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 organic farm featuring 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 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 an effort to make the fruits of her research more widely available to a Kiswahili-language readership, in 2013 Fair published Historia ya Jamii ya Zanzibar na Nyimbo za Siti binti Saad (A Social History of Zanzibar and the Music of Siti binti Saad) (Twaweza, 2013).
The book was officially launched in Nairobi, Kenya on December 20, 2013. The event was organized by the publisher, Professor Kimani Njogu of TWAWEZA, and included a panel discussion with leading Kenyan academics from the University of Nairobi, Kenyatta University, and the Catholic University of East Africa.
Dr. Fair was then invited to launch the book in Zanzibar as part of the opening ceremonies of a new NGO bearing the name of the singer, Siti binti Saad, whose life, career and political struggles are at the center of Fair’s book. This evening of celebration was attended by the President of Zanzibar: Dr. Ali Mohamed Shein, the former President of Tanzania: Ali Hassan Mwinyi (1985-1995), numerous other dignitaries and 300 select invited guests. The events were broadcast live on television in Zanzibar and the Tanzanian mainland. The Department of History at the University of Dar es Salaam also organized a seminar about the book on January 9, 2014, which was attended by faculty and students from the departments of History, Development Studies, Literature, Kiswahili and Fine and Performing Arts.
Fair2Publication of the book was made possible by a MSU Humanities and Arts Research Program Production Grant supplemented with research funds provided by the Department of History. This generous financial support allowed Dr. Fair to distribute 200 free copies of the book to schools, libraries, archives and individuals in Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania.
Dr. Fair and key organizers of the events in Zanzibar, at a planning meeting with the former President of Tanzania, Ali Hassan Mwinyi, at his home.
Dr. Fair’s current project is a wide-ranging study of commercial cinema in colonial and postcolonial Tanzania. Cinemas, Cities and Audiences: The Business and Pleasures of Movie-going in Twentieth Century 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.