From September 2018 to May 2019, Dr. Steven W. Thomas was the Barra Sabbatical Fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. Located at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, the McNeil Center is the premier research institution for the interdisciplinary study of the “early” (before 1850) histories and cultures of North America and the Atlantic world, bringing together scholars from a wide range of academic disciplines such as history, art history, anthropology, and literature. Professor Thomas returns to Wagner College in August to resume teaching.
Professor Thomas’s interdisciplinary research brings together the fields of American literature and Ethiopian history by examining how information about a culturally diverse and multiethnic Ethiopia circulated across the world from Abyssinia to Italy and Portugal to Germany and England to North America and the Caribbean. He is interested in how the past informs the present, so he traces the history of this exchange over time from the fifteenth century when Portugal and Ethiopia exchanged ambassadors to the debates over racialized slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the Harlem Renaissance in the twentieth century and finally to the present when Ethiopian Diaspora novelists have begun writing about the immigrant experience in America.
In addition to his own research, Professor Thomas participated in the day-to-day activities at the McNeil Center, which included weekly seminars and workshops as well as two academic conferences. The McNeil community of senior research associates from various universities—in addition to the fifteen fellows—met regularly to read and discuss new work in progress. Since professor Thomas was the “elder” fellow, he also served as a mentor to the graduate student fellows as they completed their PhD dissertations and applied for jobs. They also sometimes participated in events at the affiliated institutions such as the Library Company of Philadelphia and the American Philosophical Society. The final seminar of the year at the McNeil was on a rough draft of some of Professor Thomas’s new work, and as he prepared for this seminar, he also gave a public presentation to undergraduate students and faculty at Seton Hall University.
While in Philadelphia, Professor Thomas also did some outreach to the Oromo community in Pennsylvania by giving public lectures at Arcadia University and Franklin and Marshall College. These presentations recounted some of his experiences during his Fulbright in Ethiopia in 2016-2017 and his chapter co-authored with Teferi Nigussie Tafa about Oromo cinema in the new book Cine-Ethiopia: the History and Politics of Film in the Horn of Africa (2018).