Ekwueme Michael Thelwell

Justice for Jason rally at UMass Amherst: Michael Ekwueme Thelwell speaking to protesters outside the Student Union Building in support of Jason Vassell, March 12, 2008

A pioneer in Afro-American Studies, in 1970 Ekwueme Michael Thelwell became the founding chairman of the W.E.B. Du Bois Department. The Jamaican-born writer, activist, educator, and intellectual received his early education at Jamaica College. He came to the United States in 1959 to attend Howard University and went on to do his graduate work at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Thelwell was active in the civil rights movement; participating in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Thelwell’s anti-apartheid activism in the 1980s resulted in successful legislation that outlawed tax write-offs for U.S.-based corporations paying taxes to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

As a writer of fiction, as well as of influential essays, his work has been published nationally and internationally in journals and magazines including The Black Scholar, Temps Moderne, the Partisan Review, Presence Africaine (Paris), the New York Times, and African Commentary. His novel The Harder They Come (1980) has become a classic on life among Jamaican common folk. His political and literary essays are collected in Duties, Pleasures and Conflicts (1987). Thelwell’s literary awards include fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Centennial Medal of the Institute of Jamaica.

Civil Rights History Project: Ekwueme Michael Thelwell by the Library of Congress