In memory of Harold Marcus


Harold G. Marcus Harold G. Marcus, founding editor of H-Africa, died Wednesday, January 15, 2003, of cardiac arrest following complications from an ongoing heart condition. He is survived by his wife, Dr. Cressida Marcus, and a daughter, Emma Rose Marcus (from a previous marriage). Still a relatively young man at 66, Harold remained an inspiration for this network of scholars which he was instrumental in founding.

During the 1994 African Studies Association meeting in Toronto, Harold was touting both the possibility and the potential of an internet discussion forum for the scholarly discussions about Africa. There he recruited the first of his co-editors, and set in motion a process which led to H-Africa coming online in March 1995. He took a very active part in guiding our initial deliberations, seeking to involve a growing community of Africanists and others committed to the serious discussion of the continent. He remained convinced of the unparalleled value of H-Africa to contribute to the scholarly discourse. As recently as ten days before his death, Harold introduced a panel discussion of “Electronic Scholarship” at the American Historical Association annual meeting by speaking fondly of H-Africa’s place in that increasing universe of academe. He specifically recalled his vision of this forum as ushering in unique possibilities for “collective scholarship” about the continent. Such imagining was one of his greatest gifts, and it led him to take the lead in encouraging other, similar networks of scholars with more specific interests. It also led to his election to the governing Council of H-Net, Humanities and Social Sciences Online, the sponsoring organization of H-Africa.

At the same time, Harold was an accomplished scholar of a more traditional stripe. A graduate of Clark University, he received his PhD from Boston University in 1964 after studies with the anthropologist and historian, Daniel McCall. His dissertation research took him for the first time to Ethiopia, which became the focus of his academic interests for the rest of his life. He also studied and wrote more widely on African history, and on the development and decline of colonialism in Africa and worldwide. He was the author of many articles, editor of several books and collections of essays, and also editor of “Northeast Africa Studies.” His biographies of Ethiopian Emperors Menilek II and Haile Selassie were not only well received in scholarly circles, but are also widely read and reprinted. And his History of Ethiopia is widely regarded as perhaps the best short history of the country. Many journalists and government officials turned to him for understanding and guidance about a wide variety of matters concerning the horn of Africa.

Moreover, Harold believed that scholarship was nothing without commitment. He was active in what he believed were causes which served the people of northeastern Africa and their desire for better lives. He was an advocate for human rights, not just in that region, but in the whole of Africa and beyond. And he was, despite a sometimes gruff exterior, truly a man of compassion and caring, as many of his students and colleagues can testify. He was deeply committed to teaching, first at Addis Ababa and Howard Universities, and then for 35 years at Michigan State University where he was Distinguished Professor of History. He was also a visiting professor at the University of Khartoum and Osaka Gaidai University and lectured at scores of colleges and universities around the world. Harold believed that his scholarly efforts also demanded that he share his knowledge directly with students. Thus, he leaves a legacy of many former students around the world who owe him both intellectual and very often personal debts and who are carrying on his vision of an ever- widening circle of scholarship about Africa. The editors of H- Africa, all of whom were inspired by his plans and dreams for this network, share in those debts. We fondly hope that our efforts will stand as a fitting tribute to his commitment-to Africa and Africans, to the scholarly discussion of the continent, and to the promotion of this medium as a means of increasing the value of that scholarship.

In Memory of Harold Golden Marcus

By Mark Lawrence Kornbluh
May 5, 2003

When H-Net was launched exactly ten years ago, the relevance of the new communication media to African Studies was never considered. In 1993, most computers still had green screens and humanists were still making the transition from typewriters to word processing. Historians in this country were just beginning to gain access to email. The Internet was still mostly point-to-point bitnet and the World Wide Web had yet to be invented.

Not surprisingly then the first H-Net editors saw themselves as trail-blazers. They were proselytizers working amongst technological pioneers. H-Net was committed to building international connections, but these were envisioned almost solely in terms of the most developed parts of the world. Africa and African studies were not on the agenda.

Harold Marcus changed that overnight. Harold took one look at H-Net and immediately recognized that this was a tool that he could adopt for his purposes. Here was a way to tie together scholars around the world that were concerned with Africa. Internet access might be scarce in Africa, itself, but for Harold, this was a challenge rather than an insurmountable obstacle.

Starting H-Africa was not easy. Harold needed a collaborator, one to do the heavy lifting as he focused on the big picture, and found that in his former student and close friend Mel Page. He also needed to convince, Richard Jensen, H-Net’s strikingly conservative founding executive director. But as we all know, once moved Harold could be an unstoppable world wind. All obstacles were blown from his path, and the commitment was made to start H-Africa as MSU’s first homegrown H-Net network.

Harold was above all else very serious scholar. He did not suffer fools or foolish talk easily. Scholarly output was deeply important to him. He cajoled all who worked with him, his students, his colleagues, his friends and his competitors to devote their time and energy to scholarly research and publication. At first look, indeed at second and third thought as well, Harold seems an unlikely father to an online discussion forum. And yet at a time when most “serious” scholars were dismissing H-Net, many of them publicly, as frivolous chat, Harold devoted himself to launching H-Africa and to H-Net itself. (Indeed, by lending his gravitas to H-Net, Harold played a central role in H-Net’s development. He argued by word and action that this new media had an enormous potential for serious researchers.)

