I am an assistant professor of African history and current chair of the African and African American Studies Program at Centre College, a top-50 liberal arts college that attracts bright, highly motivated students from around the world. It is consistently ranked as one of the top-10 teaching Colleges in the United States, and top 3 for study abroad. I joined Centre’s faculty in 2012 as visiting assistant professor of history. After earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in religion and theology, respectively, I completed my PhD in history at the University of Cambridge.
Over the past six years, I have developed an aggressive research agenda, which informs my pedagogy. I am an award-winning researcher and teacher, who creates dynamic learning opportunities for my students. My recent book on religious thought and historical imagination in late colonial Uganda has been selected as a finalist for the Bethwell A. Ogot Book Prize, which is the highest award given by the African Studies Association in East African Studies. For outstanding scholarship, teaching and service, I was one of only six members of the Centre faculty to receive a Centre Scholar award between 2016 and 2018. I was awarded the Delta, Delta, Delta (Beta Phi) Professor of the Year in 2016. And during spring 2018, I was awarded a competitive Stodghill Research Professorship to complete my second book project, which explores the intersection of democratization and Catholic political thought in late colonial Uganda.
I am an intellectual historian of modern Africa, with specialization on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I am especially interested in how anticolonial activists in colonial eastern Africa use religious and historical imagination to organize public protest and democratization movements. My work concerns the intersection of religious thought, democracy, and political dissent in Africa.
My first book, Colonial Buganda and the End of Empire: Political Thought and Historical Imagination in Africa was published in the African Studies Series with Cambridge University Press in 2017. In this book, I use pioneering work in Luganda with previously unearthed private collections—supplemented by archival research on three continents and over 100 interviews—to rethink the place of theological imagination in the history of decolonization in the southern Ugandan kingdom of Buganda. I show the extent to which decolonization in Uganda was propelled by historical pluralism and competing religious practices, which problematizes much of the existing literature on secular nationalism in African studies. I use the annotated library of the trade unionist Ignatius Musazi to show how he used the Hebrew prophets and the writings of the socialist thinker Harold Laski to imagine the political resurrection of the Buganda Kingdom. The private papers of the Protestant centrist Eridadi Mulira, by contrast, show how he used the Christian gospels and the speeches of the Ghanaian intellectual James Aggrey to recast public masculinity and social inclusivity, ideas he built upon to draft Uganda’s first constitution. The book then turns to the prominent Muslim intellectual Abubakar Mayanja, who used the Qur’an and his historical training at Cambridge University to complicate official imperial histories. In doing so, he argued for political rights for Muslim communities throughout eastern Africa. The book ends by looking at the career of Uganda’s foremost Catholic intellectual, Benedicto Kiwanuka, who was Uganda’s first elected prime minister. He used his Catholic missal and the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Henry Newman to envision a liberal kingdom during a time of radical patriotism and public violence against Catholics. Collectively, these case studies show how competing Ganda activists reworked European epistemologies and political thought into vernacular debates about the past and present of democratic reform during the end of empire.
