A product of the 1980s: Q&A with English professor Dagmawi Woubshet

Penn English Professor Dagmawi Woubshet
Dagmawi Woubshet is an associate professor of English, new to Penn this year. 

As a 13-year-old immigrant to the United States from Ethiopia, Dagmawi Woubshet knew only a few words of English. 

The formidable challenge in those first months of 1989 was to get his bearings with a new language while learning his way around an all-boys boarding school in Pennsylvania.

Now, Woubshet is completing his first year of teaching literature at Penn. The Ahuja Family Presidential Associate Professor of English, he was recruited here after 12 years at Cornell University.  

“It is the intellectual dynamism at Penn, specifically in the English department, and also related fields, like Africana Studies, that were certainly enticing. And also the city of Philadelphia,” he says. “I love it. I am just starting to get the pulse both for Penn and Philadelphia, but so far it’s been a great decision on both counts.”

As a scholar, Woubshet describes himself as “an African-Americanist who works at the crossroads of African-American and African Studies, and African-American and queer studies,” with a comparative and historical approach.

Professor Jed Esty, English department chair, says Woubshet is an “exceptional hire” for Penn, “an accomplished, mid-career scholar on the rise,” whose research career is “unusually multi-faceted.” In addition to spanning African and African-American Studies, his field of study encompasses literature and the visual arts, traditional critical writing and serious work as an editor, translator, and memoirist. 

“His scholarship addresses critical race studies and gender-sexuality studies in ways that have made him a rising national figure in both fields, and in ways that are distinctively his own, in part because of his ability to explore the global dimensions of African diaspora studies,” Esty says. “He’s already doing great work in the classroom here at Penn.”

In the spring semester, Woubshet taught “The 1980s: African American Literature and Culture,” which included works by Toni Morrison and Spike Lee. He also taught “Reading the Contemporary: Literature and Art in Africa and the African Diaspora,” incorporating a variety of works: a novel, a memoir and poems, but also photographs, paintings, and films. 

Woubshet will co-teach a graduate course called “New Directions in Black Thought and Literature” with colleague Margo Crawford, who is also new to Penn from Cornell this year. This particular course, Esty says, “will help our most advanced students grasp the cutting edge of black cultural studies.” He will also teach the undergraduate course “Contemporary African Literature and Film.” 

Throughout his career, Woubshet’s research has been firmly rooted in the 1980s. His first book, The Calendar of Loss: Race, Sexuality, and Mourning in the Early Era of AIDS, is set in the era before anti-viral medications stemmed the epidemic. The book he is working on now examines the later works of author James Baldwin.

Woubshet received his Ph.D. in the history of American civilization from Harvard University, and his B.A. in political science and History from Duke University. Born in Addis Ababa, he joined his mother in the U.S. after his parents divorced, and went to the Church Farm boarding school in Exton, Pa., for middle and high school.  

Penn English Professor Dagmawi Woubshet
Woubshet taught a course on 1980s African American literature and culture during the spring semester. 


How did you adjust to life in an American boarding school? 

I’m glad I landed there because it was a very diverse place and there were many immigrants like myself, so I didn’t feel isolated. During parents’ weekend, the parents from Africa, including my family, would come clad in traditional African clothing, so my sense of being African didn’t seem as foreign. I was in the company of kids from all over the world, and kids born and raised in this country whose parents were from other countries. 

First and foremost, I was just trying to learn how to speak the language. I didn’t have a particular academic passion: I was always good at school and I got excellent grades. I would say my passion then was running. I was a long-distance runner: cross country, and 1,600 and 3,200 meters in track. 

What did you want to be when you grew up? 

In terms of a professional career, since I was a kid I wanted to be a diplomat. When I grew up in Ethiopia, it was under a Communist regime, which was in effect a police state. On TV we would see the diplomats who were traveling to Cuba, or Czechoslovakia, or the USSR, and think that their life was so free and so cosmopolitan. They were dealing with the world and I was taken with that. So when I went to college, I majored in history and political science with the desire to become a diplomat. 

When did you change your career path? 

