Phyllis Taoua

Professor of Francophone Studies

Executive Committee Member, Human Rights Online Graduate Programs

Phyllis Taoua

Phyllis Taoua, Ph.D. is professor of French and Francophone Studies; she is also affiliated with Africana Studies, the Honors College, the World Literature Program and the Master in Human Rights Practice at the University of Arizona in Tucson.  She teaches courses on African literature and cinema, French Theory, Global Africa, Pan-African Protest Movements and Contemporary France.  She has is the author of African Freedom. How Africa Responded to National Independence (Cambridge University Press, 2018) and Forms of Protest: Anti-Colonialism and Avant-Gardes in Africa, the Caribbean and France (Heinemann, 2002) and editor of special issues on Sony Labou Tansi, Sembène Ousmane, and Mongo Beti.  Other recent publications have appeared in World Literature Today, The Cambridge Companion to the African Novel, Transition, SubStance, Research in African Literatures, Cahier d’Études Africaines, South Central Review and Journal of African Cultural Studies.  She was the recipient of a Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation award and Resident Fellow at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.  She was elected to the MLA Executive Committee of the Forum on African Languages, Literatures and Cultures and has presented her research in North America, Europe and Africa. Tucson Public Voices fellow with the Op-Ed Project, 2015-2016.  

What is your professional background, especially in relation to human rights?

My area of research and expertise focuses on the politics of protest in Africa and the African diaspora. There is a direct and natural connection between my scholarship on protest movements and freedom in relation to human rights and social justice. The first phase of my research looked at anti-colonial protest movements in France and the French-speaking world including the Caribbean and Africa. My scholarship in this field considers cross-cultural influences in the way politically engaged intellectuals and activists articulated anti-colonial political agendas after World War I all the way through the decolonization of French territories in Africa in the 1960s.

My recent work concentrates more exclusively on Africa and the ongoing struggle for meaningful freedom during and after national liberation. In 2018, I published African Freedom: How Africa Responded to Independence with Cambridge University Press. The core of this research examines African decolonization from multiple angles; I investigate the history of key ideas such as freedom and nationalism; I consider the historical process of decolonization (what kind of nation-states emerged) and its historiography (what are the analytical narratives); I read and discuss economic theories of development as well as anthropology and sociology on the colonial legacy in Africa. Building this multi-disciplinary foundation has allowed me to investigate ways of understanding representations of freedom in contemporary African fiction and film and to critically engage with current protest in Africa today. This work is pan-African and comparative in scope, dealing with select countries in each region: north, west, south, east.

Could you describe 2 or 3 of your current research or activist projects, especially those that deal with human rights issues? 

The most direct application of my scholarship in relation to human rights is my Op-Ed writing on democracy, elections and protest movements in Africa during the 21st century. This kind of writing reaches a wider audience around the world and more rapidly than is possible with books and articles in academe. It is versatile, allows for time-sensitive interventions, and seeks to establish connections between my academic work and our public discourse on Africa.

I am the curator and editor, with the Cameroonian filmmaker Jean-Marie Teno, of an audiovisual archive and interactive map that documents the meaning of freedom in different African languages and contexts. The site also features digital resources for the study of freedom in Africa. Collaboration on a documentary film is under discussion as a development of this archival project that will look at four key struggles to build institutions that protect the people’s rights and freedoms in Egypt, Burkina Faso, Tanzania and South Africa.

My current book project looks at the role of culture—hip-hop, reggae, slam, video, concerts, documentary film—in bringing about a new awareness of democracy in citizen-led movements in Africa since 2010. The key areas of concern in these movements are the mechanics of democracy, quality of life, peace and security, and the legacy of national liberation. This project grew out of teaching HRTS 595, Human Rights in Across Contexts, while in conversation with activists in the field.

What do you think are the most important human rights issues today?  Why?

I think the most important thing that we can do to advance the cause of human rights in Africa today is to support local, grassroots pro-democracy movements wherever they exist. The activists leading these movements understand the issues they face better than anyone else. They speak a language of citizenship and rights that their fellow citizens understand. They know what means of communication will be most effective in reaching their target audience. Thus, to a very large extent what they need most is not external guidance and advice. Unfortunately, they are working in environments that are often violent, unpredictable and challenging for a number of reasons. Whereas the appearance of foreign sponsorship is unhelpful to these movements, working to change our public discourse about Africa as a continent in search of working democracies and shared prosperity, where people value freedom and the protection of human rights is important and valuable work. The stories we tell become the reality we live.

Outside of Africa, I believe the protection of democracy is also of vital importance. Voter participation. Unfettered elections. A free press. An educated citizenry. These are the mechanics of democratic societies that ensure representative government will endure. We take them for granted at our own peril.

What skills (or qualities) do you think students should have to advance human rights? 

Curiosity—a genuine curiosity in how others live.

Humility—a sense of humility and gratitude for what they have and the ability to empathize with those who have less rights, freedoms and well-being.

Intelligence—creative and analytical thinking about how to advance human rights whether in a specific location or in an international framework.

Knowledge—the acquisition of knowledge about the struggles for human rights over time and in different contexts.

Courage—a willingness to try new things as an actor in the world.

What do you see as the most important features of the Human Rights Practice program?

Zoom chats with activists in the field. An outstanding network of faculty and international advisors. A cost-effective online program that is accessible to qualified applicants anywhere in the world who have a laptop, Internet connection and the means to pay tuition.

What else do you want to add?

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this program.

For more, visit:

Phyllis Taoua's Faculty Profile

Twitter @PhyllisTaoua

Phyllis Taoua's Profile