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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Research & Inquiry June 25, 2023

The Global Dimensions of Africana Thought

Meet the inaugural Ruth J. Simmons Professor of Africana Studies

Photograph by Jessica Scranton

Aaron Kamugisha is a scholar of the social, political, and cultural thought of the African Diaspora. He is an author or editor of six essay collections and five special issues of journals on Caribbean and Africana thought.

His latest book, Beyond Coloniality: Citizenship and Freedom in the Caribbean Intellectual Tradition, is described as “an extended meditation on Caribbean thought and freedom at the beginning of the 21st century.” Kamugisha is the first to hold an endowed professorship named for Ruth J. Simmons, Smith’s ninth president. Here, he reflects on his teaching, his scholarship, and his vision of dismantling oppressive power structures through the study of ideas.

What brought you to Smith?

After 15 years living and working in the Caribbean, I was interested in uncovering different intellectual possibilities—especially since my scholarship was turning toward an exploration of the global dimensions of Africana thought. For some while I was aware of and admired the teaching and close mentorship offered by the liberal arts colleges of the northeast U.S., and so I was pleased to accept Smith College’s offer to be the Ruth J. Simmons Professor of Africana Studies. Ruth Simmons’ career as an academic and administrator of great distinction is well known, and it has been an honor to be the inaugural professor in a chair named in tribute to her service to the Smith community.

You study the intellectual history and the social, political, and cultural thought of the African Diaspora. Can you summarize for the lay reader what this scholarly work encompasses?

African Diaspora (or Africana) intellectual history and Africana social and political thought are new fields of formal academic inquiry that echo and clarify a centuries-long tradition of people of African descent making sense of their worlds. Both fields are capacious and daring in their scope and field of vision, as they explore the ideas that Africana people have invented in their journey through the world. Given the history of the last 500 years, themes of racialization, colonialism, and imperialism are of great, structuring significance here, but they do not tell the entire story. Africana thought is present in the music, religion, dance, and cultural thought of its people as much as it is in the more recognizable formal arena of academic social thought and political theory.

What sparked your interest in this area of scholarship? 

I’ve always been a reader, and while my first great interests were Africana literature and history, I settled on the study of Africana social and political ideas in my formal academic work. It’s challenging to trace all the different influences that led me to this point. Certainly central were my family, my many academic mentors, and specific authors I read. But foremost was a conviction that can’t quite be explained. It was that in the study of ideas, I could truly appreciate the bewildering realities of the contemporary world and make my own contribution to dismantling relations of power—racism, class oppression, patriarchy, imperialism, homophobia—that prohibit the true flourishing of individuals, societies, and humanity.

What do you teach at Smith? 

Since joining Smith in the summer of 2021, I’ve taught six different courses in a number of areas, including Caribbean cultural and political thought, African American history, and the Black radical tradition. All I’ve enjoyed considerably. However, to pick just two, I’ve found myself drawn most toward the courses Caribbean Cultural Thought: The Plantation, Diaspora and the Popular and a course on classic Black texts. The former is a second-year course; the latter, a 300-level seminar.

What else are you working on now?

I am always working simultaneously on a couple of different books. The first is a co-edited collection titled The Caribbean Race Reader, which is due to go to press this summer and should be out next year. The other work is a study of the Caribbean Canadian novelist and social and political thinker Austin Clarke. Clarke was the first West Indian to publish a novel in Canada and the first writer of African descent to become a major Canadian literary figure, winning numerous awards including the Giller Prize in 2002 and the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2003. He also served as a mentor for an entire generation of writers in Canada. He is increasingly recognized as one of the major figures of 20th-century Caribbean and Canadian literature, and one whose lifework is situated at the crossroads of the vast literary and cultural terrain that constitutes African Diaspora studies.

This story appears in the Summer 2023 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.