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Prof. Anani Dzidzienyo, beloved and brilliant, dies at 79

Students, colleagues, friends remember Dzidzienyo's scholarship, mentorship, empathy

By
Metro Editor
Friday, November 20, 2020

Former students and others shared memories of the lasting impact Professor Anani Dzidzienyo, who taught Africana studies and Portuguese and Brazilian Studies, had on them.

Professor Anani Dzidzienyo, renowned scholar, mentor and educator, died on Oct. 25. Dzidzienyo was 79 years old. 

Following over four decades of teaching at the University, the Ghanaian academic has left behind a legacy of internationally respected scholarship and a deep memory of his empathy, character and capacity for connection. He was a foundational presence in the field of Afro-Latin American studies, and worked to illuminate Black experiences in Latin America and beyond. 

“I’m still in awe of his humility,” said Beau Gaitors ’08, a student and friend of the late professor. “His humility in being such a great scholar, a great mentor, a great professor. A great instructor. He was great in so many ways and carried it all with humility.”

Gaitors described Dzidzienyo as a welcoming, nurturing figure. Early in his undergraduate career, Gaitors was unsure he would stay at the University. Dzidzienyo counseled Gaitors to remain and offered him a position as an office assistant. 

In the office, watching Dzidzienyo’s compassion and care for others, Gaitors realized he wanted to stay at the University and one day become a professor: “I wanted to be like Anani.” 

Gaitors, under his mentorship, graduated with a concentration in Africana Studies. 

He is now Assistant Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. This semester, he is teaching ‘Blacks in Latin-American History’ — the class in which he first met Dzidzienyo. 

Gaitors remained in touch with Dzidzienyo after he graduated; their friendship is one of the many strong bonds the late professor forged throughout his career. 

Many people forged lifelong relationships with Dzidezienyo at the University and beyond.

Brian Meeks, chair of Africana Studies, remembered how at Commencement in 2016 waves of alums mobbed Dzidzienyo “like a rockstar” outside the Van Wickle Gates. Alumni also lined up outside his office for a chance to chat, many with children in tow.

At conferences, Dzidzienyo was consistently cited by multiple speakers as sparking their interest in the study of Blackness or race in Brazil or Latin America, Watufani Poe GS remembers.

Even in his office hours, Connor Cardoso ’19, a former Herald opinions editor, said, alums from years past would stop by to schedule a meal with the professor and catch up.

These relationships are a product of the impact Dzidzienyo had on the people around him, especially his students.

“Wofa Anani was generosity, love and kindness personified,” wrote Shamara Alhassan ’17 Ma ’19 PHD, a past student of Dzidzienyo, in an email to The Herald. “He was a scholar in the most important sense of the word. As a scholar, he was curious about everything.”

 Former students recalled how Dzidzienyo worked to connect with them in class. He would cold call students, not to catch them off guard, but out of a kind-hearted, genuine curiosity, Cardoso said. Dzidzienyo wanted to learn both from and about those he taught.

“Anani was actually truly invested in helping his students in any way that they needed,” Cardoso said. 

Associate Professor of Africana Studies Keisha-Khan Perry told The Herald that many Black students who have African ancestry “came to him like the long-lost uncle they never had.” 

Like Gaitors, many students found a sense of place and belonging with Dzidzienyo.

The professor’s drive to nurture his students manifested both in classroom conduct and his advising style, which impacted many students beyond their academic experiences at Brown. Dr. Rachel Harding ’86 MFA ’90 remembers how Dzidzienyo encouraged her to study abroad in Brazil through the University’s then-nascent study abroad program. 

Although Harding counted the trip as one of the most important events of her life at the time, navigating the racial landscape of Brazil was challenging and emotionally straining. She was immersed with little scaffolding in an unfamiliar country and a pervasive, violent “psychic structure of racism.”  

Harding found herself in a profoundly Black city, yet one with no Black people visible in positions of power and a host family clearly unaccustomed to living with a Black person who did not work for them, she said. 

She came to Dzidzienyo upset.

“Anani looked at me and he said, ‘Rachel, if I had told you what it was really like, would you have gone?’” Harding said. “It was precisely the experience I needed to be able to later do the work I have done as a historian of African movement, culture and religion. It provided me some visceral understandings of the context of Brazil.”

Centering this visceral, personal understanding of the communities he wrote on was at the heart of Dzidzienyo’s scholarship. 

Dzidzienyo’s scholarly interest “came from a space that deeply wanted liberation for Black people worldwide,” Poe said. “This kind of empathetic understanding, wanting to understand all Black experiences, cannot be separated from also wanting all Black experiences to experience freedom.”

As befits a scholar who played a central role in developing the field of Afro-Latin American studies, Dzidzienyo’s impact and ability to connect reached across nations. 

Gaitors recalls attending a conference in Peru with Dzidzienyo three years ago: “It was mind-blowing to see all of these people from different institutions in the U.S. and across the globe just wanting to spend time with Anani.” This, Gaitors says, reflects Dzidzienyo’s legacy. “He made a lot of people realize just how intriguing and exciting research could be.”

One summer, while in Rio de Janeiro conducting research, Poe ran into the widow of Abdias do Nascimento, a prominent Black activist. The two had met before at a memorial conference in honor of do Nascimento organized by Dzidzienyo and Perry. 

“She was surrounded by a bunch of Black activists from Rio. And she said ‘Oh my gosh, this is Anani’s student!’” Poe said. “And as soon as she said Anani’s name, everybody’s face lit up. They asked me how he was doing, they were so excited that I was working with Anani.”

Following his passing, one of the first obituaries for Dzidzienyo was published in the Folha de São Paulo, one of the most widely-circulated publications in Brazil.

Although the people he touched are spread across the globe, the physical legacy of Dzidzienyo’s scholarship is housed in his office in Churchill House on the University’s campus.

Dzidzienyo’s office itself, as many of his former students recall, is a spectacle. Newspaper clippings, memorabilia from Ghana’s independence, gifts, letters, magazines, old assignments and a multitude of books: rare books, out-of-copy books, books signed by African or Latin-American leaders and the books of former students, inscribed with gratitude for Dzidzienyo. The office is the rich embodiment of a lifetime of scholarship. 

In the spring 2021 semester, Perry will teach a class, AFRI 1941: “Archiving the African Diaspora: The Life and Works of Anani Dzidzienyo,” where students will work to archive the contents of Dzidzienyo’s office. 

Perry hopes that the class will be part of the healing process for students who knew Dzidzienyo as well as a chance to help preserve his extraordinary legacy in a concrete way. 

Dzidzienyo was “compassionate, empathetic and I like to use the adjective, or noun, if you wish, ‘Human,’” Meeks said. “He was remarkably human, in the true meaning of that term.”

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