Laura Fair is a historian of Tanzanian urban social, cultural and gendered history. Dr. Fair teaches a broad range of courses from surveys of pre-colonial and colonial Africa to graduate seminars on oral history theory, method and praxis. She also runs a 30 acre integrated organic farm featuring fruits, vegetables and pasture-raised chickens and sheep.
Her first book, Pastimes and Politics: Culture, Community and Identity in Post-Abolition Urban Zanzibar, 1890–1945 (Ohio University Press, 2001), illustrates how former slaves used the social and cultural tools at their command—including music and dance, sex and procreation, Islam, fashion, football, and neighborhood—to demonstrate their freedom from slavery and articulate alternative visions of justice under colonialism.
The book was widely read and is still commonly taught in both undergraduate and graduate classrooms. As one reviewer noted, “This accessible work exposes the complications and the creativity of urban Africans and deserves a wide readership…You can show this book to those unfamiliar with colonial Africa and they will be captivated rather than daunted.” Another reviewer called the book “a masterpiece” and a superb example of cultural history.
In 2013 Fair published Historia ya Jamii ya Zanzibar na Nyimbo za Siti binti Saad (A Social History of Zanzibar and the Songs of Siti binti Saad) in Kiswahili. This book puts the life and music of Siti binti Saad, a woman whose band was the first to produce records in Kiswahili in 1928, at the center of these larger struggles for social change in the early twentieth century. Siti was herself a child of the rural poor and one of the thousands who migrated to the city in the years following the abolition of slavery. Her voice, her poetry and her music became legendary, and she was praised from the halls of the Sultan’s palace, to the streets of poor neighborhoods where she lived, to India, Oman, Kenya and the Congo where her records sold by the thousands. Her band spoke truth to power, criticizing both the disdain the elite showed for the working poor as well as the corruption that plagued the colonial regime and its local collaborators. In both their recorded songs and public performances the band also raised awareness and demanded reform of gender-based violence and discrimination.
This book was written with an East African audience in mind, and includes the lyrics for nearly fifty of the band’s songs which have been lost from local repertoires and archives. The book aims to make western scholarship more accessible to secondary and tertiary students in East Africa and to introduce a new generation of young historians to the rich possibilities that arise from combining art, archives and oral history in our study of the past. The study of history was banned in Zanzibar for nearly fifty years, beginning with the 1964 revolution, but interest in collecting, preserving and transmitting knowledge of Zanzibar’s rich and diverse pasts has been renewed in recent years. Dr. Fair was honored to have the book included at the launch of a new institute, named in honor of Siti binti Saad, an institute dedicated to preserving local arts, music and culture. Generous financial support from Michigan State University allowed Dr. Fair to distribute 200 free copies of the book to schools, libraries, archives and individuals in Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania.
Dr. Fair’s current project is a wide-ranging study of commercial cinema in colonial and postcolonial Tanzania. Reel Lives: The Business and Pleasures of Movie-going in Twentieth Century Urban Tanzania, explores changes in exhibition, distribution and reception from 1900-2014.
She has recently published ‘Drive-In Socialism: Debating Modernities and Development in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania,’ The American Historical Review (2013) 118 (4): 1077-1104.