James F. Searing, 1953-2012 .

Dec 04, 2012

Jim Searing, Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he taught since 1992, died unexpectedly on December 3.  Searing, who specialized in African History and served as Chair of the UIC Department of History from 2005-2010, will be missed greatly for his sense of humor, his deep intellect, and his commitment to the Department and the University.

Searing, James F. <em>God Alone Is King : Islam and Emancipation in Senegal : The Wolof Kingdoms of Kajoor and Bawol, 1859-1914.</em> Heinemann, 2001.James SearingSearing's research, which focused on the history of Senegal, was enriched through an ethnographic approach to the peoples and cultures of Senegal, including their historical encounters with Islam, the Atlantic world, and French colonial rule. These interests led to flood of dynamic scholarship, including two important books, West African Slavery and Atlantic Commerce: The Senegal River Valley, 1700-1860 (Cambridge, 1993) and “God Alone is King”: Islam and Emancipation in Senegal, 1859-1914: The Wolof Kingdoms of Kajoor and Bawol (Portsmouth, 2001). His current research examined ethnicity and conversion through a fieldwork-based study of the Sereer-Safèn, an ethnic minority in the Thiès region who converted to Islam in the colonial period. He was in the midst of producing a steady stream of publications related to that project in top-notch journals, including, “'No Kings, No Lords, No Slaves’: Ethnicity and Religion among the Sereer-Safèn of Western Bawol (Senegal), 1700-1914,” Journal of African History, 43 (2002): 407-29; “Conversion to Islam: Military Recruitment and Generational Conflict in a Sereer-Safèn Village (Bandia), 1920-1938,” Journal of African History, 44 (2003): 73-94; and “The Time of Conversion: Christian and Muslims among the Sereer-Safèn of Senegal, 1914-1950s,” in Benjamin F. Soares (ed.), Muslim-Christian Encounters in Africa, (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2006).

Searing, James F. <em>West African Slavery and Atlantic Commerce: The Senegal River Valley, 1700-1860.</em> Cambridge University Press, 1993.Shortly before his death, Searing had also initiated negotiations with the United Nations regarding UIC’s participation in UNESCO’s Decade for People of African Descent project, and was in the process of securing recognition for UIC’s Daley Library’s Special Collection on the Sierra Leone, the African slave trade, and the Caribbean.

Searing will also be remembered as a remarkable teacher with an unbridled commitment to his students.  He loved introducing undergraduates to the key concepts of history in his historical methods course, and he particularly enjoyed introducing them to the complex history of Africa.  For his graduate students, he was a tireless advocate, gently pushing them to do their best work and always offering a humane perspective on the profession they were about to enter. Searing was also the founding member of the graduate concentration in Encounters, Empires, and Ethnography, a concentration that brought together several of the unique talents of the Department. He leaves a legacy of sophisticated, committed scholars and educators he has trained in the fields of African and Atlantic world history. 

Professor Searing is survived by his wife Patricia Hickling and three children, and will be missed by all who knew him. 



  1. 36 Arthur Abraham 04 Dec
    It was just a few weeks ago that we were all at the Slavery conference at UIC, intellectualizing and then socializing afterwards in receptions/dinners, that it is difficult to imagine Jim is gone in the twinkle of an eye. Short of words, let me just express my sincerest and most profound condolences to his family and the coleagues he leaves behind at UIC and beyond.
  2. 35 Syed Saboor 04 Dec
    I studied under Professor Searing for my graduate degree in African history. He was both an inspiring and cordial person to work with. I will be forever indebted to him for his assistance and his guidance in pursuing my own area of study as well as in the formulation of my own thoughts. His unfortunate death is truly a sad chapter for all of us who knew him. It came as a shock to me, but his legacy and his ideas will continue to live in those of us who studied under him.
  3. 34 Scott A. Searing 04 Dec
    My family is very proud of my brother Jim in all that he gave to the world. He was a good man who not only gave of himself professionally but was also a gift to his family. He was a committed father and husband and
    we will all miss him.
    As an older brother, I'll never forget the time he taught me to "carry numbers" in math equations. I was in 3rd grade and no matter how much my teacher tried she couldn't teach me how to do this. Somehow my teacher conveyed her frustration with me to my mother. My mother's answer to this problem was to tell Jim to "teach this kid how to do his math!" My brother led me into our room, pencil and paper in hand. He wrote down a sample equation and explained the concept to me. I got it! I got it immediately and it was easy! I don't know why but maybe it was just the comfort level I had with having my "big brother" sit down and help me.
    I will never forget that, EVER! Thank you bro, God Bless and keep you!
  4. 33 Jochen Arndt 04 Dec

    I met Jim first in 2007 when I was in the process of applying to the PhD program at UIC.  Although he was undoubtedly busy as the Chair of the department back then, he took the time to listen to an untried applicant about his ambitions to become an Africanist. I am not sure what he thought of the encounter, but it quickly became apparent to me that Jim combined all the qualities an aspiring student would want in his or her advisor: he was kind; he was easy-going; and he was incredibly knowledgeable.

