Viral Exchanges: Hotspots, Spillovers, and the Reordering of Life (lecture) + The Land Beneath Our Feet (film)

2021 History Writer in Residence Gregg Mitman

The History Writer In Residence Program is presented by the UMass / Five College Graduate Program in History
with support from Five Colleges, Inc. This residency is co-hosted by the Feinberg Series.

Viral Exchanges: Hotspots, Spillovers, and the Reordering of Life (lecture)

Monday, March 22, 5pm EST

The word “hotspot” can mean a place where fires flare, where novel viruses appear, where human rage erupts. In the turbulence of ecological, public health, and political crises, hotspots portend disaster and death. Too often hotspots and the menaces they pose are only made visible, only made objects of concern, when they threaten lives most valued in the brutal structures of capitalism and white supremacy that have gone hand in hand for more than four hundred years. Drawing upon work in Liberia, this talk interrogates the ecological, economic, political and social forces at play that have simultaneously turned certain regions into profitable sites of natural resource extraction, productive enclaves of biomedical research, and hot zones of pandemic threats.

Moderated by John Higginson (Professor Emeritus of History, UMass Amherst).

The Land Beneath Our Feet (film)

Screening March 19 – April 1

The Land Beneath Our Feet follows a young Liberian man, uprooted by war, who returns from the USA with never-before-seen footage of Liberia’s past. The uncovered footage is embraced as a national treasure. Depicting a 1926 corporate land grab, it is also an explosive reminder of eroding land rights. In post-conflict Liberia, individuals and communities are pitted against multinational corporations, the government, and each other in life-threatening disputes over land. What can this ghostly footage offer a nation, as it debates radical land reforms that could empower communities to shape a more diverse, stable and sustainable future?

Panel Discussion with the Director, Thursday, March 25, 6pm

A panel discussion and public Q&A on The Land Beneath Our Feet with African Studies scholars Cajetan Iheka (Associate Professor of English, Yale University), Elisa Prosperetti (Visiting Professor of History, Mount Holyoke College), Russell Stevenson (Visiting Professor of History, UMass Amherst), and director Gregg Mitman.


Events will be live and recorded on the Feinberg Series website, with a livestream on Facebook and YouTube. Spanish interpretation and closed captioning will be available.

For more info contact: feinberg@history.umass.edu


Gregg Mitman is the Vilas Research and William Coleman Professor of History, Medical History, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is an award-winning author, filmmaker, and teacher whose interests span the history of science, medicine, and the environment in the United States and the world.  A past president of the American Society for Environmental History, he is the recipient of fellowships from the Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the John S. Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, among others. His books and co-edited volumes include Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene(University of Chicago Press, 2018), Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape our Lives and Landscapes (Yale University Press, 2007), and Reel Nature: America’s Romance with Wildlife on Film, rev. ed. (University of Washington Press, 2009).  He co-produced and co-directed two films, In the Shadow of Ebola, an intimate portrait of the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, and The Land Beneath Our Feet, a documentary on history, memory, and land rights in Liberia. His most recent book, Empire of Rubber: Firestone’s Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia, will be published by The New Press.

John Higginson (moderator of the lecture) is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in Amherst, Massachusetts.  He is also a Research Fellow in the College of Human Sciences and the Department of History at the University of South Africa (UNISA) in Pretoria, South Africa.  He is the author of A Working Class in the Making: Belgian Colonial Labor Policy, Private Enterprise and the African Mineworker, 1907-1951 (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).  Cambridge University Press published his monograph Collective Violence and the Agrarian Origins of South African Apartheid, 1900-1948 (New York and London: Cambridge University Press, 2015 and 2017).He has written numerous articles and book chapters on South Africa and the regional economic system of southern Africa.  Just recently he contributed to a special edition of the Journal of African History on the impact of E. P. Thompson’s work on African historians.  Presently, he is at work on a book that is tentatively titled “The Hidden Costs of Industrialization:  Southern Africa and the Global Economy, 1860-2007.  He is also working on a joint research project with Joye Bowman that is tentatively titled “Engineering Empire: The South African Odyssey of American Mining Engineers, 1893-1976.

Cajetan Iheka (panelist, film discussion) is Associate Professor of English at Yale University, specializing in African literature, ecocriticism, ecomedia, and world literature. He is the author of Naturalizing Africa: Ecological Violence, Agency, and Postcolonial Resistance in African Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2018), winner of the 2019 Ecocriticism Book Award of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, and the 2020 First Book Prize of the African Literature Association. His next single-authored book, African Ecomedia: Network Forms, Planetary Politics, is forthcoming from Duke University Press later in 2021. The book positions Africa at the center of discourses on media ecologies, materiality, and infrastructure. Also forthcoming in summer 2021 is an edited volume in the MLA Options for Teaching Series, titled Teaching Postcolonial Environmental Literature and Media. Professor Iheka also coedited African Migration Narratives: Politics, Race, and Space (University of Rochester Press, 2018), and Environmental Transformations, a special issue of African Literature Today. His articles have appeared or are forthcoming in refereed venues such as Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Environmental Ethics, Research in African Literatures, The Cambridge Companion to the Environmental Humanities, and the Oxford Handbook of Nigerian Politics. He currently serves as deputy editor of African Studies Review, the multidisciplinary journal of the African Studies Association.

Elisa Prosperetti (panelist and moderator) is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the History Department at Mount Holyoke College. She studies the social and intellectual history of contemporary West Africa, with a focus on postcolonial development. Prosperetti received her PhD from Princeton University in 2020. She volunteers as a podcast host for the African Studies channel of the New Books Network.

Russell Stevenson (panelist, film discussion) holds a PhD in African history from Michigan State University. His dissertation examines the geo-cultural porosity of indigenous educational institutions like the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and the significance of its cultural layeredness for the making of Nigerian independence. He has also published on “Mormonism” in Nigeria and won the 2015 Mormon History Association best book award for his work on comparative black “Mormonisms.” A Fulbright-DDRA recipient, Russell Stevenson currently teaches African history at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and functions as a consultant for public defenders providing counsel to African refugees.


To Register

Registration is required to view the film and to attend the lecture and panel live on the Feinberg Series website. Complete the form below to receive the link by email. The lecture and panel can be viewed live on Facebook and YouTube without pre-registering.



This event is co-presented by the UMass/Five College Graduate Program in History as part of the 2021 History Writer-In-Residence Program. Supported by Five Colleges, Inc., this program hosts renowned writers whose historical work engages broad public audiences

The Feinberg Family Distinguished Lecture Series is made possible thanks to the generosity of UMass Amherst history department alumnus Kenneth R. Feinberg ’67 and associates. The series is co-sponsored by more than 3 dozen university and community organizations.

This lecture is the opening event of the Amherst Jones Library’s On The Same Page community reading program of Station 11, offered in conjunction with “NEA Big Read: Pocumtuck Valley” organized by the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association and 40 community organizations and supported by the National Endowment for the Arts.