My junior year I took my first literature class and immediately realized that that was what I wanted to do. The class was called “Culture African Diaspora.” I had to fulfill a requirement and my friends who were English majors said I should take a class with the professor, Nahum Chandler. On the first day of the course, at the very outset, he played my favorite Bob Marley song, “Babylon System,” from the album “Survival,” and he talked about it for an hour, using post-structuralist theory, using terms from musicology, in other words, terms totally inaccessible to me. I love Bob Marley’s music. And so I thought: I want to be able to talk about it with that level of sophistication and depth. And I didn’t know in an English class that you could do that–start a literature class with Marley’s music and use that music to set the critical framework for literary inquiry. It was a revelation to me that the meaning of a “text” in literary studies was so expansive, that it could include cultural texts like music and visual art in addition to literary works. 

It was too late to change my major, but I gave up the idea of law school and the plan to do international law, and decided to study literature in graduate school at Harvard. I knew I wanted to study literature, and at the same time think about the historical context in which literature is produced, as well as the political significance of the arts. I think I’ve always tried to bring my undergraduate training in history and political science with me in the study of literature. 

So for my students who are panicking a month into their undergraduate career that they haven’t discovered a major, I try to use myself as an example. I say that sometimes you discover your passion and your sense of vocation immediately, and sometimes that realization comes much later. So, be patient, I tell my students. 


Penn English Professor Dagmawi Woubshet
Woubshet, an immigrant from Ethiopia, considers himself an African-Americanist.


How are the 1980s significant to your research? 

My first book was on the early era of AIDS and the literature, visual culture, and more generally art of mourning that was produced during that era. I looked at AIDS elegies, obituaries, icons of the dead, funerals, eulogies, and in particular, the work of gay artists who were anticipating their own imminent mortality in addition to mourning deceased loved ones, and indeed the death of a generation of gay men. It is a decidedly ‘80s project because it considers this new wave of art by gay men, and how this body of work transformed the art and rituals of mourning. It also considers the discourse and politics of AIDS at the time, including the extraordinary stigma surrounding the disease and gay identity in the 1980s, and also the counter response, the mobilization of queer art and activism, and a kind of reclamation of gay identity that we witnessed in the 1980s. 

The second book project I’m working on now is on James Baldwin’s late style, focusing on works Baldwin produced in the 1980s. Baldwin is a writer we associate with the Civil Rights era, and too often we reduce his corpus to his iconic 1960s books at the expense of his late 1970s and 1980s writings. I want to recover the latter body of work and show how formative it was to the 1980s, and our own intellectual life.

Why do you focus on the 1980s?

It is such a significant decade. Surely, the end of the Cold War is a significant world event, not to mention the many cultural trends that took root in the 1980s that continue to inform our lives today. 

We consider in the ‘80s course how much popular culture changed during that decade. The music video, for instance, is an ‘80s phenomena. It’s inconceivable, certainly for this generation of students, to think about music without the music video. Or, when we think about CNN and the 24-hour news/entertainment cycle, that was born in the 1980s and the ways in which it has altered how we consume information. Or, the rise of Hip-Hop as a dominant cultural form and force. Or, even the kind of intersectional politics we prize today–how race, gender, class, nationality, sexuality are not discrete categories of identity but mutually reinforcing ones–is an idea that coalesces in the 1980s. 

In terms of African-American life and culture, the 1980s is also very significant. It’s a decade that witnessed a remarkable inclusion of African Americans into the mainstream: be it in literature, film, high art, popular culture, or sport. Think: Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson. Contemporary American culture would not make sense, or would seem deficient, without just these four figures who in the 1980s reshaped African-American culture and American culture at large. 

Of course, the decade also witnessed new forms of black disenfranchisement we are still reckoning with today, including the rise of mass incarceration, new forms of police violence, and AIDS disproportionately hitting black communities. 

I try to trumpet the significance of the decade by showing students that the things we are living and contending with today have their roots in that decade. That, in short, we live in the immediate shadow of the 1980s. 

During sabbaticals you were a fellow at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University, and a Scholar-in-Residence at the Modern Art Museum in Addis Ababa. Will you continue to return to Ethiopia while you are at Penn?

Absolutely, I plan to return to Addis Ababa. In fact, I will be one of the faculty participants in the Consortium of Humanities and Institutes Africa Workshop there in January. To think about art, ideas, and politics from a different place and historical vantage point is something that I deeply value. You gain a different insight into a text simply by teaching it in contexts that are different, that have their own particular history, culture, and political formation. The other objective is also to help fortify the study of the humanities in Ethiopia. In line with a neoliberal model of development, many African universities commit almost all of their resources to the STEM fields and neglect liberal arts education. So, however modest, helping to foster humanist inquiry in Africa is something I am totally committed to now and in the future. 


Penn English Professor Dagmawi Woubshet