From the In Memoriam column in the November 1999 Perspectives
H. Leroy Vail (1940-99)
Joseph C. Miller, November 1999
Leroy Vail died quietly at home in Concord, Massachusetts, on the morning of March 27, 1999, in the loving company of his wife of 31 years, Patricia, and their daughter, Sharon Mulenga. He had fought lymphoma for several months, but even this large, vigorous, determined, youthful 58-year-old man could not resist a cancer so aggressive. His many students and colleagues around the world will join Patricia and Sharon in the deep personal loss of his passing, for he was also a friend and mentor to those with whom he worked, for those he taught, and of those in Africa, whom he sought to understand, revealing the humanity to an all-too ignorant world through his own rich humanness.
A native of the Boston area, Leroy was educated there through his BA (Boston College, 1962) before starting his explorations of Africa in Madison, Wisconsin, where he took his MA in the then-fledgling comparative tropical history program at the University of Wisconsin under Philip Curtin and Jan Vansina. As African Studies at Wisconsin developed to add a department of African languages and literatures, Leroy moved into Bantu linguistics, took up research on the Tumbuka language in northern Malawi from a post as lecturer in history at the University of Malawi (1967–71), and wrote his dissertation, "Aspects of the Tumbuka Verb" (1972). With this linguistic base, Leroy realized the high yield of profound knowledge of African languages for all Africanist fields. His ability to combine literary grace and sensitivity, linguistic skills, and historical insight made him the rigorous and judicious embodiment of interdisciplinary African studies throughout his career.
But linguistics and other academic disciplines were only the technique through which Leroy achieved the understanding that comes to those who listen for the meanings intended by those who utter the words, and are thereby able to convey their experiences. For those so attuned, grasping one element in the web of human existence leads irresistibly to examining others. And so Leroy's research on Tumbuka verbs produced early articles on the noun classes of Tumbuka and Ndall and "suggestions toward a reinterpreted Tumbuka history," firmly set in a biting critique of imperial business in central Africa, which he soon extended into the lower Zambezi Valley in Mozambique. Leroy lived in central Africa until the end of 1978 (at the University of Zambia from 1973), where he established loyal, mutually productive, lifelong relationships with colleagues and friends, and became an unrelenting critic of the Banda regime he had lived under in Malawi. Sympathetic discernment drove his well-known series of chapters and articles on colonial processes in Africa, dissected as "the making of an imperial slum" in the case of Nyasaland and its railways, as ecological degradation in eastern Zambia, and especially as the pervasive inhumanity of the chartered "prazo" companies in Portuguese Mozambique. With Landeg White, he evoked Capitalism and Colonialism in Mozambique as Africans experienced them in their jointly authorized monograph, published in 1981. This study, subsequently praised as the "outstanding book on the country's history" by another contributor to it, culminated this phase of his engagement with Africa and Africans by presenting the voices of peasant women who sang their laments at being forced to grow cotton to the detriment of their ability to feed their families. Beyond the ongoing theoretical currency that underlay this work was Leroy's characteristic ability to write rigorously empirical history, always with a heart. As a student remembered, Leroy wrote responsible history with poetic license.
Leroy returned to the United States to take a visiting appointment at the University of Virginia in 1978 and then stayed to settle—more or less—into Charlottesville until 1983, with succeeding appointments through the Carter G. Woodson Institute for Afro-American and African Studies, interspersed with peripatetic teaching at UCLA and Ohio University and a fellowship at Yale's Southern African Research Program (1981–82). While enriching the African studies centers of North America, he pursued—in continuing collaboration with Lan White—the potential of fusing social science analysis with humanistic sensibility, the distinctive style in which these two so productively complemented one another. Before leaving Charlottesville in 1983, almost in passing, Leroy convened the leading historians and anthropologists of southern Africa to launch the project that became The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa (1988). Returning to the Boston area as a visitor at Harvard in 1984, he remained to complete his major works as professor of African history from 1990. At Harvard, he was known for his dedication to students in all fields, convened two major international conferences, and chaired the Harvard Committee on African Studies (1990–95).
With Lan, Leroy provocatively evoked the continuities, as well as the wrenching changes, in modern central and southern Africa, as Africans had revealed them through the political thrust of their oral arts in Power and the Praise Poem: Southern African Voices in History, which appeared in 1991. This deep intellectual collaboration between partners worthily matched in interdisciplinarity thrived on Leroy's ability to draw as fruitfully on close relationships with others as his own independence of spirit stimulated those around him to thrive as well. Working with Leroy, colleagues and students remember well, was not always so comfortable but, with his direct challenges consistently softened by wry wit and a twinkle in the eye, always worth the acknowledgment that, listening to you, he had thought of things you hadn't.
Nearing what turned out to be the end of his career, Leroy followed his love of Africa and language back to Bantu linguistics. At his death, he had all but completed his edition of an English–Lakeside Tonga dictionary, a historically erudite compilation of some 15,000 words recorded more than a century ago. And—still growing in multitalented, multifaceted character—he was in Togo, laying the groundwork for future research on ethnogenesis in a region of the continent entirely new to him, when his lymphoma abruptly took him out of Africa, if only bodily, for the last time. We will not now have the full development of his thinking on spirit possession in Malawi and Zambia, in a planned work on "Spirits, Women, and Deprivation," or appreciate his awareness of style and expression in language, as well as history, in "Ideophones as Stylistic Devices in Tumbuka."
Leroy's students will remember him, beyond his wise intellectual guidance through fields ranging far beyond those in which he published, for the personal devotion he brought to each of them. In Malawi, Zambia, and South Africa, as well as in Virginia, California, Ohio, and especially Massachusetts, his engaging wit initiated believers and doubters alike into multiple aspects of African history, in all its interdisciplinary wholeness. As he revealed the human costs of colonial "development" in Africa, he supported the intellectual development of his students with no-nonsense commitment to their personal growth and welfare. A generous, wise, very private person infused accomplished public professionalism in paradoxically open ways.
Those who knew Leroy's ability to nourish luxuriant violets and orchids—and gardens in challenging climates tropical as well as temperate—understood the integrity of character that made everyone, and everything, around him grow. Physically removed from us now, he leaves large personal and professional legacies for us to cherish. Thorough research and rigorous method imbued his work with the power of sheer substantiality, and he wielded theory with authority but not pretension. Even in a career cut tragically short, he had repeatedly honed the cutting edges of subsequently major subfields of African studies: beyond linguistics, in corporate colonialism, environmental history, hunger and poverty, women's voices, literary and political analysis of oral performance, subjugated knowledge, and the historicity of ethnic community.
Just as Leroy kept on moving on to open fresh fields of inquiry, leaving others inspired to develop the several he was among the first to plough, so he has now left us all empowered to carry on again.
—Joseph C. Miller
University of Virginia