Blog—Stories from the Newberry Center for Renaissance Studies

In Search of Premodern West African Writing Systems

Dr. Kevin J. Hales, Africana Studies Program, University of Tennessee-Knoxville


I had an incredible experience at the Newberry Library in August of 2018! My interaction with Christopher D. Fletcher, Acting Director for the Center for Renaissance Studies, led me to quickly believe that I would have a remarkable six-day stay in Chicago. As both a communication scholar and Africologist, I investigate the lives and cultures of African-descended communities around the world. This includes those villages, towns, and cities scattered among the innumerous tributaries that emanate from the Lower Niger River Basin. My current academic focus involves studying various forms of ancient written communication systems in western Africa. I am attempting to locate sources that demonstrate the possibility of one system, Nsibidi, arrival to Colonial America via the Middle Passage. It has been rumored for decades in African American culture that there may have been some escaped Africans who brought their knowledge of Nsibidi with them into the Ohio Valley region and beyond. I have been tracking down the potential scripts throughout the American Southeast and Ohio Valley for the past two years and wanted to uncover any sources along these lines that might have existed in the archives at the Newberry. I was able to locate some invaluable source materials during my time at the Newberry.

Dr. Kevin J. Hales
Africana Studies Program
University of Tennessee-Knoxville