Quito J. Swan Brings Global Links to Africana Studies

As the new director of the CCAS Africana Studies Program, Swan strives to make connections—across disciplines, movements and oceans.

September 14, 2023

Photo of Quito Swan, the new director of the CCAS African Studies program, smiling with a dark shirt.

Quito J. Swan, the new director of the CCAS Africana Studies Program

Quito J. Swan, the new director of the Africana Studies Program at the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences (CCAS), first formed the ideas and influences that would shape his career while growing up in Bermuda—even if he didn’t know it at the time.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, his island childhood seemed uneventful to him. His family lived “two stone throws from an old goat farm,” he recalled. He played cricket and football—never calling it soccer—and he climbed trees to pick cherries and loquats. His grandfather was a calypso musician, and his father and uncle played in a jazz band. Swan’s own musical tastes veered toward the reggae rhythms of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, and the dancehall beats of Dennis Brown and Super Cat.

Looking back, Swan now realizes his childhood was also an education. Bermuda is still a British colony. Through its culture and music—the oral traditions of anti-colonial struggles and the Black power politics of the records he played—Swan was absorbing the messages that have defined his scholarly work.

“I don’t know if I was always aware of what I was hearing. Maybe I didn’t get the whole message at the time,” he said. “But I knew something was going on.”

Those early lessons built the foundation of scholarship Swan, who is also a professor of history and Africana studies, brings to GW. A historian of the African Diaspora and a scholar of Black internationalism, he’s written three award-winning books that each examine global Black social movements and their connection across the oceans. And he’s currently completing a fourth book that looks at how the dancehall music of his youth fostered Black politics and anti-colonialism movements.

As director of the Africana Studies Program, Swan said he looks forward to harnessing the passion of students and the support of CCAS faculty from a range of disciplines during what he called “an important and necessary time” for Africana studies. From book bans in Florida to attacks on ethnic studies in schools to “traumatic episodes of violence against black and brown bodies,” Swan said the field is beset by crises—but also open to opportunities. “Now is a perfect time for GW to stake its claim in this important field of study,” he said.

CCAS Dean Paul Wahlbeck praised Swan as “a distinguished historian with expansive scholarship in the field of Black internationalism.”

“We are thrilled to have Dr. Swan join our faculty to lead the Africana Studies Program,” he said. “I look forward to working with him.”

D.C. homecoming

For Swan, D.C. is a “second home,” he said. He received both his M.A. and Ph.D. from Howard University and taught there for a decade, as well as at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and, most recently, Indiana University Bloomington. At GW, he plans to leverage the District’s resources and history—from cultural sites like the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture to the city’s international connections and rich local roots. “D.C. is a gateway to the whole world,” he said. “The opportunity to build on Africana studies in an international city like D.C. is really exciting.”

In many of his works, Swan stretches the traditional boundaries of African studies beyond the Atlantic slave trade to include perspectives from Oceania and the Pacific. He frequently links disparate-seeming ideas such as, for example, Black power and environmental justice.

His acclaimed book “Pauulu’s Diaspora: Black Internationalism and Environmental Justice” (University Press of Florida, 2020) told a sweeping story of Black internationalism across the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Ocean worlds through the life and work of 20-century environmental activist Pauulu Kamarakafego. “My approach is to look at understudied Black movements across the globe and use [activists like Kamarakafego] as an anchor or thread,” Swan explained. The book won numerous awards including the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship Book Award Prize.

His other books—“Pasifika Black: Oceania, Anticolonialism, and the African World” (New York University Press, 2022) and “Black Power in Bermuda: The Struggle for Decolonization (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)— also explored oceanic anti-colonial movements.

Swan is revisiting his musical influences in his forthcoming book, a passion project tentatively titled “Born As a Sufferer: Dancehall Music’s Insurgent Soundscapes.” In it, he charts how dancehall artists like Brown and Super Cat took up the torch from Marley and other reggae activists while attuning a new generation to global injustices.

“Bob Marley was so overtly political you couldn’t really ignore [his message],” Swan said. “There is a set of politics that is the fabric of dancehall. It may not be as obvious, but so much of the work [for this book] has been unpacking that.”

At GW, Swan hopes to nurture the interdisciplinary nature of the Africana Studies Program—it’s composed of humanities and social science faculty from 14 academic departments and programs including English, music, philosophy and political science—while also boosting Africana studies as its own unique discipline.

And he’s already learning about the passion of the program’s students. He recently spoke to a senior Africana studies major from East Africa who said her classes have compelled her to return home to earn a graduate degree and work toward helping her own community.

“Africana studies touches our students at the core of who they are,” he said. “In a world that typically denies their perspectives or experiences, it is exhilarating to have a safe space where they can study themselves, their community, their epistemology in a rigorous way that will make a difference. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what we’re here for.”