Nah Dove has come a long way since taking a degree at the erstwhile Polytechnic of North London at the age of 40. Some 30 years on she is an author, lecturer and respected scholar in African American studies, most recently contributing to the first encyclopedia of African heritage in the US.
What is all the more remarkable is that she achieved this as a single mother of six who left school with only an ‘A’ level in art.
Now a grandmother of nine and a governor at Holy Trinity School in Swiss Cottage, she talks about her 10 years of scholarship in the US from her home in Highgate, including her 1998 book Afrikan Mothers: Bearers of Culture, Makers of Social Change.
So how did she make the leap from single mother to associate professor, and for that matter, from London to the other side of the Atlantic? Apart from personal ambition, she gives thanks to the free education on offer in the UK at the time. “If I had had to pay fees I would never have been able to do it,” she says.
“After that I just wanted to go on studying and became increasingly drawn to African American studies, which is a highly developed field of academia.”
Born to an English mother and Ghanaian father, Nah spent her early years in West Africa before returning to the UK with her parents. “I found England hostile and a place where I didn’t fit in anywhere – I really hated school.”
By the time she was in her early twenties she was married with two children. A set of twins followed. Far from being burdensome, having children anchored her: “I thought I was bringing good people into the world and they gave me a sense of stability and responsibility.”
However, the marriage didn’t last and Nah decided to go to Canada, where her mother lived. Here she met her second husband and had two more children. When that marriage broke down, she decided to return to England.
In 1987, having been involved in the Mandela Supplementary School in north London, she began a BSc in sociology at the polytechnic in Kentish Town. “I thought I could better serve the children if I learned more and it turned out that North London Poly was a wonderful place for learning. I was really happy there,” continues Nah.
Having excelled herself she was awarded a bursary to take a masters in sociology at the Institute of Education in 1990 with specific reference to the education of black children. During the course of her degree, she met civil rights activist and scholar Ida Mae Holland at the London opening of her play From the Mississippi Delta: “She encouraged me to continue my studies in the States, which made sense as all the academic literature that I was interested in came from the US.”
Taking along her two youngest children, she embarked on a PhD with a focus on African American studies at the State University of New York, supported by another scholarship, going on to lecture on the subject at Temple and Penn State universities in Pennsylvania. Nah then moved to Medgar Evers Community University in New York as an associate professor.
In 2000 she found herself packing her bags again, this time to be with the rest of her family in the UK and to spend time in Ghana. However, she maintained her links with the US as a frequent contributor to academic journals.
Nah’s entries in the Encyclopedia of African Cultural Heritage in North America reiterate the book’s main theme of cultural continuity despite people’s forced removal and enslavement. “My work moves way from genetic-based theories of race and instead looks at the historical, cultural influence on beliefs and behaviours,” she explains.
“For example, people in the diaspora often spontaneously perform a libation by pouring a few drops of drink on to the ground even though they might not be aware that this is a widely performed custom across Africa.”
Softly spoken and with a tranquil air about her, she is unassuming about her achievements. Nevertheless she hopes that they will inspire others: “I have written at length about women against the odds and it is this that I want to leave people with,” she states.
The SAGE Encyclopedia of African Cultural Heritage in North America, edited by Mwalimu J Shujaa and Kenya J Shujaa, is published by Sage Publications Inc
This article was first published in the Camden New Journal on October 8, 2015