When Tola Mosadomi, assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies and affiliate of the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, was an undergraduate student at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, she sometimes saw poet Wole Soyinka walking across campus.
Instead of speaking to the professor, the Yoruba studies specialist would turn and walk in the opposite direction. “I avoided him because I had no idea what to say to the man many consider the Shakespeare of Africa,” Mosadomi admits.
More than 30 years later, Mosadomi had the chance to finally meet Soyinka when she invited the 1986 Nobel Laureate in Literature, playwright and political activist to speak at the university last spring.
Soyinka is the author of more than 40 plays, books and essays that highlight a variety of African cultural and political issues, including “Death and the King’s Horseman” (1975), “A Play of Giants” (1984) and “The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis” (1996). He was imprisoned several times for his criticism of the Nigerian government.
Soyinka’s keynote address, “Race, Rights and the Agony of Darfur,” touched upon the violence in western Sudan, and also narrated the history of slavery. Woven throughout the poet’s address was the haunting image of the “tree of forgetfulness.”
During the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, traders in West Africa would force captured Africans to walk circles around a magical tree in an attempt to clear their minds of their previous lives.
The ritual was never effective, Soyinka says, warning that the “tree of forgetfulness” thrives when the international community ignores acts of genocide, such as the violence in Sudan.
The United Nations estimates at least 200,000 people have been killed and more than two million have been displaced in the Darfur region since 2003.
Naomi Wolf, leading feminist scholar and bestselling author, was the keynote speaker at
the “Defining Beauty” symposium hosted by the university’s Center for Women’s and Gender
Studies, the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership and Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty,
which features “real” women instead of professional models in national advertisements.
The feminist icon believes the fashion industry’s practice of airbrushing photographs in
women’s magazines has had a negative influence on women’s conceptions of modern beauty.
Wolf’s book, “The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women” (1991),
challenged the marketing of unrealistic standards of beauty by the cosmetics industry.
“How many of us look like that?” Wolf asks. “It’s not just a fake ideal of beauty, it’s a fake
ideal of what a woman is. It is so hard for women to avoid being bombarded by these images,
appreciate their own individual beauty and step outside the sense that they need to conform
to unrealistic ideals.”
Wolf and event panelists—Gretchen Ritter, professor of government, and Michelle Valles,
news anchor for KXAN-TV—encouraged women to focus on inner beauty, confidence and
intelligence. The event drew more than 400 participants from across the university.