The following is an excerpt from Erica Lorraine Williams’s chapter “Niara Sudarkasa: Inspiring Black Women’s Leadership” in The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology edited by Ira E. Harrison, Deborah Johnson-Simon, and Erica Lorraine Williams.
Remembering Niara Sudarkasa
Pioneering cultural anthropologist Niara Sudarkasa has traveled to twenty-seven African countries and conducted research in West Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States. Her research interests have included West African trade and migration, anthropology and development, the roles of African women, African and Caribbean immigration to the United States, African and African American family organization, race and ethnicity, and diversity, equity, and excellence in higher education. Born in 1938 as Gloria Marshall in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, she adopted the name Niara—an adaptation of a Swahili word meaning “woman of high purpose.” Her choice of this name is fitting, considering how she has earned nearly twenty fellowships, grants, and awards, more than seventy-five civic and professional awards, and honorary degrees from a dozen colleges and universities.
Sudarkasa has long been recognized for her many “firsts.” She was the first black woman to teach at New York University and the first African American woman to teach anthropology at the University of Michigan. In her twenty years at the University of Michigan, she was the first African American woman to earn tenure in the arts and sciences, become full professor, head an academic center, and become the associate vice president for academic affairs. In 1972, at the age thirty-four, she became one of the youngest people to be elected to the executive board of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). From 1987 to 1998, Sudarkasa served as the president of historically black Lincoln University. This chapter explores Sudarkasa’s trajectory as a scholar, advocate, and higher education administrator, and describes her contributions to scholarship on feminist anthropology, gender and migration, black women’s leadership, and extended families in the African diaspora.
Niara Sudarkasa was born to seventeen-year-old Rowena Marshall and raised by her maternal grandparents, who had migrated to Florida from the Bahamas. Her mother “picked beans, scrubbed floors and worked in a dry-cleaners most of her life to send her four children to college” (Sudarkasa, “Don’t Write Off Thomas”). Her grandfather was a farmer and her grandmother was a housewife. Sudarkasa’s upbringing in an extended family, where financial responsibility and decision making was shared between her mother and grandparents, most likely fueled her later research interest in extended families in the African diaspora. Sudarkasa started school at the age of five and skipped the sixth grade. She reflected, “My mother assumed that we were all going to go to college. She was very keen on our going. So were my grandparents and my teachers at Dillard High School, which was the only school that black children could attend in Ft. Lauderdale.”
In 1953, at age fifteen, Sudarkasa entered Fisk University on a Ford Foundation early entrant scholarship. Sudarkasa majored in English at Fisk, but transferred to Oberlin College in 1956 after participating in a domestic exchange program. Sudarkasa’s time at Oberlin introduced her to the anthropology of Africa and the African diaspora. In a course with George E. Simpson, she was amazed to discover that the esus (practice of pooling money together) that she witnessed in the Bahamian community in South Florida were cultural legacies from the Yoruba people. Another course introduced her to topics such as polygyny, polyandry, patriarchy, and matriarchy. She reflects on the impact Simpson had on her career trajectory: “I was really fascinated by the courses that I had with George Simpson, who had been a student of Herskovits and had done his research in the Caribbean—that’s when I learned a lot about the African cultures that had survived in the New World.”
In 1957, she graduated from Oberlin College at the age of eighteen in the top 10 percent of her class. Sudarkasa pursued her master’s and doctoral degrees in anthropology at Columbia University. Her decision to apply to Columbia was largely motivated by the fact that her mother had moved to New York a few years earlier. Interestingly, she described the process of applying to graduate school as one that was shrouded in mystery: “I didn’t know a lot about getting into graduate school. When I decided I wanted to go, nobody at Oberlin gave me any advice about it. I thought if I go to Columbia, I could always stay with my mother if I didn’t get a scholarship.” She was awarded a scholarship for tuition, lived with her mother, and worked part time in the registrar’s office. Influenced by the work of Melville Herskovits, Sudarkasa’s master’s thesis focused on the historical influences of African and European mutual aid associations on benefit societies in the West Indies. . . . Sudarkasa benefited from having Eliott Skinner as her research supervisor. She says, “I didn’t feel discouraged from studying Africa, because Elliott Skinner was at Columbia. . . . He encouraged me to do research in Africa as opposed to the Caribbean.” Skinner pointed out that before she could study the diaspora, she must first know the continent.