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Merle L Bowen

Profile picture for Merle L Bowen

Contact Information

Department of African American Studies
1201 W. Nevada, MC/143
Urbana, IL 61801



I am a scholar of Africa and the African Diaspora in the Department of African American Studies. My research focuses on the importance of land and labor to the struggle for black freedom and self-realization—one of the more important and complicated areas of investigation in the African Diaspora. That interest brought me to the Lusophone world, first to Mozambique and then to Brazil. As an academic, my professional life has been dedicated to charting the struggles of black people in multiple national locations to obtain and maintain access to land, to enjoy the fruit of their labor, and to lead dignified lives—in short, to vindicate their humanity, thereby making relevant the current mantra, “Black Lives Matter.”



Research Interests

  • Politics in Africa and the African Diaspora
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in Africa/African Diaspora
  • Land, Labor, and Afro-Brazilian Rural Communities
  • Agroecology and Agrarian Change
  • Afro-descendant Social Movements in the Americas
  • Black Land Loss and Climate Change in the Americas

Research Description

My award-winning book, For Land and Liberty: Black Struggles in Rural Brazil (Cambridge University Press, 2021) is a comparative study of the history and contemporary circumstances concerning Brazil’s quilombos (African-descent rural communities) and their inhabitants, the quilombolas. The book examines the disposition of quilombola claims to land as a site of contestation over citizenship and its meanings for Afro-descendants, as well as their connections to the broader fight against racism. The book demonstrates the dispossession of rural black communities by powerful rural and state interests since the time of slavery, and compellingly argues that land rights are a necessary form of reparations for past injustices, and to achieve justice today. This work illuminates the unfinished struggle for liberation in Brazil and the African diaspora.

Building on earlier work in Mozambique and Brazil, my new research project is a study of Black rural communities in the Atlantic province of Nova Scotia and their protracted struggle for land, livelihood, and citizenship rights. It aims to create new narratives of Black rural community life in Canada by analyzing the diverse experiences of people of African descent and by situating them as speakers and agents of their own lives. By looking at land and labor, the study will bring to light untold stories of African Nova Scotian ingenuity and resilience. The book project uses the diasporic Canadian Atlantic as an empirical and theoretical framework to extend the geographical scope of the African diaspora.  



  • PhD, University of Toronto
  • M.A.A.S., University of California Los Angeles
  • BA (Honors), University of Toronto


  • Principal Investigator, Department of African American Studies, Mandela Washington Fellows, Civic Leadership Institute, Department of State/IREX (FY16-YALI-CL-Illinois-01), 2016, $149,834
  • Principal Investigator, Center for African Studies, National Resource Center ($980,000/PO15A140048) and Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship ($1,822,500/PO15B140048) Title VI Grants, U.S. Department of Education, 2014-18, $2,802,500
  • Principal Investigator, “Who Owns Paradise? Afro-Brazilians and Ethno-Tourism in Brazil’s Quilombos,” Research Board (RB15124), 2015, $13,658 and International Research Travel Grant, $2500

Awards and Honors

  • University Scholar, University of Illinois, 2023-26
  • Winner of the 2022 P. Sterling Stuckey Book Prize, Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora (ASWAD)
  • Fellow, Rockefeller Foundation Humanities Program at Northwestern University, 2005
  • Fellow, Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society, UI, 2004
  • Fellow, Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity, University of North Carolina Chapel-Hill, 1991-93
  • Fellow, Center for Advanced Study, University of Illinois, 1990
  • Fellow, Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African American Studies, University of Rochester, 1987-88

Courses Taught

Pan Africansim in the Americas, Europe and Africa
Government and Politics in Africa
Introduction to the African Diaspora
Development of African Studies
Global Africa
Social Movements and Globalization in Africa, Asia and Latin America
Comparative Politics in Developing Countries

Additional Campus Affiliations

Professor, African American Studies
Professor, Political Science
Professor, Gender and Women's Studies
Professor, Women & Gender in Global Perspectives
Professor, Global Studies Programs and Courses
Professor, Lemann Center for Brazilian Studies
Professor, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Professor, Center for African Studies

Recent Publications

Bowen, M. L. (2021). For Land and Liberty: Black Struggles in Rural Brazil. (Cambridge Studies on the African Diaspora). Cambridge University Press.

Bowen, M. L. (2018). Quilombo Identity, Ethno-Commodification, and Tourism in Neoliberal Brazil. In R. K. Edozie, G. A. Chambers, & T. Hamilton-Wray (Eds.), New Frontiers in the Study of the Global African Diaspora: Between Uncharted Themes and Alternative Representations (pp. 197-212). (Ruth Simms Hamilton African Diaspora). Michigan State University Press.

Bowen, M. L., Mitchell, S. T., & Sullivan, L. (Eds.) (2017). Afro-Brazilian citizenship and the politics of history. African and Black Diaspora, 10(2).

Bowen, M. L. (2017). Who owns paradise? Afro-Brazilians and ethnic tourism in Brazil’s quilombos. African and Black Diaspora, 10(2), 179-202.

Bowen, M. L., & Tillman, A. S. (2015). Developing Culturally Responsive Surveys: Lessons in Development, Implementation, and Analysis From Brazil’s African Descent Communities. American Journal of Evaluation, 36(1), 25-41.

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