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 a literary critic. She heads the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, and she speaks and has published in four different languages. But it wasn’t always this way.
Ekotto, who was born in Cameroon and grew up in Switzerland, was a citizen of the world by her late teens. She moved from Europe to the U.S. to attend high school as a nontraditional student, where she meant to learn English. But her studies weren’t going well and she felt lost. Then, while skiing, she met two CC professors — Harvey and Marcelle Rabbin — who asked her to apply to Colorado College. They helped her with the application to earn a fellowship, 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 began her career at CC, she faced a deep and abiding challenge: to learn English fast enough to keep up with her coursework. She says it was Harvey and Marcelle who helped her to stay the course. The Rabbins took her under their wing, treating her like a surrogate daughter. Marcelle, who was born in France, taught Ekotto in both French and English. When Ekotto grew overwhelmed, she would walk to their house down the street and knock on the door. They would walk the dog together or eat dinner. The Rabbins were lifelines, making sure she was cared for each day. Above all, Harvey stressed, was the need for Ekotto to discover her voice: to find the language to speak about her own self.
After graduating in 1986, Ekotto went on to earn a Ph.D. 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 works, she has never left the university. In 2014, she became the first African woman to lead the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, and was awarded a Collegiate Professorship, one of the highest faculty honors given by the university.
Both her academic and fiction writing are indelibly shaped by her upbringing. Ekotto’s scholarly works examine issues of race and inequality, as well as film and literature in the Francophone world. Many of Ekotto’s novels focus on gender and sexuality in sub-Saharan Africa. Language, identity, and expression are throughlines in her work. Whether in fictional or academic writing, Ekotto says she is fascinated by the power that language has to confine or liberate how a person can express their self through language or be denied that expression.
Harvey and Marcelle retired to France, and Ekotto stayed in touch with them, often walking through Paris with Harvey as they discussed her career. His mentorship, too, has left an indelible mark on her 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 the 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, making her home across the world, and to offer the same mentorship Harvey Rabbin gave her to her students.
Above all, Ekotto says she hopes to give back to Colorado College, the institution that shaped her — that taught her courage, humility, and how to speak her own truth into the world, no matter which language she chooses.