Historian gets elite fellowship

by Jennifer Niemela

When history professor Allen Isaacman studied at a Harlem college in the 1960s, he was told that there was no room for African-American studies in American universities.
Today, Isaacman teaches African history at the University and is one of the leading U.S. authorities in African scholarship — a field he helped to pioneer.
“Everything I read rendered the experience of the Africans in America invisible,” said Isaacman, who was recently awarded the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for his work in researching runaway slave communities of southeastern Africa. “My mission was then and is still now to give voice to the historical experience of a people whose voices had been rendered inaudible.”
Isaacman is the only University faculty member to receive the prestigious fellowship this year. The award recognizes exceptional past academic achievement and potential for future accomplishment. The Guggenheim Foundation wouldn’t disclose how much money Isaacman received, but they said the average grant last year was $28,800.
Isaacman’s work centers on the Chikunda peoples — descendants of runaway Portuguese slaves who settled in the Zambezi valley. His research focuses on the cultural identities of the 28 ethnic groups that today make up the descendants of the tribes. He has already written five books and more than 50 articles on the subject.
Jean Allman, an associate professor of African history, said the fellowship is a significant honor. “Funding for the humanities has really dried up so it’s extremely competitive on all levels.”
Isaacman said the fellowship, which he will use for an 11 month on-site research project in Mozambique beginning in August, is a landmark for him.
“This is a capstone in my academic career,” Isaacman said. “It’s an affirmation of how the field regards my work.”
Isaacman, who is the director of the MacArthur Interdisciplinary Program on Peace and International Cooperation, also renewed a $944,000 grant for the program from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
The University’s MacArthur Program, which Isaacman helped found in 1988, promotes peace in the developing world through fellowships for graduate study.
“He’s a terrific director,” said Raymond Duvall, associate director of the program and political science professor. “He’s one of the most eminent African historians in the country and … (who) is highly committed to diversity, not just as an add-on, but as a necessary component to the development of an excellent academy.”
Isaacman said his research is important to understanding events in Africa occurring today. He used Mobutu Sese Seko, the recently deposed president of the former Zaire, as an example of a leader who used tribalism as a political tool to gain popular support in Africa. In his 32 years in office, Mobutu used his position to skim billions of dollars from the Zairean treasury.
“Mobutu evoked a type of ‘authentic’ Africa to gain popular support,” Isaacman said. “The problem is, there is no single authentic African voice, as Mobutu tried to claim. There are women, men, old, young, peasants, workers all engaged in trying to shape their own reality.”
Allman, who has worked closely with Isaacman for three years, said this emphasis on the everyday lives of average African people is probably why Isaacman won the Guggenheim fellowship.
“Allen writes for a larger audience,” said Allman. “I think his approach resonates with people who think his research is relevant to a broader world.”
Isaacman became interested in African history in college when he was involved in the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. He and his wife, Barbara, traveled to Mozambique in 1967 where they witnessed what he described as “brutal oppression (by) the Portuguese colonial military.” Isaacman testified before Congress in the late 1960s on behalf of anti-colonial movements in Mozambique and in 1975 returned to become that country’s first professor of Mozambican history.