Publication Date

February 27, 2020

Perspectives Section

Member Spotlight, Perspectives Daily


  • Africa

Jeffrey Ahlman is an associate professor at Smith College. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, and has been a member since 2004.

Twitter: @jeffrey_ahlman

Jeffrey Ahlman

Alma maters: BA, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2004; MA, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, 2005; PhD, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, 2011

Fields of interest: African social and cultural history, Cold War, decolonization, pan-Africanism

Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?

I entered graduate school at the University of Illinois in 2005 after majoring in history at the University of Nebraska a year earlier. It was at Nebraska that I was introduced to the history of Africa and the African diaspora by Professors Walter Rucker and James Le Sueur. At Illinois, I focused my interests on the history of Ghana and the question of decolonization and postcolonial state-building. Beginning in 2009, I was fortunate enough to receive a predoctoral fellowship in the University of Virginia’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies and, in 2011, a postdoctoral fellowship in Johns Hopkins Center for Africana Studies. I joined the faculty in the History Department at Smith College in 2012, where I largely teach African history classes and developed the department’s current introduction to the major in 2017. I am also currently the director of the college’s African Studies Program.

What do you like the most about where you live and work?

The students at Smith are amazing. It is difficult to express how much I learn from them each class session. Also, fall in New England is unbeatable.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am currently finishing a short biography of Kwame Nkrumah—Ghana’s first president—which is under contract to be published with Ohio University Press in its Ohio Short Histories of Africa series. I am also working on a broader history of Ghana from the mid-19th century to the present, which will be published with I.B. Tauris as part of its Modern Histories series.

Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how?

I have become much more deeply interested in the 19th century and particularly the ways in which key ideas, beliefs, norms, and practices developed during the century provided so much of the scaffolding of the 20th. It is embarrassing to reflect on how little I knew or thought of the 19th century before having to teach it. Now, in writing this history of Ghana, I have had to engage with it much more systematically and it has surprisingly emerged as a major area of intellectual excitement for me.

Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?

Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. I teach it pretty much every semester in some way and, although probably over-systemized for many, it continually opens students eyes into the interconnected of the global political economy.

What do you value most about the history discipline?

What I value most about history as a discipline is that it places people and their experiences and stories at the center of their analytical field. In contrast to other social sciences that are often looking for generalizable knowledge, patterns, and models, history as a discipline celebrates in the messiness of the human experience, bringing its subjects alive in ways that no other discipline can. The best historians do this with empathy, nuance, and care.

Why is membership in the AHA important to you?

The AHA provides a community that allows me to stay attuned to the changing nature of the discipline through both the Perspectives in History magazine and AHR.

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.

Matthew Keough
Matthew Keough

American Historical Association