Studying the World, Teaching the World, Learning the World

Published on October 13, 2010

Elaine Savory is a revered middle-age British professor, scholar and author of postcolonial, Caribbean and Africana studies.  She currently teaches at New School University.  An accomplished woman of European decent from Nottinghamshire, England, shes’s devoted over 20 years into the studies of African cultures, but prefers to simply define herself as an observer.  Wife and mother, she takes her studies of literature and history in conversation with her personal experiences and travels, into her work and life at home.

Defining spark of interest:  When I was 16, I read James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” and all I can remember is being totally and completely riveted by it.

Life-altering decision:  The University of Leeds didn’t offer a BA in postcolonial studies, so I took up English and American Lit.  I was doing my dissertation on Baldwin when I was offered two jobs: The first was an opportunity for a Fellowship to New York to pursue Baldwin; the second was a job at the University of Ghana. It conflicted with my thesis but I asked my professor his opinion.  He knew my interest lied in Caribbean and Africana studies; he said “now’s your chance to learn more about Africa.”  I spent two years of amazing immersion; I worked for Ghana TV, did theatre, and traveled extensively around the country.

Other places she’s studied:  I went on to get my Masters in World Lit at Leeds and Doctorates in Postcolonial studies at the University of West Indies.  Originally, I had a plan that would keep me travelling for two years, every location.  I spent time in Ghana, India, and Nigeria, but once I was offered a job at the University of Leeds for Africana Studies, I never left Barbados.

Her experience while studying: In West Africa and the Caribbean I’ve always found that if you’re willing to do the work and be respectful, you’ll be treated with respect and generosity.  People are very careful about making assumptions.  There, race is a lived experience and a piece of fiction—it can always be redefined.

Her favorite discovery:  One of the most amazing discoveries I found was the correlation between kenkey in the Caribbean and conkie in Barbados and Britain.  Kenkey, a dish originated in Ghana, is made with corn, flavoring, and stemmed in banana leaf.  The conkie that’s now known in Barbados is made with additional eggs, sugar and raisin because of their sweet tooth.  It transferred to Barbados from Britain following the slave trade.  It’s known as the traditional dish for Britain’s November 5th Commemoration Day.  It reminds me that it is an absolutely fascinating world to be in.

Why she moved to the United States:  I came to the U.S. because I fell in love.  He’s an African-American man.   We met through a common friend and he would often visit Barbados.

Adjusting to U.S. culture: Race relations in the United States are very different from around the globe.  I realized that, once, years ago when I visited my husband at work.  He was working on finalizing a contract with a union-owned building and was meeting with the board of the office.  I was sitting in another office waiting for him, and he brought me a cup of tea and a cookie.  They must’ve seen him do this, but they never said anything about it then.  Afterwards, he received a phone call from the Office Manager.  They said “the contract is cancelled; they’re not giving you that money to spend on a blonde.”  I’ve never been blonde.

On her work:  We fight racism in all of its forms–by our complexities; by caring across borders.

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