The Department of African Languages and Literature was conceived by Professors Philip D. Curtin and Jan Vansina of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of History and came into being in September of 1964. Jan Vansina was the first chair of the Department. The early faculty consisted of Professors A. C. Jordan and Lyndon Harries. Jordan, in political exile from apartheid South Africa, was an expert in the languages and literature of Xhosa and other Nguni languages of South Africa at the Humanities Institute at Wisconsin. Harries, from the School of Oriental and African Studies, joined following a positive response to a 1962 course in Swahili offered by Professor W. H. Whiteley of the same school.
From the beginning, this faculty worked across disciplinary lines. Early emphasis in the Department was on the study of languages and linguistics, but there was also concern for literatures and oral traditions composed in these languages. The initial curriculum primarily supported graduate studies. The graduate program continues to thrive, attracting students throughout the United States and internationally with a strong placement record for graduates. In the late 1970's, the department developed an undergraduate curriculum to provide depth of study for students of African languages and literature and training for students wishing to pursue graduate work in the field. This curriculum saw further development in the 1980's and 2010's. It has served a small but steady number of undergraduate majors, and has a broad impact throughout the College of Letters & Science through popular courses in humanities, literature, and ethnic studies. This program continues to attract students from across the campus, from all colleges, and from all four years of undergraduate life. Members of the faculty have led sponsored trips to Africa, a wide variety of extracurricular activities, and dramatic presentations in African languages.
The department has offered a variety of languages throughout its history; core offerings typically included Arabic, Hausa, Swahili, and Yoruba. In 2014, Professor Katrina Daly Thompson introduced a self-study methodology program that dramatically broadened the number of languages the department could support.