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'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).
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.