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A Conversation With Dr. Nikhil Singh

Dr. Nikhil Singh is an associate professor of history at the University of Washington, where he has taught since 1998. He currently holds the Walker Family Professor position. Singh has also taught at New York University, State University of New York-Stony Brook, Sarah Lawrence College and Wesleyan University.

He holds a bachelor’s in social studies from Harvard University as well as a master’s and doctorate in American studies from Yale University. His writings on African- Americans and ethnicity include the 2004 book, Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy, which drew praise from intellectuals such as Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley and Lani Guinier.

DI: How did you become so interested in African-American history?

NS: My mother was from Britain, my father from India. I grew up knowing the world was a big place. I was born in India, and our family emigrated when I was a baby in the late 1960s. In New Jersey, no one knew what to make of us. We blended in a bit, but we weren’t typecast easily. We experienced some low-level racism, though nothing like what Blacks experienced day to day. I found the exclusion of African-Americans to be so profound. Even when I was a kid, my parents and I discussed world affairs and social justice very openly.

DI: Aside from the glowing reviews of Black is a Country, how has your work been received by African-Americans?

NS: Very well. They have such an open tradition. I don’t run into, “You wouldn’t understand us because you’re not one of us.” I’ve found that people who learn the African- American tradition from the ground up are welcomed into the community. We see examples of this in jazz and basketball, too.

DI: What’s your next book?

NS: A collaboration with civil rights activist Jack O’Dell. I’ve interviewed him multiple times the past couple of years. I’ve been writing a long introduction about his politics. The rest of the book will be reprints of Jack’s essays.

DI: Name your guilty pleasure.

NS: Action movies. I loved “The Bourne Ultimatum.”

DI: If you could travel for two weeks and money was no object, where would you go?

NS: Istanbul. I love cities where I can explore nooks and crannies. By the way, if I could get two more weeks after Istanbul, I’d go to Maui and relax. That’s my other guilty pleasure!

— By Lydia Lum

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