    Four years into the program, he had exceeded all my expectations. I took courses in African history, History of Empire, South African History and several other independent study courses with him, and I was always in awe of his quasi-encyclopedic knowledge of each and every book, each and every debate, and each and every argument. I remember saying to myself after class: “I wish I could become a scholar like that!”

    Jim made sure that others and I received the best help we could get to achieve our academic goals. Much of this help came in the form of his theoretical and historiographical guidance, but this was not all.  He tirelessly wrote letters of recommendation, answered emails about questions, and was also supportive on an emotional level. On time when I was filled with doubts about my abilities as an Africanist-in-the-making, he left a final comment on my term paper which read: “Don’t worry, you have the talent to be one.”  He had kind words like these when they were particularly needed.

    One special moment happened about a year and a half ago when he offered me to call him by his first name (until then it was Professor Searing). It was special because, as I like to think, it implied that I had “earned” it. With the reduced formality, our conversations began to also include non-professional topics: his time in Germany, in France, in Senegal, and his time playing music in a band. He was a great storyteller, and it was a joy to listen to his humorous interpretation of these periods and events in his life.

    Another special moment occurred quite recently. Thanks to his support I had been offered a research fellowship, but I was in doubt about accepting it for a number of personal reasons.  Jim took me out for a beer and listened to my concerns. He did not force a particular decision on me, but he listened and provided his counsel. It meant a lot to me that he went the extra mile that day.

    All this is to say that Jim was a fantastic advisor.

    Your knowledge, mentorship and kindness will be profoundly missed. Your sudden departure is a severe loss.

  5. 32 Jessica Espinosa 04 Dec
    I never had the pleasure of meeting Professor Searing, but as a member of the history department I would like to express my condolences to his family and friends. The university will miss him and on that same token celebrate him and his work. 
  6. 31 Melissa Goldberg 04 Dec
    I am so sorry to hear this...I had Professor Searing last semester for a class about the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya during the 1950's. I loved the class and was extremely impressed by his extensive knowledge of Kenyan/African history. I particularly liked his sense of humor and stories about time spent studying and working in Africa. On top of his intelligence and dedication to his students, I felt that he was a very genuine, compassionate, and honorable person. I greatly respected him and will not soon forget the time I spent in his classroom. My heart goes out to all of his family and friends.
  7. 30 Martin Klein 04 Dec
    I first met Jim Searing when Bob Tignor asked me to be the external examiner for his Princeton thesis. I really enjoyed Jim, who then, as through all the years I knew him, had a ready smile and an easy relaxed manner. The thesis was well written, but I gave it a rigorous once over and suggested that he should try to go deeper into the processes of Senegalese culture and history. He really took that seriously. He spent two years in Senegal as a Fulbright professor, learned Wolof, and when he wrote West African Slavery and Atlantic Commerce, he had the ability to cite the right proverb and to talk about Wolof thought and culture. The book was very god and marked by a sensitivity to Wolof culture.. In my own work on slavery, I frequently went back to it to see how Searing understood the question I was exploring. Having written an important book on slavery, Jim then went back to the subject of his thesis and wrote the book I wanted him to write, "God Alone is King." And he got under the surface. More recently, he has been working on a small group called the Safen, one of a series of small groups that have a tendency to get lost in Senegalese historiography. Wending his way through a history with no guides, he was doing fascinating and interesting work, work that casting light on much else that has happened in Senegalese history. I regret that sometimes I did not see Jim and Trish for long periods of time. Jim told me that while living in Dakar, he used to go down to a Senegalese jazz club with his saxophone and jam with local musicians. I would have enjoyed that.

