Jeremy Prestholdt

Jeremy Prestholdt specializes in African, Indian Ocean, and global history with emphases on consumer culture and politics. His first book, Domesticating the World: African Consumerism and the Genealogies of Globalization, addressed East African demands for imported goods and how these shaped global exchanges in the second half of the nineteenth century. His current research moves in two directions. One project addresses political culture, violence, and claims of autochthony—or 'original' habitation—at Kenya's coast. A second project combines his interests in consumer culture and politics by exploring popular attraction to four of the world’s most ubiquitous icons: Che Guevara, Bob Marley, Tupac Shakur, and Osama bin Laden. Through the medium of popular heroes, the project traces the development of shared global imagery, highlights the mutability of common references, and charts the commodification of political sentiment since the 1960s.

Current Research

Sea, Soil, and the State: Political Culture in Coastal Kenya

The politicization of ethnic, racial, and religious identities is among the most pressing and misunderstood issues of our time. Intersections of social and political identity, and their contribution to violence, focused the world's attention on Kenya in 2008. The violence that followed Kenya’s presidential elections seemed to repeat a familiar African pattern: deep, antagonistic ethnic divisions ravaging a fragile democracy. Yet this model of Kenya errs in taking social categories as primary, enduring markers of social difference. Since the end of British colonial rule in the 1960s identity-oriented violence has not been constant but instead has coincided with high-stakes political contests. The question of how identity is politicized, and then mobilized for collective action, is therefore central to understanding civil strife in Kenya. To better appreciate the relation of social identity to electoral violence this project explores the culture of political engagement in Kenya since the late colonial era, focusing on moments of significant social tension. Just as important, I address a dimension of social polarization that has not received adequate critical attention: the linking of identity to location. Drawing from an emerging cross-disciplinary literature on autochthony, or claims to 'original' habitation, this book investigates the practice of evoking exclusive rights based on historical presence. I argue that the dichotomous vision inherent in autochthony discourse--of the past as constituted by insiders and outsiders--has linked rights to ethnicity, while the practice of labeling certain Kenyans 'foreigners' has proven an effective political tool. By exploring how conceptualizations of space and history have acted as catalysts for mobilization, this project offers a new interpretation of social polarization in Kenya.

Though many communities in Kenya have experienced civil unrest, this project is among the first to offer a history of political culture in Coast Province, the location of Kenya’s largest port and second largest city: Mombasa. Defined by webs of transoceanic social and economic relation that have connected Africa to Arabia and India for millennia, the Coast Province is one of the most socially heterogeneous regions of the continent. With British rule in the twentieth century, the urban centers of the Kenyan coast retained their Indian Ocean and Islamic orientation, but non-Muslim migrants from across the colony also came to the coast in search of economic opportunity. Administratively, economically, and socially the coast became increasingly tied to Nairobi, Kenya’s center of political and economic power. These multiple and overlapping contexts of Indian Ocean and domestic spheres—of ethnic, racial, and religious diversity—offered fertile ground for the politicization of social identities. As a result, coastal Kenya is one of the few places on the African continent that has experienced not only significant ethnic strife but also hostility between communities defined by race and religion.

Sea, Soil, and the State consists of six overlapping case studies, each addressing a period of rising political tension in Kenya’s history. Each chapter also focuses on a particular means of deploying or reconstituting identity categories, including the development of race-based political parties, the fortification of ethnic blocs under the one-party state, and the use of religion as a catalyst for mobilization in the era of multiparty politics.

Icons of Dissent: Cultural Politics and the Transnational Imagination since the Sixties

This book explores the meanings ascribed to four of the world's most ubiquitous icons: Che Guevara, Bob Marley, Tupac Shakur, and Osama bin Laden. Using popular figures as barometers of transnational sentiments, the book examines the confluence of significant disillusionment and the transnational imagination, or way of seeing that frames local circumstances in a world historical trajectory and so affects collective aspirations. 

The figures I address in this project reflect popular sentiment, political sensibility, and consumer desire. They transcend cultural and economic boundaries, and they are rapidly integrated into consumer trends. Moreover, investigating the appeal of such popular heroes over several decades reveals two aspects of our increasingly interconnected world that are otherwise difficult to discern: 1) the tension between a common attraction to symbols and locally contingent translations, and 2) the intersection of political vision and consumerism. Through case studies of four icons in diverse social contexts, the book tells the story of how people in different locales have developed symbolic vocabularies that are simultaneously transnational and intensely local.

Attraction to Che, Bob, Osama, and Tupac reveals how individual lives are mediated by shared references, how so many people seek deeper meanings for their experiences in global popular culture.  A prominent symbol of New Left radicalism and transnational solidarity in the 1960s, Che Guevara was revived in the early 1990s as both a revolutionary role model and a nostalgia-infused fashion symbol. The most omnipresent of these icons, Bob Marley, became a common reference for social justice and anti-systemic sentiment in the 1970s.  Moreover, since Marley’s death in 1981, emphasis on his spirituality has raised him to the status of a suprareligious, prophet-like figure.  After his death in 1996, Tupac Shakur became the powerful voice of a generation and lodestar of multiple insurgencies from Guadalcanal to Sierra Leone. Osama bin Laden, the most recent and controversial of the folk heroes surveyed, became a symbol of defiance in the early 2000s. After September 11, 2001, Osama was popularly perceived by many around the world as the embodiment of diverse critiques of US foreign policy and neoliberalism. Much like other icons, his image was broadly commercialized, appearing on everything from T-shirts in South Africa and Venezuela to perfume bottles in Pakistan.

