The Question of Career
Karen Marguerite Wilson-Ama'Echefu, March 2016
So, how do I respond to this invitation to write about my career? Career? I will acknowledge passion, vocation, a love of learning and of teaching, openness to challenge and adventure, and a desire to be of help. But what is my career? Well, my life has hardly been static.
Do I begin with the Fulbright Regional Research Fellowship to Sub-Saharan Africa that brought me to Nigeria, propelling me into a senior lectureship at the University of Calabar and the opportunity not only to visit Nigeria, but to live here as an African American?
Do I start with undertaking graduate studies as a nontraditional student, earning a master’s and a PhD in history from the University of California, Riverside, 20 years after a bachelor’s degree in music from North Carolina School of the Arts, and a master’s in music education at Teachers College, Columbia University? Do I say that the terminal graduate work facilitated an exploration of the African diasporic nature of culture in African American slave quarter communities in the United States in song, story, dance, and visual art?
Do I, perhaps, commence even earlier, with decades of work as a singer, storyteller, and teaching artist of music and history, or the concurrent activity facilitating workshops on conflict resolution, cross-cultural communication, and problem solving? And do I mention that this radiated from the core of a home where I delighted in mothering a singing and dancing “upstanding citizen,” now international peacemaker and dancer Alissa Suzanne Wilson?
As a member of my varied communities, these sometimes apparently disparate elements connect around the questions “How can I be helpful?” and “What’s (really) going on?” As a researcher, I find myself most interested in what is going on at the margins. As a scholar, it is the culture, aesthetic, and concomitant intellectual activity of the poor and working class that interest me most. I expect that this interest was born from my birth at the margins. I come from working-class intellectuals—perhaps as organic as they come.
Not surprisingly, my parents were the earliest, combined influence on the direction of my interests. My parents had complementary interests themselves in history, art, and literature. My father, William Isaiah Wilson, who—with my mother’s encouragement and support—went back to school in the late 1930s to get his high school diploma, took the lead with a love of history, even as he drove a truck around New York City for the United States Post Office every day for decades. He was in love with the history of black people both on the continent of Africa and in diaspora in the United States. The arrival of a new book was a great event for my father and me. We would go down to one of the many richly stocked bookstores that operated in Central Harlem at that time and pick it up together. Some of those books remain part of my collection today.
My mother, Florine Susan Riddick Wilson, who had saved the money to put herself through two years of college at Hampton Institute in the middle of the Great Depression, also took the lead with a love of the arts and learning. In my house, education was important. My mother instilled an interest in research in me when she became the “Book Lady” in our neighborhood. She sold World Book encyclopedias for over 20 years with missionary zeal, but she began her career to earn a free set for six-year-old me. Any question could take us to the encyclopedia—after a while, I was going by myself. The encyclopedia had answers to many questions, but my father’s books held answers to questions the encyclopedia did not think to ask. Everybody was reading something, all the time. Both my parents loved the arts and made sure my life was full of song and story, music, dance, film, and visual art quite early, since I was reading at four. Eventually, I became one of the studious ones in our neighborhood—the only child who played piano, read books, took dance classes, and went down to play, maybe, once a month.
Still, in those early years I was one of the group. The early years of child’s play—the time spent watching the big kids play seriously on my Harlem street—these were the years I began to be a participant-observer. It was my own culture I was observing. I watched as we all did, and I learned to flip my hip and play, “Here’s the way we willabe, willabe, willabe—here’s the way we willabe, all night long!” alongside everybody else.
The early years of child’s play—the time spent watching the big kids play seriously on my Harlem street—these were the years I began to be a participant-observer. It was my own culture I was observing.
I watched the interactions of people on my street where “house” meant “apartment”: the subtle differences between our houses, the rules about where you may go and where you may not, what you must do (like greet people you know) and must not do (like eat in public), those among my friends’ parents who were kind, and those who felt dangerous in my working-class neighborhood. As my world began to expand, I was allowed to go to Reliable Catering for barbecue, greens, and mac and cheese for Sunday-afternoon takeout after church. That time in the early 1950s and ’60s seems rather sweet and golden now, but even in my sweet world things were beginning to change. There was a time in about 1958 when my mother could with all sincerity say, “If you get lost, find a policeman.” By 1962, that direction had changed to “If you get lost, here’s a dime to call, but don’t go near a policeman,” and that golden time was gone.
I return to these earliest memories now as my research and scholarship seek to find the historico-cultural relationships between Africans in diaspora in the United States and the Caribbean, and those in diaspora in Nigeria. I am finding continuities, discontinuities, and transformations around every corner. I am only sorry that my father, who died in 1979, is not here to celebrate the PhD he always wanted me to earn or find this sociocultural evidence with me.
When I first met my husband—composer, performer, culture bearer, and Igbo cultural advocate Ajimmiri Osuagwu Ama’Echefu—we lived on Emmanuel Street in the Palmgrove section of Lagos. Like the Harlem of my youth, Palmgrove is a working-class neighborhood. Except for the fact that people around me were speaking Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, and Nigerian Pidgin, walking down the street had a haunting familiarity for me:
You must greet those you know—and sometimes those you don’t. (Yoruba greetings are very complex and context specific. Give me time!)
No eating in the street.
Where are your earrings and something for your neck? (I could hear my father’s voice speaking to teenage me!)
What are we eating? What do you mean vegy-table soup? This is greens!
This place where I could barely understand the English was taking me back—body and soul—to a reality I had not lived for many, many years. I was profoundly moved by this experience and continue to be. Life in Nigeria—marriage, teaching, living and working with friends, traveling roads my ancestors walked to the market and trudged in chains—has been both bitter and sweet.
I am, then, a researcher, a participant-observer, an interdisciplinary cultural and intellectual historian, a public, performing intellectual, and a singing and storytelling culture bearer. I am a teacher, a mentor, and an administrator. I am a mother, a wife, and a friend. I am someone who is curious, and excited to learn, with a deep desire to serve. This is the basis of my career. We will see where it goes from here.
Karen Marguerite Wilson-Ama’Echefu is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Arts of the University of Calabar, beginning in its Department of History and International Studies (2012–14) and now (2014–present) in its very new Department of Music. She has toured the United States as a performer (with Pete Seeger for a time); a facilitator of workshops on diversity, cross-cultural communication, and problem solving; and a public speaker. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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