Olufemi O. Vaughan is an Alfred Sargent Lee ’41 and Mary Farley Ames Lee Professor of Black Studies. He attended St. John’s University, where he received his bachelor’s degree in politics and government. He received his doctorate in politics with historical components from Oxford University.
Q: What did you do before you came to Amherst?
A: I was the Geoffrey Canada Professor of Africana Studies and History at Bowdoin College. I taught there for nine years. Prior to that, I taught for 18 years at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. I went through the professorial ranks at Stony Brook and then had the opportunity to move to Bowdoin because I was recruited to help … rebuild the Africana Studies department.
Q: What got you interested in political science, history and black studies?
A: I’ve been in academia for 27 years. If you’ve been an academic for that long, your career will move in all kinds of directions. In my case, that’s essentially what happened. I was born and raised in Nigeria. Going back in time, as far as I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated by politics and history … even in grade school … It seemed rather natural that I would pursue that path … Anything in the humanistic social sciences is, for me, extremely exciting and fascinating. As a result, I don’t always see the boundaries between disciplines, which can be confusing for some. Those academic specializations, while I recognize their significance … as a student and a scholar of Africa, I sometimes see them as quite limiting. So, the subject matter is what drives me, not the discipline.
Q: Why did you decide to teach at Amherst?
A: Amherst is the best known liberal arts college in the world. You can’t possibly receive a phone call from your colleagues that you respect, and in so many ways look up to, from an exceptional liberal arts institution with really amazing scholar-teachers and the tradition of incredible students, and not take that call very seriously. I felt extremely privileged to receive that call. The rest is history, as they say.
Q: What do you like about Amherst so far?
A: I’ve been really humbled by the reception of my colleagues in Black Studies from the time the call came in October of last year all through the entire vetting process — talk about generosity of spirit and kindness. You can’t imagine how kind colleagues can be, from senior colleagues to coordinators. I felt immediately affirmed. I remember when I came to campus last year and met students. Talk about rapid fire, in a good way, of insightful, incredibly intellectual and engaging questions … In a period of just about an hour and a half, I learned that these students were not shy. They wanted to know what I would bring to the college. That, for me, was very exciting.
Q: What classes are you teaching this semester?
A: I’m teaching two seminars. One 300-level seminar, which is also relating to the research I’ve done for the last ten years: African Migration and Globalization. The second one, a 200-level course, is also related to a recent research project of mine. It’s titled Christianity and Islam in West Africa.
Q: Outside of academics, what about Amherst do you enjoy the most?
A: I haven’t driven in three weeks. I walk everywhere, which I love. The sounds and sights of the city center are really exciting … It could very well be the time of year, but there’s always something going on. I like the fact that the restaurants have this real global flavor to them. I also like the fact that there’s a real interest in generational connection in the town. At least for what I’ve seen in the last three weeks, there seems to be a really healthy interaction between the town and the college. I like the connection between culture and space. I can tell that it’s not fake or contrived. It’s fluid and organic. I never realized how important visual diversity was to me until I was living in Brunswick, when I taught at Bowdoin. I don’t feel a need to go anywhere else to achieve that visual diversity in Amherst. I’m not suggesting that this is a bastion of diversity, but it is enough for me. It is exciting for me to be in the street of a small city yet still try to figure out what language people are speaking.
Q: Are you currently engaged in any research?
A: As I mentioned earlier, I’d been working on African migration and transnationalism in a way that questions African migration in the context of neoliberalism and global migration … I just finished a book titled “Religion and the Making of Nigeria.” It came out in just November of last year. I am now beginning to work on neo-pentecostal movements, particularly Nigerian neo-Pentecostal movements in Western countries like the U.S., the U.K. and Canada. I’m doing some ethnographic kinds of research. I’m going to be doing that quite a bit over the next year and half to see where that takes me. I’m hoping to get a book out of that. I also have a second research project. I’m always trying to find ways to do collaborative research with colleagues and I’m working on a research project with a colleague at the University of London and the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. This is really kind of an African Diaspora-in-reverse project … We never really think about the diasporas as a movement backward to African societies, particularly Atlantic West Africa. The reality is that we had quite a bit of that in the 19th century and one of the most important African Diaspora communities in Atlantic West Africa: Afro-Brazilians … I am beginning now to do a bit of an oral history of the last wave of descendants of those who knew the Afro-Brazilians who returned … The third project is really the one I’m the most actively engaged in now. My late father passed away 14 years ago. He left behind over 4,000 papers, including about 3,500 family letters between 1929 and 1994. After 14 years of having this stuff in my closet, I decided to bring them out. I’m thinking of writing some kind of family biography based on the letters. I’m hoping that down the line I will introduce a seminar on letters and family matters.
Q: What do you do for fun in your free time?
A: This is going to sound very strange, but fun for me is just being able to just have a stroll down the road. I have come to enjoy the privilege of strolling, especially doing it for no apparent reason whatsoever. Part of what I’ve come to like about Amherst is that the center of town is a good place to walk. I’ve also always paid attention to sports … Even as I get older, I like a quick pickup basketball game with my kids or nieces and nephews.