Dr. Julie MacArthur, a historical studies assistant professor at UTM, recently received the UTM Annual Research Prize. The prize recognizes researchers who are making significant contributions within their field and who are effectively communicating their research to the public. For this issue, The Medium talked to MacArthur about her journey to academia, her research, and her award.
“It was quite an honour. I was quite honoured even just to be nominated by my department,” says MacArthur. MacArthur, who specializes in African history, was surprised to win the award, especially since “there hasn’t been a lot of space given to African history” in the past.
“To know that the university was not only fostering [research in African history], but really supporting it and highlighting it through such an award, was really quite special.” Beyond the recognition, the UTM Annual Research Prize also awards two thousand dollars in research funding which will aid MacArthur significantly as most of her research takes place in East Africa and thus requires additional expenses such as travel costs.
MacArthur began her academic journey at the University of Toronto. Similar to many students, she felt unsure of which path to pursue. However, after meeting with some inspiring history and African studies professors, she decided to pursue history. As she was interested in African music and had been exposed to African culture at a young age, she realized that she wanted to specialize in African history.
“I had a couple of amazing professors—who are now my colleagues—[such as] Melanie Newton and Eric Jennings at the St. George campus. [They] inspired me to learn about the ways in which colonialism and post colonialism [have] impacted our contemporary world,” acknowledges MacArthur. She also credits John Lonsdale at the University of Cambridge and Bethwell Ogot, a historian based in Kenya, for providing the mentorship and encouragement she needed to delve into the field.
Feeling frustrated with the lack of research on the topic, MacArthur began seeking answers to her own questions. “There was a fascinating collision of these questions at a very interesting moment in African history where there was also a lack of research being done. That really threw me in, and since that point, I’ve been spending three to four months out of every year on the continent,” she explains.
MacArthur’s first book, Cartography and the Political Imagination in Colonial Kenya, was published in 2016 and discusses the second largest ethnic group in Western Kenya, the Luyia. Interestingly, “they did not exist as an ethnic group nor claim[ed] to exist as an active group before the 1930s.” Considering the perspective that all ethnic or national communities are imagined, the Luyia fascinated MacArthur because they “sort of picked the date and decided to become a community.” Moreover, while the Luyia speak seventeen different dialects, claim several different ancestors, and participate in a variety of cultural practices, they still feel united by the geographic space they live in.
The Luyia exemplify the “importance of defending not just territory, but [particular] mapped space, to designate [the] space as a homeland.” MacArthur argues that the importance of mapped borders and defending borders is “a product of colonial intervention.” She says that “borders sort of symbolize how you define yourself as a nation, as an ethnic group, [and] as a sovereign people”.
As part of her research, MacArthur traced down the courtroom trial documents of Dedan Kimathi which had been hidden from the public for over sixty years. Kimathi, one of Kenya’s most famous rebel leaders, lead the Mau Mau revolution in the 1950s as a field marshal. At the time, the British were actively torturing Kenyans and imprisoning people in detention camps. The British legally executed over 1500 people by hanging—the largest number of people to ever have been executed during an anti-colonial emergency. Finding the trial documents was a major moment as it presented real evidence concerning Kimathi and ultimately prompted important conversations surrounding the brutal realities of the Mau Mau revolution.
MacArthur discusses the findings of the trial and their implication in her 2017 book, Dedan Kimathi on Trial: Colonial Justice and Popular Memory in Kenya’s Mau Mau Rebellion. She also displayed her work as an exhibition at the Supreme Court of Kenya. MacArthur feels that conveying research in ways beyond a book or research paper is “so important to bring the public and the academic closer together.”
Currently, MacArthur is interested in the alternative mappings of decolonization, which entails the various ways in which Africa’s borders could have been decided when nations gained independence from Britain mainly between 1950 and 1970. “Most thought the borders would be either erased or changed, but that did not happen. [We] see these debates re-emerging in the past ten years in particular, as people imagine what alternative nations could look like in Africa,” MacArthur states. Her upcoming book Radical Cartographies focuses on these different decolonized mappings.
Having double majored in film, MacArthur also studies, teaches, and curates African cinema. She recently wrapped up a project with the Toronto International Film Festival, specifically working on their African program. MacArthur says that her “academic and film work have always been on slightly parallel tracks.” She hopes to bring the two together with a book discussing the relationship between African cinema and history.
“I’m at the stage in my career where I’m excited to start putting down into a book the kinds of explorations as a curator, as a scholar, as a historian, but also as a teacher, that I’ve had experiencing teaching African history through, and with, film.”