Laura Fair

Position: Professor
Field: Cultural, Religious, Social, Urban, Women & Gender
Region: Africa

Office: 310 Old Horticulture
Phone: (517) 884-4936

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 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 struggles for social change. 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. In both their recorded songs and public performances the band also raised awareness and demanded reform of gender-based violence and discrimination.

In 2018 Fair published Reel Pleasures: Cinema Audiences and Entrepreneurs in 20th Century Urban Tanzania with Ohio University Press. A wide-ranging study of commercial cinema in colonial and postcolonial Tanzania, Reel Pleasures explores changes in exhibition, distribution and reception from 1900-2014. The place of cinemas, as nodes of urban citizenship, and the creative ways in which local fans utilized global films to speak to local dreams and desires are creatively explored across generations.

Fair’s current research is an exploration of foodways, food sovereignty and nutritionally-related disease in Zanzibar.