African Studies Program to Host Second Annual Jan Vansina Memorial Lecture

Jan Vansina at his home in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Catherine A. Reiland/UW-Madison)

The African Studies will host the second annual Jan Vansina Memorial Lecture this Fall, honoring the pioneering historian of Africa who passed away two years ago. The lecture will open the African Studies Program’s weekly seminar series, Africa at Noon, on Wednesday, September 11th at 12:00pm in Ingraham Hall, Room 206.

Jan Vansina is widely considered one of the founders of the field of African history in the 1950s and 1960s. At the time, it was generally accepted that cultures and regions without written texts did not have a true and distinguishable ‘history,’ an assumption that Vansina worked tirelessly to dispel. He spent most of his career at UW-Madison, where he created the first African history program in the United States alongside fellow historian Philip Curtain.

“Vansina quickly became a towering figure in the field,” Professor Emeritus Florence Bernault wrote for Vansina’s obituary, “a scholar of exceptional intelligence, erudition, and intellectual drive.”

“In scale, depth, complexity, clarity, and significance,” she noted, “his work in African history was unique and will certainly remain so for many years to come.”

When Vansina passed away in February 2017, the African Studies community at UW-Madison wanted to find a way to honor his contributions to the field of African history and the Madison campus specifically. Neil Kodesh, Professor of History and former Faculty Director of the African Studies Program, spoke to us about the process of developing the Jan Vansina Lecture.

“Africa at Noon is in many respects the lifeblood of Africa-related activities on campus,” Kodesh said. “And since Jan quite often gave the first presentation of each academic year, we thought it fitting that one of the ways to honor his legacy would be to make the annual Jan Vansina Lecture the first Africa at Noon of each academic year.”

The inaugural Vansina Lecture featured Nancy Rose Hunt, Professor of History and African Studies at the University of Florida, and Steven Fiereman, Professor of History Emeritus currently teaching African History at the University of Pennsylvania. These opening lectures were followed by a symposium featuring twelve presentations and a keynote from Pamphile Mabiala Mantuba-Ngoma of the University of Kinshasa. The event brought together more than 45 alumni from across three continents, many of whom studied under Vansina.

This year’s speaker, Emery Kalema, will explore themes related to some of Vansina’s later work in his lecture on “The Mulele ‘Rebellion’ (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Bodily Pain, and the Politics of Death.” Kalema is a Postdoctoral Fellow and Chair in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University in South Africa and a Summer Program in Social Science Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

“Emery’s research on the intersection of politics, violence, and memory in postcolonial Congo would have been of much interest to Jan,” said Kodesh, who noted that “Jan’s final presentation at Africa at Noon several years ago examined new ways to approach the study of the relationship between history and memory that incorporated cutting edge recent work in the field of psychology.”

Please join the African Studies Program on Wednesday, September 11 to celebrate Jan Vansina’s legacy by hearing from this rising scholar in the field of African History. To support this lecture series and other efforts to honor Vansina’s legacy, consider donating to the Jan Vansina Fund. The fund was established in 1994 upon Jan’s retirement. In addition to supporting this annual memorial lecture, the funds have already supported a significant number of UW graduate students in African History, many from Africa. Kodesh and his colleagues in the History Department are also exploring new ideas to mobilize and support partnerships with African universities. To learn more, please contact Kodesh at