Change Makers: SUNY Distinguished Professor of Africana Studies continues to break barriers

Published: Feb. 21, 2023 at 11:25 AM EST
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VESTAL (WBNG) -- February is Black History Month and all month long, WBNG will be highlighting “change makers” from the Southern Tier.

This week, 12 News is highlighting a Binghamton University Professor of Africana Studies of more than 30 years who has not been afraid to break barriers along the way.

Nkiru Nzegwu is more than just a professor: She is a painter, philosopher, author and curator.

Born in Nigeria, she was a producer of a popular radio program before getting her PhD in Philosophy from the University of Ottawa.

She began teaching at Binghamton University in 1990.

“The academic freedom was very much in upswing, you could teach whatever courses you wanted,” said Nzegwu. “In a sense, it became a training ground for introducing ideas that in other universities would be strongly curtailed.”

Throughout her teaching and publishing career, Nzegwu said she has not been afraid to combat the status quo.

“You didn’t have many Africans who are residents in the United States publishing and so we have something that is called ‘mining the gates,’” said Nzegwu. “The old professors, who are usually old white men who were mining the gates, figured that they knew who should speak and who shouldn’t speak. I happen to come from a culture where you don’t regulate what I say or how I say it.”

She said this motivated her to look for ways to reach an audience beyond Binghamton University.

“People were talking about the web, so I took a class on how you create a website and then I found that the codes were the same that I had used to write my dissertation,” said Nzegwu. “So, we began to create online journals to create a space to allow us to present a view of the insider perspective, not the outsider perspective that was the normative lens for talking about Africa.”

The Africa Resource Project, founded in 1999, provides African-focused content to users in more than 90 countries. This was followed by the Africa Knowledge Project, founded in 2010, which offers an online platform for peer-reviewed journals and academic databases.

“That was the move that actually allowed me to create something that is academically radical, but facilitated a lot of publishing in areas that people were not very familiar with,” said Nzegwu. “The first day it went online over 70,000 downloads. A philosophy print journal sometimes barely has 500 people reading it, it was a no-brainer.”

She received her SUNY Distinguished Professorship in 2019 and in 2021 was elected chair of the Distinguished Academy’s Governing Board. She’s the first woman of color and research professor to hold the chair post.

Her goals include increasing retention of Black, Indigenous, and other POC professors while also shining a light on disciples and research areas she said have been undervalued.

“We needed to be able to bring in more women and people of color,” said Nzegwu. “I decided I would serve on the committee to be able to shine a light on the applications of those whose work may not necessarily be appreciated by a whole range of people.”

And after decades on the job, she shows no sign of slowing down. She has several manuscripts in various stages of completion and will continue to be a voice challenging the foundations of knowledge.

“Knowledge is multi-dimensional; you cannot regulate knowledge or curtail it and put it through one pipeline,” said Nzegwu. “There is richness in diversity. How the Western or European perspectives lens sees the world is by no means how the other cultures’ societies see the world. And their perspective has the same legitimacy as the one that is taught in academia.”

To read last week’s Change Maker story on an annual Black History Month educational event click here.

And to read the story on Claude and Beccye Fawcett, who were pillars of the Binghamton Black community, click here.