    I was stunned by the news. Jim was young -- at least from my perspective -- and full of life. A fine guy. A fine historian. My condoleances to Trish, his kids, and his friends in Chicago. We will miss him..
  8. 29 Karl Ittmann 04 Dec
    I met Jim at Princeton in 1987 when we were both lecturers in the department of history. We both lived in Philadelphia and I spent many hours with Jim and Trish. Over the years we met up at conferences and when our paths crossed in Chicago. He was both a wonderful scholar and a person who lived life to the fullest, from learning French by being a domestic in Paris to playing music with friends in Senegal. I will miss him. My heart goes out to Trish and the family at what is a very difficult time. 
  9. 28 Nathan Hare 04 Dec
    I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Searing while pursuing a master's degree.  He had, if I recall correctly, just returned from Senegal and no doubt had projects of his own to work on, but he was kind enough to help me compile a reading list and serve as an exam reader for me.  I'll always remember his help and guidance and offer my condolences to his colleagues, friends, and family.
  10. 27 Steve Jones 05 Dec
    My condolences to family, friends, colleagues, students. Jim was a great faculty colleague and I will miss him.
  11. 26 Michael Alexander 05 Dec
    Jim Searing was able to engage as a scholar, or administrator, or, I am sure, teacher, simultaneously in a serious way and also with a sense of humor.  His contributions both as a historian of West Africa and as an oral historian deepened our department's intellectual life.  His dedication and his concern for others come across in this profile published in UIC News:
    I join the other members of the department in extending condolences to his family on their tragic loss.
  12. 25 Jessica Galea 05 Dec
    I was a history major at UIC very recently.  Though my concentration was early modern Europe, Dr. Searing turned a major requirement into one of my favorite classes.  I still have my copies of Chaka and Sundiata on my shelf.  The class really rounded out my world perspective.  I'm very thankful to have had another great history professor at UIC.
  13. 24 Chris Boyer 05 Dec
         Jim was one of the first people I met when I came to UIC in 2000. Over the years, I realized that I would do well to emulate his commitment to the places he studied, to his students, and to the university. He did not idealize any of these, but he did take them seriously.
         I think what I will miss most about him, though, is his wry sense of humor. He always got a glint in his eye and cocked his smile when he was about to let loose with some irreverent comment. Never mean spirited, but always on target.
  14. 23 Rubina Hafeez 05 Dec
    Professor Searing was an amazing, vibrant, and passionate teacher. I feel honored to have been one of his pupils. Everything I know about African history is thanks to him. My prayers go out to his family in this difficult time.
  15. 22 Amalia Pallares 05 Dec
    My heartfelt condolences to his family. A few years ago when Jim was Head of History I worked with him in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, helping him get the newly restructured history curriculum through the educational policy committee. I could tell he was passionate about the new subject offerings and about undergraduate teaching. He was deeply  committed to strengthening and reenergizing the department.
  16. 21 Kevin Schultz 05 Dec
    A million times a day I remember the laugh, the wry smile as Chris said below, right before the gentle zinger.  And the flow of intellectual horsepower coming at you, the constant flow.  And the blue boatman's cap.  And the knowing looks.  And the serious commitment he had to UIC, to the History Department, and especially to the students.  It's odd how just a week ago he was sitting next to me in a meeting, eating lunch, folding up his little brown lunch bag, listening to a talk...and now he's gone.  There was a quick and instant set of responses among the History Department faculty members when the news first shocked us all, and it's really nice to see these comments as well.   My heart goes out to his family.  He was one of a kind, and he will be missed. 
  17. 20 Margaret Power 05 Dec
     As a graduate of the UIC history dept., I am deeply sorry to hear about his death.  My deepest condolences to his family.
  18. 19 Hilary Leathem 05 Dec
    I just graduated from history and anthropology this past Spring, and Professor Searing had supervised my historical research paper, written me letters of recommendation, and supported me in my search for graduate programs. His classes were excellent, and his research deepened my love for Africa. Perhaps what was most poignant about Professor Searing, though, was his unfaltering support, enthusiasm, and genuine interest in the lives of his students. He and other members of the department were crucial players in my development as a writer, and if it weren't for Searing, I would have never created such a cogent final paper. This news came as a shock, and my heart goes out to his memory, family, and the history department that made a world of a difference. 

  19. 18 Brian Hosmer 06 Dec
    I remember Jim for his intellect, his commitment to the department and--as many have said--his wry sense of humor.  Jim was a great colleague, a good friend, and one of those people who made my time at UIC so very special.  My sincere condolence to his family, and to my UIC colleagues.
  20. 17 Josh Salzmann 07 Dec
    One of my first classes in graduate school was Prof. Searing's Slavery in the Atlantic World. He assigned fascinating texts and sparked such exciting debates--always infused with his sharp wit--that I have vivid memories of them over a decade later.

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