By Shannon Clarke
March 15, 2019
Dr. Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey was appointed Assistant Professor of History at McGill University, Department of History and Classical Studies, beginning with the academic year 2019-2020.
Since graduating from the University of Toronto in 2009 (Masters of Arts in Political Science, Ethnic, Immigration and Pluralism Studies), Dr. Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey has earned his PhD from Yale University, launched Tujenge Africa Foundation, a peace-building and nation-building prep school in Burundi, and mentored at-risk youth in Toronto. He has written, taught and spoken extensively on the African diaspora and North American history and is currently a William Lyon Mackenzie King Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University. That his scholarship, activism and outreach span three countries and two continents is fitting for an academic whose work focuses on the African diaspora and its descendants, and who has called Ghana, Canada and now the United States home. “I’m criss-crossing the U.S.-Canadian border and I’m also criss-crossing the Atlantic and so I guess, as an academic, my counterparts read me as being African and Canadian and an observer in the United States — a sort of traveller,” Dr. Adjetey says.
His dissertation, “From the North Star to the Black Star: African North Americans and the Search for a Land of Promise, 1919–1984,” explores Pan-Africanism in North America in the 20th century, connecting the African diaspora in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean through the experiences of slavery, nationality, immigration and civil rights. He earned multiple awards and recognition, among them, the Yale University Edwin M. Small Dissertation Prize for “outstanding” contribution to U.S. history, and has secured a publisher: University of North Carolina Press.
“I felt a sense of duty, that as a Ghanaian who is a naturalized Canadian and now resident of the United States, for me to have the opportunity to research the experiences of descendants of enslaved peoples,” Dr. Adjetey says of working on his dissertation. “I felt that privilege even more so given sort of the political context and situation now.”
Unsurprisingly, the history of Pan-Africanism in North America carries with it significant lessons for today, but Dr. Adjetey says he was taken aback by how threatening the idea of Black citizenship and the assertion of rights by the descendants of enslaved peoples continues to be: “We see in the archives that as these movements for greater inclusion and citizenship gained traction and then morphed into Black Power, a more militant form of Black self-assertion, the state became increasingly alarmed at what Black citizenship could do and that these Black folk were laying claim to the nation-state and then on top of it they had these ideas of transnationalism.”
The decision to pursue this research in the United States was a critical one. Though his work has been well-received in both countries, he says the appetite for the history that he uncovers – a history that truly acknowledges and reckons with the relationship between Black people and the nation-state — is lacking in Canada. This has much to do with the extent to which the institution of slavery shaped the economic, social and political construction of both states. “The (United States) will look in the mirror and it will see Black woman or a Black man or a Black child,” Dr. Adjetey says. “(Canada) might see Indigenous peoples. Maybe. But it’s not going to see Black people because Canada can minimize the contributions of Black folk in ways that the United States could never imagine.”
Still, de-exceptionalizing and decentring the African-American experience is a principal objective of Dr. Adjetey’s scholarly work. He notes that the “hegemonic” position of the United States means any conversation about Black history inevitably comes back to the experience of African-Americans. That’s not to suggest that Americans have a more introspective or accurate understanding of history — either their own or that of Black people in the diaspora. As a Canadian immigrant teaching in the United States (and an historian more generally) Dr. Adjetey speaks of the frustrating sense of exceptionalism on both sides of the 49th parallel, which has led to an ahistorical understanding of systemic racism or outright revisionism. While the Canadian nation-state maintains an erroneous belief in its own racial innocence, to be an historian of Black history in the United States today means dispelling the myth that racism and xenophobia are the result of the current administration. “What we see in this country preceded (the current U.S. President Donald Trump) by centuries.”
Simply put, his scholarship and pedagogy strive for honesty and reconciliation. “There’s something profound about being able to open wounds so that you can heal it properly,” he says. And though this isn’t limited to his work in the academy, Dr. Adjetey speaks passionately about history and education as vehicles for justice. Whether that looks like a summer spent teaching U.S. history with the Yale Young Global Scholars or making himself available to prospective students from underrepresented communities, he is motivated by the desire “to see the most forgotten and marginalized people triumph.” Before heading to New Haven in 2012, he worked in a range of professional jobs — in health care, child welfare, and education — that, he says, helped give shape to his academic work. As a case manager for gang-involved youth in Toronto, an immigration officer assistant, a DiverseCity fellow and a freelance journalist, Dr. Adjetey is committed to looking for policy solutions to systemic inequalities.
Mentorship played an important role in his success, and he is adamant about paying it forward. “As much as my parents did for me – they gave me an incredible foundation – there are many things that I was limited to by virtue of just growing up in a house where my parents hadn’t had the opportunity to go to high school,” he says, adding: “I needed to find individuals who had been there and could provide more concrete advice and support.”
Despite struggling due to a lack of cultural capital in the first two years as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, Dr. Adjetey was met with constant encouragement both within and beyond the academy. He credits, for example, Peel District School Board Superintendent Dr. Pertia Minott for “sow(ing) the seed.” “She was also the first Black person, regardless of gender, whom I ever knew who had a PhD. And she really inspired me,” he says. From there, he worked to seek out guidance, cultivate good relationships with his professors through graduate school, and heed their advice.
Though his time at Yale was made easier, academically, by the rigorous intellectual environment at U of T, the social experience was something else entirely. “In most spaces at Yale, I would be the only person anywhere who was the first generation in his family to go to high school, and then to go to college — without fail.” It was at Yale that he met Etienne Mashuli, born in Rwanda and similarly passionate about activism, education and giving back to the continent. In 2014, they co-founded Tujenge Africa Foundation. Knowing better than most that brilliant students can be found across all circumstances, the foundation serves some of the poorest families in one of the poorest states in the world and since its founding has placed young people in top universities around the world, including Harvard.
Dr. Adjetey plans to continue working as a philanthropist and academic. “I come from a context where it would be very uncomfortable and challenging for me to have arrived and just live and exist in the academy,” he says. “Part of my personal objective is to pursue my academic work but engage with people who are on the margins.”