daughter of the ambassador of Guinea, to watch a film or listen to music. Later, her other friends, the daughter of the Congo ambassador and the daughter of the Mali ambassador, would arrive and the girls would turn on the Temptations or hum the notes to the Guinea National Ballet.

“I grew up in a very interesting time in this country,” Wilson-Fall said. “Both my parents were political activists and marched on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King. I come from a family that stayed up talking politics ‘til two in the morning.”

Wilson-Fall then further explained her family background. Her grandmother’s sister on her mother’s side married the son of Frederick Douglass — a former slave and devout abolitionist. Wilson-Fall’s grandfather was also one of the early members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and his father wrote the first biography of Frederick Douglass.

“There are a lot of black people like that — with ties to history,” Wilson-Fall said. “As long as the rest of the nation sees African-Americans as a homogenous, flat, indifferent population, they don’t imagine these things.”

Recently, she and her children moved from Senegal to Kent, where Wilson-Fall took positions as an associate professor in the Department of Pan-African Studies, an adjunct professor in the Department of Anthropology and director of the Uumbaji Gallery in Oscar Ritchie Hall.

Diedre Badejo, who is the chair of the Pan-African Studies Department, found Wilson-Fall to be bright, professional and “extremely personable.” Badejo said she holds a deep respect for the work and intelligence of Wilson-Fall.

“I am pleased to have her here because she’s very brilliant, an excellent scholar and an excellent asset to the department,” Badejo said.

She now wants to teach students the tools to understand themselves and the world around them.

“The main thing is you want to spend time learning how they (members of a society) do things,” Wilson-Fall said. “It has to do with how people relate to each other.”

Junior Pan-African studies and finance major Rachel Boyd said she relates well with her professor. According to Boyd, Wilson-Fall is easy to admire because “she speaks 13 or 14 languages.”

“Since I’ve been here, she is the professor who has impressed me the most,” Boyd said. “I hang on every word, waiting for the next one.”

Mykka Kee, senior English major and student in Wilson-Fall’s African Social, Political & Economic Systems class, said Wilson-Fall keeps the class relaxed with her sense of humor, but she also keeps the students’ attention by incorporating the events of Africa today into her lectures.

“I always see in the media and news something bad about Africa,” Kee said. “Of course there are bad things like war, famine and AIDS, but she has shown us more positive aspects, like the idea of kinship. She taught us how they treat each other, their way of life and how they live. Their kinship is the most important social dynamic.”

Currently, Wilson-Fall is beginning research concerning African Americans who have ancestors in Madagascar. She is focusing on the families whose ancestors arrived before the Civil War, in the states of Virginia and Maryland.

“This thread she is working on opens up whole new vistas in the background of African Americans,” Christina McVay, Pan-African Studies lecturer, said. “I think it is really interesting. I’m sure the longer she’s here the more impressed we will be.”

Contact ethnic affairs reporter Michael C. Lewis at [email protected].