To understand this, we need to recognize Harold’s expansive vision for H-Net and new communication technologies. In the first place, Harold was a true believer in scholarly communication and collaboration. An inveterate conference attendee and organizer, he recognized that H-Africa could be an ongoing never ending conference. It was a place to meet where distance had no meaning and disciplinary boundaries vanished. Harold never tired of recounting how particular discussion threads on H-Africa advanced scholarly understanding. Whether it was a fascinating discussion on Mama Wata or on the economic development of Africa in the 14th and 15th centuries, Harold understood how scholarly work could be advanced by a broad sharing of ideas. First and foremost, new communication technology could seed new research by speeding up and greatly facilitating the exchange of ideas. Not all ideas were equally valuable. There is no doubt that on H-Africa, there was much chafe to weed through to get to the kernel wheat, just as there were scores of and scores of documents to work through in an archive to get to the nuggets that informed Harold’s scholarship. Such weeding was the work of the scholar, however, and Harold embraced it with a passion.

Harold also believed that scholarship should infuse teaching. Harold was a missionary. He wanted to improve teaching about African studies. Three months after H-Africa was launched, he wrote proudly, “Among the many beneficiaries have been high school teachers, community college instructors, and professors at remote and/or small four-year colleges. I have watched in happy wonderment as we bring back into the fellowship of Africanist those who had become anchorites and hermits in terms of their academic persuasion. One young scholar recently wrote that she no longer felt isolated as the only Africanist at Fort Lewis College, Colorado.”

Harold understood, to a greater extent than virtually any one else within H-Net did, that there was additive value in increasing scholarly communication. At a time, where the natural inclination was to stake out turf in cyberspace, Harold sought to multiply discussions and broaden forums. No sooner than he had launched H-Africa, then he began envisioning a whole family of African studies networks. He cajoled friends and colleagues into starting H-AfrArts and H-Afrlit&Cin. He scoured the country looking for scholars to start lists on African politics and sociology. Harold pushed the creation of H-AfrResearch to share information on research throughout the continent and he campaign to start H-AfrTeach to reach out to k-12 teachers. Today, H-Net has ten different networks directly within African studies. H-Africa, the granddaddy, has over 1500 subscribers worldwide and together the networks total over 5000 subscribers. (The breadth and vibrancy of this family of networks has become THE model within H-Net as scholars in other areas have come to realize that scholarly communication is far from a zero-sum game.)

While some might have thought a field with underdeveloped resources was the least likely place for new scholarly communication to take hold, Harold recognized that it was in such a field as African studies that new technology had the greatest potential benefit. African scholars within the US were often alone in their departments and even at their universities. Increased communication with their colleagues could be a lifeline. For African scholars in Africa, the situation was far worse. African universities were starved for print resources, scholars lacked the financial means to travel and meet their colleagues, African libraries lacked the hard currency resources to keep up with scholarly output, and African presses were unable to distribute scholarship effectively. The result was a very real feeling of isolation. From the start, Harold envisioned new communication technology as a way to overcome this.

Book reviewing is a good example. Book reviewing is essential to the scholarship as we know it. It is through the review process that scholarship gets known and evaluated. Harold, thus advocated for, helped to secure funding for, and helped to start, H-Net Reviews. He worked hard to ensure that works published in African got reviewed on H-Net and that H-Net Reviews were widely circulated. Just two months after H-Africa launched, Harold wrote: As I considered the world of good that H-Africa has accomplished in such a short time, and what it would achieve in the future, it occurred to me that the H-Net generally and H-Africa specifically could play an important role for African scholars. They complain about their isolation and remoteness from mainstream academia and changes in their field; and they rightly point to the inadequacy of their library resources as a hindrance to their scholarly undertakings. As a result, the scholarship often accomplished by our African colleagues is often very local and limited in terms of theory and paradigm. H-Africa could serve to keep them current of changes in the field, and our new book reviewing effort can help them keep up with the most current scholarship. They might even be able to get relevant books for review. The possibilities for our African colleagues seem enormous and relevant to their needs.

Having traveled widely in Africa, Harold understood better than most, the potential that internet connectivity could mean for Africa. I remember visiting the main university library in Accra with Harold. He dragged me into the stacks, as they were, vividly pointing out the paucity of quality books and journals. African universities had lost out in a major way in the print world of the twentieth century academy. The gap was insurmountable. The promise of new technology was the potential to leapfrog over that chasm to make available to the professor in Dakar, the grad student in Bamako, the undergrad in Dar Salaam, the economist in Johannesburg, the political scientist in Mogadishu, the Historian in Addis, the very same scholarly resources that one could get at Harvard, Berkeley, or East Lansing. That potential is revolutionary. It also will not happen by itself. The cost of new information systems is not insignificant and the technological knowledge gap continues to grow day by day. In the US, it was possible to take the attitude, that if we built it, they would come. For Africa, that was unrealistic. Harold realized that it would take a concerted effort to ensure that our African colleagues would be able to share in the information revolution. He was an early, loud, and consistent advocate for projects to bring information technology to Africa, to increase bandwidth, to mirror electronic resources in African universities, and to train and capacitate our colleagues at African universities to take ownership of the tools of information technology.

For Harold, information technology was a means, not an end in itself. It was a tool to advance scholarship. It was a means to inform teaching with the latest scholarship. It was a way to spread information and effect positive change. (One of his proposals was to use H-Net to set up a crisis network for Africa to get the word out quickly worldwide when a crisis loomed, whether it was a famine or political repression.) Information technology was bringing the world closer together; Harold worked to ensure that Africa was included.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.