Jeremy Prestholdt has been awarded fellowships by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Rockefeller Foundation, Woodrow Wilson Foundation, Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, American Historical Association, Social Science Research Council, and the Fulbright Foundation. He has held visiting fellowships at the University of Bergen (Norway), Institute for European Global Studies, University of Basel (Switzerland), and Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Warwick (United Kingdom).


Domesticating the World: African Consumerism and the Genealogies of Globalization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008)

Icons of Dissent: Cultural Politics and the Transnational Imagination since the Sixties

Selected Articles and Book Chapters

“Locating the Indian Ocean: Thoughts on the Postcolonial Reconstitution of Space in Eastern Africa” Journal of Eastern African Studies (Special Collection: Pirates, Preachers, and Politics along the African Indian Ocean Coast) 9, 3 (2015): 440-67.

“Politics of the Soil: Separatism, Autochthony and Decolonization at Kenya’s Coast,” Journal of African History 55, 2 (2014): 1-22.

“From Zanzibar to Beirut: Sayyida Salme bint Said and the Tensions of Cosmopolitanism,” in James L. Gelvin and Nile Green, eds. Global Islam in the Age of Steam and Print, 1850-1930. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013, 204-226.

“Fighting Phantoms: The United States and Counterterrorism in Eastern Africa,” in Gershon Shafir, Everard Meade, and William J. Aceves, eds. From Moral Manic to Permanent War: Lessons and Legacies of the War on Terror. London: Routledge, 2013, 127-56.

“Resurrecting Che: Radicalism, the Transnational Imagination and the Politics of Heroes,” Journal of Global History 7, 3 (2012): 506-526.

“Africa and the Global Lives of Things,” in Frank Trentmann, ed., The Oxford Handbook on the History of Consumption. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

“Kenya, the United States, and the Politics of Counterterrorism,” Africa Today 57, 4 (June 2011): 3-27.

“Superpower Osama: Thoughts on Symbolic Discourse in the Indian Ocean after the Cold War,” in Christopher J. Lee, ed., Tensions of Postcoloniality: The Bandung Moment and Its Political Afterlives. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2010.

“Mirroring Modernity: On Consumerism in Nineteenth Century Zanzibar,” Trans/forming Cultures 4, 2 (2009) (reprinted from Boston University African Studies Center Working Paper Series, January 2006)

“Phantom of the Forever War: Fazul Abdullah Mohammad and the Terrorist Imaginary,” Public Culture 21, 3 (2009): 451-64.

“The Afterlives of 2pac: Imagery and Alienation in Sierra Leone and Beyond,” Journal of African Cultural Studies 21, 2 (2009): 197-218.

“Similitude and Empire: On Comorian Strategies of Englishness,” Journal of World History 8, 2 (June 2007): 113-40.

“On the Global Repercussions of East African Consumerism,” The American Historical Review 109, 3 (2004): 755-81.

“Portuguese Conceptual Categories and the ‘Other’ Encounter on the Swahili Coast,” Journal of Asian and African Studies 36, 4 (2001): 383-406. Reprinted in Conceptualizing/Re-Conceptualizing Africa: The Construction of African Historical Identity. Ed. Maghan Keita. Boston: Brill, 2002. 53-76.

“As Artistry Permits and Custom May Ordain: The Social Fabric of Material Consumption in the Swahili World,” Northwestern University Program for African Studies Working Paper no. 3. Evanston: Northwestern University, 1998.

Work in Progress

“The Island as Nexus: Zanzibar and the Nineteenth Century Indian Ocean World”

“Fashion between Empires: African Consumers, Japanese Industry, and the Limits of British Economic Power in Interwar East Africa”

“Counterterrorism in Kenya: Security Aid, Impunity, and Muslim Alienation”

“The Airplane and the Clock: the Logics and Legacies of the One Party State in Kenya”

“The Road to Westgate: Terrorism and Counterterrorism in Kenya since 1998”

“Brand Rebel: Che Guevara Between Politics and Consumerism”

“One Love: Bob Marley, the Mystic and the Market”

University of California, San Diego

  • Modern Africa since 1880 (undergraduate lecture course)
  • Small Wars in Global Context (undergraduate lecture course)
  • Violence and the Postcolony: Topics in African History (undergraduate/graduate seminar)
  • Global History: The Modern Era (graduate seminar)
  • Transnational Histories (graduate seminar)
  • The Making of the Modern World (Twentieth Century) (undergraduate lecture course)

Northeastern University

  • Globalization: Routes of Interrelation (undergraduate lecture course)
  • World History, Concepts and Modes (graduate seminar)
  • The Ocean: Histories, Routes, and Discourses (graduate seminar co-taught with Ilham Makdisi)
  • A History of Consumerism (undergraduate seminar)