Prexy Nesbitt is an educator, activist and scholar – these are intertwined activities; activities that are in dialogue in Prexy’s life and work whether in the classroom, taking educational groups to Southern Africa, in his various publications or his commitment to creating archives from the material he has collected and produced over the years.
Of course, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Prexy grew up in a Chicago household and family engaged in teaching, human rights struggles and union organizing. His family were teachers, lawyers and doctors who all believed in service and commitment. He cut his teeth, so to speak, organizing his fellow undergrads at Antioch College where, in the 1960s, he joined with others to integrate a local barbershop which refused to cut black hair. In 1967, he also co-founded the Antioch Committee for a Free South Africa to get the College to divest from investments in SA businesses that profited from apartheid (an initiative that was successful only ten years later).
Part of what motivated Prexy’s early involvement with Africa was that in 1965-66 he studied abroad in Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania—where a newly independent and non-aligned Tanzania was committed to supporting liberation struggles in the region. It was here that Prexy met the leaders and activists (people like President Julius Nyerere, Eduardo Mondlane and Samora and Graca Machel, Jorge Rebelo, Agostinho Neto, J.B. Marks and O.R. Tambo) committed to freeing Southern African countries like Angola, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe from white supremacist rule.
Prexy consistently puts not only education and political activism in dialogue but he puts the US and Africa in conversation. His rootedness in Chicago, the Civil Rights struggle there, especially the work with Dr. M.L. King and his staff, and his union organizing are constantly in dialogue with his work across the Atlantic. This is not just intellectually savvy. As Prexy tells it, it has been a perspective that has salvaged his life. By involving himself constructively in Southern Africa’s liberation struggles he kept himself from the sometimes destructive and self-destructive ends to which politics drove some youth during the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Central to all of the conversations Prexy creates and to his work is a commitment to anti-racism. Whether he is organizing on the West side of Chicago with MLK, Jr. in the 1960s; helping direct the World Council of Churches Program to Combat Racism in the late 1970s from Geneva, Switzerland; serving as a program officer for the MacArthur Foundation in the 1990s and as a special aide to Chicago Mayor Harold Washington; as the Dean of Students and Dean of Community Engagement and Diversity at the prestigious Francis W. Parker school in Chicago; as an African history professor at Columbia College in Chicago; or sitting around the dinner table with friends.
It is obvious from the little that I have said—and I’ve given you only a glimpse of his resume and work—that Prexy is tireless in his commitment to educating people and to political activism; what used to be called ‘the struggle.’ But, let me also emphasize that he is a deeply generous friend, mentor and parent to many, many folks. Indeed, I am honored to call him my friend and to welcome him here to Bloomington. I trust he will stir your minds and your hearts.
This brief biography was originally presented by Marissa Moorman, Assistant Professor of African History, Indiana University, author of Intonations: a Social History of Music and Nation in Luanda, Angola, from 1945 to Recent Times, introducing Prexy when he spoke at an Indiana University African Studies Program at the Unitarian Church in Bloomington, March 25, 2009.