Professor Ousmane Traoré Focuses on Ancient Africa with New Directions Fellowship

Professor Ousmane Traore in Senegal

Makhroufi Ousmane Traoré, assistant professor of history and Africana studies, is wrapping up the academic year in Senegal. He spent the year building connections with African scholars and historians for his new textbook focused on Africa’s Antiquity and Medieval period.

Traoré returned to Senegal as a 2022 recipient of a New Directions Fellowship in the amount of $300,000 from the Mellon Foundation. The highly selective award is given to faculty members in the humanities and humanistic social sciences who seek to acquire systematic training outside their own areas of special interest.

Traoré’s research goal is to refocus the Western lens of Africa from slave ships arriving to America to a more objective and Afrocentric approach to Africa’s ancient past.

“As a historian from the African continent, it’s particularly important to me to probe Africa’s ancient history, and especially the connections between present-day African cultures, religions and languages and those of Ancient Egypt,” says Traoré. “It’s my hope that, with the resources and position of the Mellon Foundation, I can shine more attention on accounts of African history coming from the ‘periphery.’ If we work to deconstruct the ‘colonial library,’ including Western representations of Egypt, then we can both fill gaps in African historiography, and improve the teaching of African history in U.S. colleges and universities.”

Traoré returned to his alma mater, the University of Cheikh Anta Diop to pursue a master’s degree in Egyptology. He was welcomed back by his former professors and classmates who have now joined the faculty at the university. “Taking classes and learning from these eminent people and scholars—Egyptologists, anthropologists, sociologists, historians, linguists and philosophers—is a very rich experience too. Though our disciplinary interests have led us in different directions, in the context of this scholarly exchange we are now crossing our expertise and perspectives in order to reexamine African history,” he says.

Traoré’s textbook will draw from the expertise of various African scholars from around the continent with each focusing on a particular African civilization and culture. “To give a couple of examples, I’ve built a collaboration with Congolese archaeologist colleagues whose work focuses on the Holocene human migration and the occupation of Central Africa. Their work documents iron mining and production in the late Holocene in the northern Congo as well as cultural interactions throughout the Northwestern Congo Basin. The goal of featuring their work is to help build a history of technology and migrations in Africa during its Antiquity.”

In addition, with Egyptologists and early modern historians from Cameroon, Benin and Nigeria, Traoré is exploring the history of women in Africa before the contact with Islam and Christianity. “Our inquiry seeks to shed light on the political, social and economic role of women during Antiquity and focuses especially on the history of matriarchy in Africa.”

As part of the New Directions Fellowship, Traoré is also re-examining “so-called African art.” Collaborating with Senegalese anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers and the director of the Senegalese Museum of Black Civilizations, they are looking to correct Western interpretation of everyday objects that have been labeled art in European museums. “We emphasize how these objects partook of local religions, philosophical viewpoints, rituals, initiations, and the social and cultural cohesion of our societies. Such a perspective on the histories, traditions and objects of African civilizations is often absent from how African history is taught in classrooms in the United States,” he explains.

“By including such ‘artifacts’ in my teaching and unpacking them using this African epistemological and multi-sited perspective (as opposed to analyzing them from the perspective of art history or museum history), I hope to facilitate students’ deeper understanding of African societies and sociopolitical structures.”

Upon his return to Pomona’s campus next fall, Traoré plans to start all his classes with a new unit covering Africa’s Antiquity period. He adds that he will include Egyptology—from an Afrocentric lens—to his coursework. In addition, he plans to craft a new course focused on African culture that includes topics like African cultural epistemologies and the movement to repatriate African “art” in European museums.

“One of my goals as a professor in the U.S. is to rectify the shallow historiography of Africa which so frustrated me as a Senegalese student studying in European universities,” says Traoré. His forthcoming textbook will do just that. “It will allow African-American and other students to learn about African history without beginning per se with the Atlantic slave ship.”

The Mellon Foundation was established in 1969 and has awarded New Directions Fellowships since 2002. Pomona College President G. Gabrielle Starr received the fellowship in 2003 while at NYU, and other Pomona College professors who have received it include Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies Aimee Bahng, History Professors Pamela Smith and Gary Wilder, Politics Professor Heather Williams and the late Music Professor Katherine Hagedorn.