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.
In 2012, under Professor Aliko Songolo’s leadership as Chair, the Department began to make strategic plans to embrace cultural studies as a promising organizing frame for renewal and transformation of its academic endeavors both in research and teaching. Cultural studies, the faculty agreed, would make it possible for the Department to blend the disciplines we teach in a way that would be both more expansive and more coherent. In vision and practice, it promised a more holistic study of African languages, cultural expression, and practices across genres and media. This expansion of orientation required a change of the name of the Department as well as of its programs and curriculum.
The Department convened in April 2015 a summit of stakeholders—alumni, faculty, students, the College of Letters & Science UW administration, and the African Studies community on campus— to reflect on the Department’s past, present, and future, and to discuss the proposed new direction. The conversation was illuminating, and the Department learned a lot about the exciting and diverse careers alumni have pursued with degrees in African Languages and Literature. This helped in imagining possibilities going forward. A scholarly conference, “Towards African Cultural Studies,” followed the next month. Members of the faculty and renowned scholars across the United States and internationally engaged in critical reflections on possible roadmaps towards instituting cultural studies in the Department.
Under the leadership of Professor Tejumola Olaniyan as Chair and Katrina Daly Thompson as then chair of the Curriculum Committee, the Department formally began the processes of transformation in fall 2015: the changes of name, programs, and curriculum, as well as recruitment of Africanist faculty from different humanities and social science disciplines on campus to share their tenure lines with or join the Department. The change to African Cultural Studies was completed in spring 2018.