Building on this book, I am finalizing a second monograph, Benedicto Kiwanuka and Catholic Democracy in Uganda: Memory, Martyrdom, and Political Intimidation, in the Religion in Transforming Africa series with James Currey press (2019). I am co-authoring the book with Jay J. Carney (Creighton), whose book on Catholicism in late-colonial Rwanda (Oxford 2013) was awarded the Bethwell A. Ogot Book Prize. Our book is an intellectual history of the Democratic Party, the foremost Catholic political movement in Uganda, and Benedicto Kiwanuka, who is the only postcolonial ruler of Uganda to have democratically vacated office. We use Kiwanuka’s ‘lost’ papers to rethink the place of political intimidation in late colonial eastern Africa, and the competing Catholic visions that circulated throughout late colonial Uganda, which have been overlooked in much of Uganda’s nationalist history writing. In eastern Uganda, in Karamoja, Catholic converts disputed family authority and the centralization of chiefs’ administrative roles. In Tesoland, Catholic activists partnered with the Uganda People’s Congress, whose leadership was overwhelmingly Protestant. In western and southwestern Uganda, by contrast, ideas about national integration developed during a period when both the Toro and Rwanda monarchies were unravelling. The Catholic Church was interconnected with both. In Bunyoro and Acholiland, Catholics looked upon the Catholic Church in Buganda with suspicion, especially since Buganda’s Catholic chiefs had been instrumental in violently populating the ‘Lost Counties’ and undermining the legitimacy of Nyoro powerbrokers. In Buganda, where the DP faced massive opposition, Catholic activists such as Semakula Mulumba and Aloysius Darlington Lubowa advocated for completely different political visions—one radical; the other conservative. Kiwanuka was ultimately unable to overcome the latter. For Kiwanuka and the DP, vernacular debates about the future were informed by competing memories of the nineteenth-century Christian martyrs, whose hagiographical deeds compelled DP activists to challenge Buganda’s monarchy, while enduring intimidation and overt violence. Ugandan politics during the 1950s and 1960s was not an exercise in unmitigated optimism during an allegedly golden age of African nationalism; it was an emotional parade of fits and starts, festooned with contentious marches, struggles to create national iconography, songs of lament, strained relationships, sweat, and blood.
My research, however, is not simply confined to the textual work of colonial literati. My work shows how religious encounters—especially dreams and spirit possession—inform political organization and democratic dissent. In my article, ‘Dreams and Political Imagination in Colonial Buganda’, I offer one of only two articles written on dreams in the Journal of African History during its 58-year history. Earlier scholars had argued that modernity and literacy would displace the political function of divine dreams. This article, by contrast, proposes that sleeping visions in colonial Buganda took on new, more complicated meanings throughout the twentieth century. In History in Africa I authored an article on ‘Political Activism and Other Life Forms in Colonial Buganda’. In the early 1900s, colonial administrators sought to draw Ganda interlocutors into abstract conversations about a natural world that was supposedly devoid of political power. Through Witchcraft Ordinances, imperial administrators sought to distance spirits, rocks, trees, snakes, and other life forms from the concrete world of social movement. But in colonial Uganda, activists interacted with a natural world that was deeply political to imagine democratic reform.
I am an active collaborator in my field and have organized or spoken at no fewer than 16 conferences or workshops since Fall 2013, including the African Studies Association, and the Universities of Cambridge, Makerere (in partnership with the School of Oriental and African Studies), Oxford, and Yale. I was a co-organizer for a workshop on Terrorism in Africa at the University of Oxford (2016), which convened scholars, policymakers and development workers to rethink the production of religious ideologies, statecraft and political violence across Africa. I also conceptualized and co-organized a workshop on Emerging Approaches in Uganda Studies at University College London (2017). This is the foundation for a series of panels on the same topic at the Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association, and an 18-chapter edited volume with James Currey (2020) on Uganda and the Decolonization of Knowledge. I offer the opening chapter in George Karekwaivanane and Jessica Johnson’s volume Pursuing Justice in Africa: Competing Imaginaries and Contest Practices (Ohio University Press, 2018), where I show how religious ideologies in late colonial Uganda informed the emergence of international discourses regarding justice and human rights following the Second World War. In recognition for my work on African intellectual history, I was commissioned by Thomas Spear to author ‘Intellectual History and Historiography’ in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History (2019).
