Born in Nigeria, Isidore Okpewho has a B.A. in Honors Classics from the University of London, a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Denver, and a D.Lit. in the Humanities from the University of London. He has taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo (1974-76), University of Ibadan (1976-90), Harvard University (1990-91), and Binghamton University (since 1991).
Okpewho’s areas of specialization are in African and comparative literatures, with a specialist emphasis on comparative oral traditions. His major publications in this field include The Epic in Africa: Toward a Poetics of the Oral Performance (1979), Myth in Africa: A Study of Its Aesthetic and Cultural Relevance (1983), African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character, and Continuity (1992), and Once Upon a Kingdom: Myth, Hegemony, and Identity (1998). His edited scholarly volumes reveal an expansion of his academic interests from oral literature (The Oral Performance in Africa, 1990), to modern African literature (The Heritage of African Poetry, 1985; Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Casebook, 2003) and diaspora studies (The African Diaspora: African Origins and New World Identities, 1999). He is currently completing a book on an African epic under the title Blood on the Delta: Art, Culture, and Society in The Ozidi Saga, as well as working on a new book project African Mythology in the New World. He has also published some four dozen journal and book articles in these areas.
Professor Okpewho is also an active novelist with four titles, The Victims (1970), The Last Duty, winner of the African Arts Prize for Literature (1976), Tides, winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa (1993), and Call Me By My Rightful Name (2004). He is gradually developing his fifth novel, Fish Scales.
Recognition Professor Okpewho's work has come with some of the most prestigious fellowships in the humanities: from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (1982), Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (1982), Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford (1988), the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard (1990), National Humanities Center in North Carolina (1997), and the Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (2003). He was also elected Folklore Fellow International by the Finnish Academy of the Sciences in Helsinki (1993).
Administrative positions he has held include headship of the Department of English at the University of Ibadan and chairmanship of the Department of Africana Studies at Binghamton University. He belongs to several professional scholarly bodies such as the African Studies Association, African Literature Association, American Folklore Society, Modern Language Association, International Society for Oral Narrative Research, and International Society for Oral Literature in Africa, with official stints as member of the Board of Directors of the African Studies Association, member of the editorial committee of the series Teaching Languages, Literatures, and Cultures of the Modern Language Association, member of the editorial board of the journals Okike and Oral Tradition, editor of the Journal of African and Comparative Literature, and president of the International Society for Oral Literature in Africa.
Okpewho Named SUNY Distinguished Professor
By: Katie Ellis
Isidore Okpewho, professor of Africana Studies, has been named a distinguished professor by the SUNY Board of Trustees. Okpewho has been recognized for playing a seminal role in the development of the scholarly understanding of oral traditions in African literature.
The distinguished professor title, granted only by SUNY trustees, is the highest academic rank possible and is conferred on individuals who have achieved national or international prominence.
Okpewho joined the University’s faculty in 1991. His extensive research into oral traditions and African tales involves ethnographic investigations and the collection of narratives.
Named a Guggenheim Fellow last year, he will spend the next academic year researching African mythology in the New World. His research will help construct an identity for those who were brought to America from Africa.
“When you examine a tale from Africa, you must look at the society from which it comes and study the background of a tale’s transformation,” he said. “Away from Africa, these people have a way of fashioning their own identity and it’s reflected in the tales they tell.”
In nominating Okpewho, President Lois B. DeFleur said, “His prolific writing demonstrates great diversity ranging from African oral literature, to literary criticism and finally, to creative writing. One is struck by the overwhelmingly positive assessment of his contributions by distinguished national and international scholars.”
“It certainly makes a difference when you are recognized by your peers,” Okpewho said. “When your colleagues listen to you, you know you’re doing something worthwhile.”
Okpewho earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of London, his PhD in comparative literature from the University of Denver and a doctor of literature degree from the University of London. Prior to coming to Binghamton, he taught at SUNY Buffalo, Ibadan University in Nigeria and Harvard University.
He served as associate dean of graduate studies at Ibadan University and as chair of the Department of English there. He has also chaired the Department of Africana Studies at Binghamton.
A prolific writer, Okpewho is the author, co-author or editor of 14 books and dozens of articles. He has served on the boards of the African Studies Association and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minn. He is a member of the Research Advisory Council for Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions and is a member of the American Literature Association and the American Folklore Society. Okpewho also serves on the editorial board of Oral Tradition and Research in African Literatures and he has served on numerous campus committees.