Remembering Niara Sudarkasa

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.

Sudarkasa’s doctoral research consisted of twenty-one months of fieldwork in Nigeria on the impact of Yoruba women’s economic activities on their gender roles within the family. On her first journey to the African continent, she traveled by ship from Liverpool to Lagos. Although she had spent six months studying the Yoruba language at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, she was disappointed to learn that her Yoruba comprehension was limited. Despite this linguistic setback, she was struck by the familiarity of what she saw in Nigeria—Lagos reminded her of the South Florida towns of her childhood. At the beginning of her fieldwork, Sudarkasa was based at the University of Ibadan, but she later moved to Awe, a small rural town of five thousand inhabitants. She rented a bungalow from an Awe businessman and was quickly adopted as the town’s guest and “daughter.”

. . .

In 1964 at the age of twenty-five, Niara Sudarkasa had completed her PhD in anthropology from Columbia University. Her first academic job was as assistant professor of anthropology at New York University. In 1967, she moved on to become assistant professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of Michigan. After a year-long sabbatical to study Yoruba traders in Ghana, she returned to the University of Michigan in 1969, at a time when black students were fighting for increased minority enrollment. At the request of black students, she readily agreed to speak on behalf of faculty who supported the Black Action Movement (BAM) at the university, and she was one of thirty-one faculty members to sign a statement backing the demands of the organization (“BAM Ends Class Strike!”). . . . When the Regents rejected several of BAM’s demands, Sudarkasa was quoted in the newspaper as saying, “We say there can be no total victory until the racist malignancy either consumes this country or we cut it out. . . . [W]e will fight on, because like all mankind we hope, and because we’re arrogant enough to know we’ll win” (“BAM Ends Class Strike!”) . . . she stayed at the University of Michigan until 1987, serving as the associate director of the Center for Afro-American and African studies from 1970 to 1973, earning full professor in 1976 and serving as director of the center from 1981 to 1984.

The Lincoln University Years

In 1987, at the age of forty-nine, Sudarkasa was sworn in as president of Lincoln University, where she served for eleven years. At the time there was a growing network of black women presidents of HBCUs, including Johnnetta B. Cole at Spelman College and Gloria Scott at Bennett College. Sudarkasa felt that her appointment as president was the “perfect meeting of scholar and institution” because of the university’s important historical connections to African and African American leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Thurgood Marshall, and Langston Hughes (McKinney, “Sister Presidents”). In an Essence article, Sudarkasa was described as a tough yet caring administrator with a dynamic personality, keen intelligence, and a strong sense of self (“Niara Sudarkasa,” 1989). Her goals were to increase Lincoln University’s competitiveness in the fields of science, math, and engineering, as well as to ensure that the student body became more aware of the connections with Africa. A Lincoln University newsletter stated, “under Dr. Sudarkasa’s bold and visionary leadership, Lincoln University . . . has become a model for internationalizing the curriculum and providing a twenty-first century education with a global perspective.”

. . .

In the remainder of the chapter, I analyze the themes of Sudarkasa’s publications and highlight her contributions to anthropology, African and African diaspora studies, and women’s and gender studies.

Doctoral Research: Yoruba Women Traders

In Where Women Work: A Study of Yoruba Women in the Marketplace and in the Home (1973), a book based on her dissertation, Sudarkasa points out that virtually all Yoruba women were engaged in some type of trade activity long before the twentieth century. Arguing that Yoruba women saw trade “as a necessary component of their role as women,” she describes the impact of trading on the marital relationship and on the socialization of children in Yoruba society (117). She argues that Yoruba women did not see work as a distraction from home and the family. Rather, they saw it as something that enabled them to fulfill their roles within the family (117). This argument is still relevant today in the ongoing debate as to whether professional women can “have it all.” Ultimately, Yoruba women’s involvement in trade meant that responsibility for childcare could not be the sole obligation of mothers. Instead, they relied on other women to help with childcare and taught their children to be self-sufficient at an early age. Mothers were not perceived as “neglectful” on this account; rather this was part and parcel of what being a “good mother” meant in Yoruba society (132).

Sudarkasa’s research explores seniority, polygyny, and gendered economic activities in West Africa. Long before Oyeronke Oyewumi’s groundbreaking book The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses (1997), Sudarkasa emphasized the importance of seniority in the structuring of interpersonal relations. She also demystified polygyny by describing its structure and organization in a nonjudgmental way. For instance, a first wife might suggest that her husband take another wife to help with household duties so she could devote more time to trade activities (Where Women Work, 129). Sudarkasa describes Yoruba women’s trading as an autonomous space where women worked with little interference from their husbands. . . . Trading fostered mobility for Yoruba women, who were “virtually free to go wherever” their work led them (132). This certainly disrupts the domestic/public paradigm that was commonplace in feminist anthropology in the 1970s, which posited that the subordination of women could be explained by the fact that they had been relegated to the less valued domestic domain, while men enjoyed the privileges of the public domain.

