As an undergraduate student at Brown, Jennifer Johnson became interested in African history through classes she took with Nancy Jacobs, associate professor of history and Africana studies. Wanting to experience the region firsthand, Johnson traveled abroad to Morocco her junior year and it was then that her interest developed into a life-long passion.
“I was very taken with the culture and history when I traveled abroad. There was something unique about it,” Johnson recalled. “[North Africa] sits at the apex of so many different cultures: Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Europe. It has a fascinating history.”
Johnson returned to Brown to write a senior thesis on Algeria and went on to earn a Ph.D. in history from Princeton, where much of her work focused on nationalism and decolonization in North Africa. Her dissertation was titled Humanizing Warfare: The Politics of Medicine, Health Care and International Humanitarian Intervention in Algeria.
She returns to Brown this fall to share her interest and expertise in North African history with other students as assistant professor of history.
Since completing her doctorate, Johnson has spent much of her time expanding on her dissertation research for a book, due to be published this fall by the University of Pennsylvania Press, titled The Battle for Algeria: Sovereignty, Health Care, and Humanitarianism.
The book examines how Algerian nationalists used healthcare, medicine, and the language of humanitarianism and human rights as political leverage against the French during the Algerian War (1954-1962).
“The Algerian nationalists created their own health services division and used that as a platform to convince the local population that they were purveyors of state services,” Johnson said. Their social services rivaled those of the colonial administration and demonstrated that the nationalists were ready to govern Algeria.
In her book, Johnson describes how, in addition to working at home, the Algerians went on to lobby for independence internationally, establishing programs like the Algerian Red Crescent and requesting aid and medicine from the Red Cross.
“That was another way for them to launch their platform and make claims that they were the legitimate leaders of Algeria,” Johnson said.
To do her research, Johnson spent significant time in the national archives in Algeria, where she found many documents authored by the National Liberation Front, including internal strategy memos and correspondence. She also visited the Red Cross archives in Geneva, archives in France, and the United Nations headquarters in New York City.
While working on her book, Johnson taught African history at Lehman College and the City College of New York, both part of the CUNY system.
Although Johnson has officially begun her faculty position at Brown, she won’t step into a classroom right away. She’s been awarded a Woodrow Wilson National Foundation Career Enhancement Fellowship to spend the next year researching her second book, an examination of how independent North African countries constituted their health care policies from 1950-1980. She will explore the relationship between new governments and leading international organizations, including the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and UNICEF, to better understand the challenges of post-colonial state building. She’ll likely return to many of the same places that she visited for her first book to conduct that research as well.
When she gets back to College Hill, Johnson will teach a course on modern African history and says she’s looking forward to switching roles from student to teacher at her alma mater.
“I loved Brown. I had such a positive experience as an undergrad here. It’s such a dynamic place where the faculty and students are so engaged in the love of learning. I remember that so fondly. When I returned, I instantly felt the same connection with the University.”