African Studies professor teaches history with human focus

As far back as he can remember Dr. Edmund Abaka has been interested in history.

“I’ve been fascinated by history and by the stories of people,” Abaka said. “For me, history is all about human beings and where they have shaped and been shaped by the environment.”

Since the summer of 2003, Abaka has served as the interim director of UM’s African American studies program. During his tenure he has sought to broaden the African studies curriculum and create a speaker’s series to bring scholars in African American studies and prominent members of the community to UM. The program is also in the process of creating internships with organizations such as the African American Library of Broward County.

Originally, Abaka studied to become a teacher in his native Ghana in Western Africa. Near the end of his undergraduate studies, he began to think about completing graduate work abroad.

Prior to leaving Ghana, his concentration was in African history. He eventually enrolled in a European history class and, finding himself inspired by that professor, decided to take a different direction with his studies.

“I became interested in European history as well, so then I went to Canada at the University of Guelph, and I decided to study European history,” Abaka said. “After that, I went back to African history for my doctorate at York University.”

Excelling in both areas of historical study has helped Abaka gain a better understanding of his homeland.

“I wanted to understand European history because for a long time I’ve seen history in terms of not only individual countries and continents, [but also] from the perspective of influences coming from across the oceans,” Abaka said.

In late 1996, as he was working on his doctorate, Abaka saw an ad for a teaching position in African history at UM.

“So I went on the Internet and did some research on Florida,” Abaka said. “Since I come from Ghana, which [has] a tropical climate, I was attracted [to UM].”

Abaka liked the idea of UM’s close proximity to the Caribbean, which would give him a unique opportunity to study an important area of the African Diaspora first hand. In his first semester with UM’s history department, Abaka conducted research in Jamaica on two occasions.

Abaka’s classes divide African history into two segments: prehistory through 1800 and 1800 to the present. In some cases he finds students who have a misconception of Africa as being one large, monolithic land, but he believes this is a result of inaccurate images in the media.

“If you take East Africa, you often see safari and that’s all you see,” Abaka said. “Because of the visits of former President Bill Clinton, George Bush and Colin Powell, you begin to see some other countries.”

Abaka believes that the personal anecdotes of a lifetime of experiences traveling and studying abroad provide him a powerful asset in imparting the richness of African history to his students.

“I try to point out the diversity and the similarity [of Africa],” he explained. “More importantly, I also try to point out that throughout history Africa has been connected with all parts of the world.”

If there is one message that he tries to convey to his students it is that history is a good way to understand the human condition.

“History is about human beings,” Abaka said. “The trajectories of histories may differ, but we all have similar aspirations. We all want to live a good life.” I