In 1970, after she returned from conducting research in Ghana, Sudarkasa found herself increasingly drawn into debates around the black family. Consequently, she began to lecture and write about the African origins of African American family structure. Two motivating factors for this shift in her research interests were the publication of the Moynihan report in 1965 and her continuing fieldwork in West Africa. From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, her research on Nigerians trading in Ghana and the growing number of female-headed households in Benin revealed patterns of separate domiciles for wives and husbands… In The Strength of Our Mothers: African and African American Women and Families (1996), Sudarkasa makes several interesting arguments about families that are still relevant today. First, she argues that the dissolution of a marriage does not necessarily entail the dissolution of the family (xxi). In other words, marital stability should be distinguished from family stability. Second, she urges people not to pathologize black family structures and single mothers for not following the nuclear ideal. She claims that the flexibility of black family structures was the key to African Americans’ survival. Finally, she disrupts the assumption that in single mother–headed households, the mothers are usually teenage mothers by providing data that shows they are most often older, adult, mature mothers. Thus, she argues that the idea that female-headed households are inherently “unstable” is a fallacy by emphasizing that they often consist of “multigenerational units clustered around a core” of adult blood relatives (xxi). . . . In Extended Families in Africa and the African Diaspora, coeditors Aborampah and Sudarkasa assert that the extended family is important in African societies for social and economic reasons, including that it makes shared labor possible and helps with the “socialization of children” and the “education and placement of relatives” and also provides “support for the elderly” (introduction, 2). . . .

In her essay “Value Premises Underlying Black Family Studies and Black Families” (from her book The Strength of Our Mothers), Sudarkasa criticizes European scholars for assuming that the nuclear family is universal and that it is the building block of extended families. She argues rather that extended families in Africa were built around blood ties rather than conjugal ties and claims that the Western nuclear family ideal promotes “individualism, competition, and accumulation,” while African extended families emphasize “communalism, cooperation, and sharing” (“The Changing Roles of Women in Changing Family Structures in West Africa,” 186). Sudarkasa outlines five fundamental myths about black families: that black families are inherently unstable, that most black men do not contribute to their families, that the black family is always hostile, that black families do not value education, and that the deplorable conditions in inner cities are a byproduct of black family structures.

. . .

Contributions to Feminist Anthropology

Sudarkasa’s scholarship both challenges and contributes to feminist anthropology by showing that African women are not the “docile, submissive, downtrodden, powerless creatures they have often been portrayed to be” (The Strength of Our Mothers, xxiii). For instance, in an article for Feminist Studies, she critiques Western feminist scholars’ concern with the “status of women” in African societies, arguing that this concept implies “that women and men were everywhere related to each other in a hierarchical fashion” (“The Status of Women in Indigenous African Societies,” 92). She also critiques scholars’ tendency to assess the “status of women” only in relation to the conjugal roles of wife instead of also considering women’s roles within their natal families. As a graduate student, I read “Woman, Culture, and Society: A Theoretical Overview” by Michelle Rosaldo (1974), which discusses the universal subordination of women. Rosaldo describes Yoruba women as wives who “must feign ignorance and obedience, kneeling to serve the men as they sit” (20). Having studied Yoruba language and spent time in Nigeria, I remember being shocked at how she decontextualized and misinterpreted the practice of kneeling, taking it as evidence of Yoruba women’s subordination when in fact in Yoruba culture, both women and men prostrate as a sign of respect for the elderly. Sudarkasa takes issue with Rosaldo’s characterization of gender relations in West Africa, rejecting her claim that “public and domestic spheres and male and female roles are ‘firmly differentiated” in West Africa and arguing instead that the “public domain” in West Africa is not seen as “the world of men” but rather as an arena in which both sexes are “recognized as having important roles to play” (“Female Employment and Family Organization in West Africa,” 223). She points out that women in West Africa are consulted in internal political and governmental affairs and that their economic roles are both “public” and “private.” Ultimately, she argues that “rather than being subordinate, women’s activities” are “complementary to those of men (227).

. . .


Sudarkasa always pushed the boundaries and limitations of the discipline of anthropology. In a plenary session titled “Confronting Racism: A Challenge to the Anthropological Profession” at the AAA meetings in November 1989, Sudarkasa spoke alongside other prominent scholars including panelists Derrick Bell and Johnnetta B. Cole. She stated, “If there is one discipline that should make racism the object of serious study, it is anthropology” because anthropologists have a “special responsibility” and “the requisite skills, to help America see itself, confront itself, understand itself, and change itself” (“Confronting Racism,” 1989). She critiques black studies scholarship on Africa and the diaspora on the grounds that it lacks an activist framework. Her passion for African studies was captured in her comments at a 1995 roundtable on Africa in Washington, DC, when she stated, “I have been in and out of Africa for almost thirty-five years. I am not only an observer and an analyst of events on the continent, but one for whom the sense of kinship with Africa is very personal and profound. Therefore, I cannot view developments in Africa with dispassion.” Sudarkasa’s lifetime of achievements and accomplishments cannot be overestimated. As a fellow of the AAA, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a senior Fulbright research fellow, Sudarkasa has been nationally recognized for her expertise on Africa. President George Bush appointed her to the Peace Corps National Advisory Council, and President Bill Clinton appointed her to the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars. She is a lifetime member of the National Council of Negro Women and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In May 2001, she received the chieftancy title of Yeye Olokun Igbadero (“Mother from Across the Seas Who Brings a Time of Peace”) from the Ife Kingdom in Nigeria. Sudarkasa’s accomplishments as a scholar, leader, and politically engaged citizen are part of the legacy of African American anthropologists to the field of anthropology in general and to African and African American studies and women’s studies in particular.

by Erica Lorraine Williams

Read more in The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology.

About michael

Marketing & Sales Manager since 2012