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John Harvard's Journal

Emmanuel Akyeampong

September-October 2004

Emmanuel Akyeampong
Photograph by Jim Harrison

When professor of history and of African-American studies Emmanuel Akyeampong married his wife, Ruth, in 1995, the couple observed some nuptial customs in their native Ghana before the Episcopalian service in Cambridge. In Accra, their two families sat opposite each other and exchanged gifts, including a Bible, six pieces of cloth, a stool, a mat, a bottle of gin, and two bottles of schnapps— this last a legacy of early Dutch settlers. Such rituals befit Akyeampong (ATCH-em-pong), probably the first social historian from Ghana. "Social history endeavors to look at history from beneath," he says. "It studies those who do not have center stage—the poor, women, slaves, the unempowered." It also imposes methodological challenges, because "these commoners are often poor and semi-literate," he explains. "They do not keep records and diaries. Often, when they intrude into history, it's because they caused some sort of commotion, like a riot, that the state recognized and recorded." Drink, Power, and Cultural Change: A Social History of Alcohol in Ghana, c. 1800 to Recent Times (1996) reflects Akyeampong's interest in mental health, considers alcohol as an instrument of power, and "looks at history through a glass," he says, smiling. He came to Harvard in 1993 after earning his Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. A fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Akyeampong speaks the West African languages Twi and Ga. He enjoys squash, jazz, and classical music, as well as life with Ruth and their young son, Emmanuel. When they return home each summer, his college professors from the University of Ghana quiz Akyeampong about his recent writings: "I still have my oral exams," he says.