Institute of African Studies - Columbia University

Meet Wendell Marsh - Student Spotlight

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Hailing from Atlanta, GA, Wendell Marsh is currently completing his last year as a Ph.D. student in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS) at Columbia University where he will be receiving his Doctorate in Spring 2018. His dissertation develops theories and concepts for understanding Muslim West Africa through a practice of reading Arabic texts from the region. He specifically works on a colonial period hagiography (a biography of a saint) about the life, lineage, and legacies of Hajj Umar Tal, one of the most memorialized saintly figures of Francophone West Africa in the 19th century. Kamara is renowned for his over 1,700-page history of the Sahel region.

Before attending Columbia, Wendell majored in English and French at Morehouse College. He was always deeply influenced by Pan-African and Afro-centric philosophy and African American Muslim activists and intellectuals. As an African American, he was always motivated to “go back to Africa and see Africa as a source of not only an identity but also as the future.” Wendell became increasingly interested in African studies after his first trip to Senegal during his undergraduate studies for Spring Break to volunteer his time at a local NGO in Medina-Baye, Kaolack, a city a few hours away from the capital Dakar. Upon arriving, his perspective was transformed. He was surprised to find a large and established community of Muslim African American expats living in this cosmopolitan community of Sufis from throughout the continent, the African diaspora, and the Middle East. Once he and his group got there, he realized that there was far more to learn than there was to teach. This experience encouraged him to study abroad in Senegal a couple years later.

His time in Senegal really complicated how he saw himself, his black identity, and his identity as part of the Afro-Diaspora. It was destabilizing for him to be viewed as a Westerner while studying in Senegal. It showed him the limits of the kind of romanticism he and some African Americans viewed Africa. This motivated him to want to study the region further. Wendell began studying Afro-Arab relations while doing a language Fulbright in Egypt. After speaking with Professor Mamadou Diouf, former director of Columbia’s Institute of African Studies (IAS), he decided to apply to MESAAS and pursue a Ph.D. That was seven years ago.

Since he began his academic journey at IAS, Wendell has been the recipient of the Leitner Grant, which supported language studies—a centrally important component of the work that he does since understanding African languages enabled him to do his research. He appreciates IAS because it is the only place on Columbia’s campus that solely concentrates on Africa, and he is able to talk to faculty and students who are interested in and doing work on the continent. It is a place where he doesn’t have to “dispel myths and stereotypes but start on higher level of thinking.”

While working on his dissertation, Wendell has traveled to Senegal, Mauritania, and Morocco for field research. He is currently teaching an African Civilization course and has TA’d for African and Islamic studies courses with Mahmood Mamdani, Hamid Dabashi, and Hlonipha Mokoena.. He has recently accepted the position of Assistant Professor of African American and African Studies at Rutgers Newark University and will start upon receiving his Ph.D.

Wendell’s experiences have allowed him to identify the things that are shared and not shared by Africans and Africans in the Diaspora. He believes both groups “bear the burden of modernity and the shared experience of the slave trade and colonization, [which] created the modern world and its political order.” Studying African history, then helps him understand the world and imagine a different future. His vision is to use his experiences and his research to find ways “to transform modernity to something more equitable for everyone.”