Frieda Ekotto ’86 – Colorado College
“I met two professors from here, Marcelle Rabbi and Harvey Rabbi… Every time I receive an award or receive a promotion, I think of the first day I met those two, and I Think about the first day I landed on this campus. I mean, Colorado College really changed my life. And I don’t think I’d be here today without those two professors who thought I could be somebody. a.
– Frieda Ekotto ’86
Frieda Ekotto ’86 was the first African woman to graduate from Colorado College. She is an intellectual force in French and Francophone studies; a renowned novelist; and literary criticism. She directs the Department of African American and African Studies at the University of Michigan, and she speaks and has published in four different languages. But it has not always been so.
Ekotto, who was born in Cameroon and raised in Switzerland, was a global citizen in her late teens. She moved from Europe to the United States to attend high school as a non-traditional student, where she wanted to learn English. But her studies were not going well and she felt lost. Then, while she was skiing, she met two CC professors – Harvey and Marcelle Rabbi – who asked her to apply to Colorado College. They helped her apply for a scholarship, and Ekotto enrolled in classes in 1983.
Ekotto grew up surrounded by books, art and music, which were all the tools she needed to express herself. But when she started her career at CC, she faced a deep and constant challenge: to learn English fast enough to keep up with her classes. She says it was Harvey and Marcelle who helped keep her on track. The rabbis take her under their wing, treating her like a carrier girl. Marcelle, who was born in France, taught Ekotto in French and English. When Ekotto was overwhelmed, she walked to their house on the street and knocked on the door. They walked the dog together or had dinner. The rabbis were lifesavers, making sure she was cared for every day. Above all, Harvey pointed out, was Ekotto’s need to discover her voice: to find the language to speak for herself.
After graduating in 1986, Ekotto earned a doctorate. in French and Comparative Literature from the University of Minnesota. She then began teaching in 1994 at the University of Michigan. Throughout a storied career spanning academic and creative work, she never left college. In 2014, she became the first African woman to head the Department of African American and African Studies and was awarded a collegiate professorship, one of the highest academic honors awarded by the university.
His academic and fictional writings are indelibly shaped by his upbringing. Ekotto’s scholarly work examines issues of race and inequality, as well as film and literature in the French-speaking world. Many of Ekotto’s novels focus on gender and sexuality in sub-Saharan Africa. Language, identity and expression are the guidelines of his work. Whether in fictional or academic writing, Ekotto says she is fascinated by the power language has to confine or liberate how a person can express themselves through language or be denied that expression.
Harvey and Marcelle retired to France and Ekotto stayed in touch with them, often walking around Paris with Harvey as they discussed his career. His mentorship also left an indelible mark on his life. Today, as she teaches students, Ekotto passes on Harvey’s most important lesson. She asks them to find their own voice: their contribution to the discourse and their unique ability to create a better and more peaceful world.
In 2023, Ekotto will embark on a new adventure. She will become president of the Modern Language Association of America, a leading advocate for strengthening the study and teaching of languages and literature, where she will serve a one-year term. She continues to travel, settling around the world and offering the same mentorship that Harvey Rabbi gave her to her students.
Above all, Ekotto says she hopes to give back to Colorado College, the institution that shaped her — which taught her courage, humility and how to speak her own truth to the world, in whatever language she speaks. ‘she chooses.