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Like Du Bois, UPenn Scholar Has Focused on Interdisciplinary Work

Dr. Tukufu Zuberi is familiar to millions of viewers on the popular PBS “History Detectives” program, a television series in its eighth season devoted to “exploring the complexities of historical mysteries, searching out the facts, myths and conundrums that connect local folklore, family legends and interesting objects,” according to its Web site.

His day job? Zuberi is the Lasry Family Endowed Professor of Race Relations at the University of Pennsylvania, where he serves as chair of the sociology department. He still finds time in between teaching and filming his television show to cha cha, waltz and swing with his student-instructor at Penn.

He is one of eight professors selected to participate in an on-campus “Dancing with the Professors” extravaganza modeled after ABC’s hit show, “Dancing with the Stars.” “I can’t dance a lick,” says Zuberi. “The rehearsals have been filled with a lot of sweat, pain and fun.”

Despite his celebrity status as one of the nation’s most recognized Black intellectuals, Zuberi, who first burst onto the national scene in the early 1990s, has found a way to hone all of his academic interests without forcing himself to choose one discipline over another.

“I am trying to be a scholar like W.E.B. Du Bois,” says Zuberi, who authored numerous texts including Thicker Than Blood: An Essay on How Racial Statistics Lie.

“Du Bois was an interdisciplinary scholar. He was not bound to any one discipline.”

Zuberi, who formerly served as the director of the Center for Africana Studies program at Penn, is credited with jumpstarting the doctoral program in Africana studies, which inaugurated its first class of students this academic year.

“Tukufu has made it his mission to build a strong and intellectually rich program in Africana studies,” says Dr. Camille Z. Charles, an associate professor of sociology at Penn who replaced Zuberi as director of the Africana studies program. “He has been a champion for raising the profile of African-American sociologists and their contributions to American sociology going all the way back to Du Bois.”

Zuberi, 50, was born Antonio McDaniel in the Tassafaronga housing projects in Oakland, Calif. He changed his name after he was introduced to the Black Panthers in the years following the civil rights movement. The Black Panther headquarters was just a few blocks from his childhood home.

“The Black Panthers introduced me to what it means to be a socially responsible person,” says Zuberi, who took on the Swahili name that means “beyond praise and strength.” 

“The decision to change my name and my experience in the university are all organically connected,” he says. “It’s a desire to make a connection to the past while helping to transform the world into a better place.”

Since 1988, Penn has provided Zuberi with the space and the resources to pursue his academic interests at home and abroad. The chief architect of the African Census Analysis Project, he has convinced more than 30 African nations to turn over census data to him dating to the 1970s. He and other scholars have been archiving this data, hoping one day to make it available to scholars around the world who are interested in demography across Africa.

“The University of Pennsylvania has facilitated my work in Latin America and Africa and has allowed me to travel,” says Zuberi. “For me, it has been important to be at a university that values the person who does international work. I work with and collaborate with scholars in Africa, Europe and Latin America.”

Penn has also encouraged his work as a host of “History Detectives.”

“I get to engage in cultural imagination in ways that most scholars never get the opportunity to do,” says Zuberi. “I connect people in their everyday lives to history in an entertaining and accessible way. It’s a wonderful experience.”

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