My research is an integral part of my teaching; it fundamentally animates my pedagogy and energizes my interactions with students. By maintaining an aggressive research agenda, I ensure that I am thinking with my students about cutting-edge methodologies. At Cambridge, I facilitated tutorials, lectures and seminars at the undergraduate and graduate levels, teaching broadly on the history of modern Africa and historical methodology. Over the past six years, I have implemented tutorial-styled discussions to facilitate transformative learning for my students. In my introductory course on the History of Modern Africa (HIS 352), I provision five tutorials: African historiography; oceanic horizons; religious power and colonial change; gender and sexuality; and the postcolonial state. Tutorial sessions are comprised of half of the enrollment of the course—each module has a set of two tutorials. This creates a more intimate setting where students expand their understanding of a subject and improve oral, written and analytic skills. I ask students to submit an argumentative or historiographical paper that we then discuss during the actual supervision. In the tutorial on Oceanic horizons, for instance, students reflect on the development of Indian Ocean commence and racial ideologies on the port Island of Zanzibar, and the extent to which nineteenth-century eastern Africans used new global accessibilities to reimagine social mobility.
In addition to incorporating tutorials, I integrate community-based learning and participatory lectures. In my course on precolonial African Kingdoms and Colonial Empires (HIS 351), we spend time in a discrete, small cemetery in the outskirts of Danville that was used as a burial site for enslaved western Africans from the late eighteenth century onward. This enables students to investigate continuities and ruptures across the Black Atlantic. In this same course, students produce theatrical dramas based upon manuscripts and materiality to reenact how dissenters and state builders in twelfth-century Morocco and thirteenth-century Ethiopia conceptualized religious power and generational authority. I also think that it is important for students to learn from regional activists. In my course on Religion and Political Violence in African History (HIS 486), I invite African friends and colleagues who live in central Kentucky to come into the classroom to think with us about a particular topic. To reflect on the impact of Ethiopia’s socialist revolution on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, students learned from a Tewahedo priest. To understand women’s movements during the Second Liberian Civil War, a former activist with the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace recounted the politics of the body during the conflict. Students, in turn, with a community’s permission, conduct ethnographic research among African communities living in diaspora.
In addition to facilitating dynamic learning on campus, I have led a number of off-campus programs. My course on Idi Amin’s Uganda (HIS 455) is an upper-level seminar on historical argument and practice. During this seminar, we conduct a weeklong research trip in Washington, DC, where professional archivists, curators, and I teach students how to practically go about the work of conducting research. I have collaborated with students at the Library of Congress, the National Archives in College Park, and the Smithsonian Institute of African Art. I was the co-director for Centre-in-London in 2017, during which I taught two courses. My course on the History of Time, examined the different ways in which societies have theorized and practiced time from the eighteenth century up until today. We worked at the home of Charles Dickens, 1940s Blitz sites, the Greenwich Observatory, the National Archives, and the National Gallery. The course Memory and the End of Empire (HIS 482) explored the long history of cosmopolitanism in London. It showed how different communities have used London to engage with larger types of international politics and global citizenship. By emphasizing the themes of decolonization, exile, and immigration, we recast London as a contested and dynamic space—not simply a city that signifies Great Britain’s monarchical, Anglo-Saxon past. In Belfast, we used murals to explore the contested political histories of Ireland and England, which we examined further by interviewing former republican and loyalist combatants. Where we used Camden Market to think about regional cosmopolitanisms, we studied the African exhibitions of the British Museum to assess the intersection of colonial power and local knowledge production.
I have been especially pleased to lead two studies abroad in Uganda and Rwanda. In January 2019, I will lead this experience for a third time. This builds upon networks that I have developed in eastern Africa since 2001, including three years as a full-time resident. This abroad is fully immersive and includes studying the long history of the kingdom of Buganda at healers’ shrines and weeklong homestays with my adoptive clan in eastern Uganda. In 2016, we partnered with Ugandan colleagues at the Soroti District Archives to conduct a preservation project, which saved the collection from imminent destruction due to termites and water damage. In Rwanda, we work with a long-time friend of mine—a survivor of the 1994 genocide—to explore regional state building and violence, which we do by convening modules at sites of massacre, including the Catholic Churches of Nyamata and Ntarama.
I have also taken an active role in the preservation and digitization of archives in Uganda, including the private papers of E.M.K Mulira, Uganda’s foremost constitutional thinker, which are now available through Cambridge, and the Soroti District Archives.
Contact Jonathon L. Earle.