Wellesley Hosts 'Rawls in Africa,' on Philosopher John Rawls, Whose Student Ifeanyi Menkiti Has Taught at Wellesley for 41 Years

May 8, 2014
text graphic: Let this then be your understanding, you sons and daughters of the ancient stars, that your home reaches beyond the earth which you call home.

On May 10, Wellesley hosts a special conference to celebrate the extraordinary career of Ifeanyi Menkiti, poet and professor of philosophy, and the legacy of his mentor, the philosopher John Rawls. Menkiti is retiring this year after more than four decades of service to the College.

Organized by the Provost’s Office and the Department of Philosophy, “Rawls in Africa” brings together an international slate of experts from universities ranging from Frankfurt, Germany, to Fortaleza, Brazil. Scholars will present papers on topics including “Discussions of African Communitarianism with Specific Reference to Menkiti and Rawls” and “Political Liberalism, Reconciliation, and Hope.” (For more information about the conference, please contact the Provost's Office.)

“Rawls was one of the most important political theorists of the 20th century,” says Mary Kate McGowan, Luella LaMer Professor of Women’s Studies, professor of philosophy and chair of the Philosophy Department at Wellesley. “This conference celebrates Rawls's work—and especially his last book, The Law of Peoples—as it applies to political conditions in Africa. It also celebrates the tradition of scholarship inspired by Rawls's work and it does so as Wellesley's very own Professor Ifeanyi Menkiti, who was a Ph.D. student of Rawls's, concludes a distinguished 41-year long career at the College.”

Born in Onitsha, Nigeria, Menkiti received his B.A. from Pomona College, master’s degrees from Columbia and New York Universities, and a doctorate in philosophy from Harvard. At Harvard he met and studied with Rawls, who supervised his doctoral dissertation. Menkiti joined the Wellesley faculty in 1973, where he has remained ever since. He has written numerous essays on community and social justice on the African continent and is also the author of four collections of poetry, Affirmations (1971), The Jubilation of Falling Bodies (1978), Of Altair, the Bright Light (2005), and Before a Common Soil (2007).

Menkiti has received many distinctions across his career, including the 1996 Pinanski Prize for Excellence in Teaching from Wellesley. In 2014, he received the Blaisdell Distinguished Alumni Award from his alma mater Pomona College, which recognizes alumni who have achieved distinction in their fields and contributed to their communities.

Menkiti is also known throughout Boston and the wider literary community as the owner and proprietor (and as some describe, savior) of the historic Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Harvard Square, which has been a home to poets from T. S. Eliot and e.e. cummings to Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. He lives in Somerville with his wife, Carol Bowers; they have four children and three grandchildren.

In his poem, “Before a Common Soil,” Menkiti writes,

Let this then be your understanding,
You sons and daughters of the ancient stars
That your home reaches beyond
The earth which is your home.

Wellesley is proud to have been Menkiti’s home for the past 41 years, and wishes him all the best in his retirement.