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Nerds of Mizzou

Nerd in dreadlocks

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: Aug. 31, 2009
Anand Prahlad

Professor Anand Prahlad is known as a calming presence in the English Department.

With his gentle Rastafarian mannerisms and dreadlocks, Anand Prahlad is not your typical English professor, yet he’s comfortable being his counterculture self at the front of the classroom.

To friends and colleagues he’s known as Prahlad, an identity acquired in the 1980s after several years of meditation at an Oregon commune. In a zen-like ceremony there, the group’s spiritual leader bestowed his name and the honorary title “swami.”    

Prahlad joined MU’s Department of English as Dennis Wilson Folly, which became Prahlad Folly, followed by Anand Prahlad, then just Prahlad. The title swami appears occasionally, as in Sw. Anand Prahlad.

“He switched his name so many times that I would consult the annual faculty roster to learn what name he was going by,” says Professor Karen Piper. 

Prahlad style  

Prahlad had to rethink his appearance when he prepared to interview for the MU position 18 years ago. “I had been in a commune and lived a counterculture life. I didn’t have a wardrobe and was out of touch with the way people outside the commune interacted,” he says.

So he cut off his dreadlocks and bought a suit at a San Francisco Salvation Army store.

Despite an interview near-faux pas of hugging people rather than shaking hands (Prahlad: “We always hugged at the commune.”), he landed the job. Then reality hit. He had no car and no money to move. Knowing that the Salvation Army occasionally provided money for special needs, he turned to the charity for a bus ticket to Missouri.

Life in Columbia grew on Prahlad. After two years, the short haircut gave way to a re-emergence of the dreadlocks that reflect what Professor Elaine Lawless calls Prahlad’s undercurrent of creativity. “He has morphed in front of us,” she says. “He had the self-confidence to do it. He’s comfortable now, but he will tell you it’s difficult being a black man in this society.” 

Prahlad teaches poetry writing workshops, folklore, literature and film studies, with specialties in contemporary poetry, folkloristics and culture studies of the African Diaspora. He has written several academic books and is published widely in American poetry journals. Though serene, even cool, on the surface, he approaches every undertaking with nerdy obsessiveness, filtering out all distractions to his research and his creative process.

Descended of African slaves

“Writing poetry is like conjuring,” Prahlad says. “It’s something that is almost invoking a different kind of reality…. I can go into a room, be completely isolated and go into the space that poetry is all about.”

Anand Prahlad

The mbira, an African thumb piano, is Prahlad's newest obsession. He plans to give an educational presentation about — and performance of — the instrument at the Columbia Heritage Festival Sept. 19 in Nifong Park.

The powerful themes of his poetry are rooted in the African-American culture that shaped him. He writes about daily life, places and people, as well as slavery and racism. Readers hear the sounds of nature and smell ripening peaches on plantation trees. They encounter snakes writhing on swampy ground.

Prahlad grew up with five siblings on a Virginia plantation, where his great grandmother was among the first children born free. The slaves and their descendants tended the orchards, vegetable gardens and animal stock. Although the Folly family was poor and their house lacked plumbing, five of the six children went to college; three earned advanced degrees.

Prahlad attended a black school until 10th grade when segregation ended and he was bussed to the county’s white school. He had been a sickly child who didn’t speak until he was 4, and his family feared that he was “slow” or mentally challenged. Nonetheless, his path led to a doctorate in folklore and mythology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Proverbial brain drain

Considered one of the world’s leading experts on folklore of the African Diaspora, Prahlad engages audiences with his quiet Southern voice. He speaks on many topics, but his favorite is proverbs.

When he was young, Prahlad recorded in writing the proverbs his great-grandmother and mother told, and eventually those inspired him to write his dissertation and later articles and books on African-American and Jamaican proverbs. His all-consuming interest in the subject led to the first encyclopedia of folklore of the African Diaspora.

As editor of the 2006 Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Folklore, he gathered, revised and edited more than 700 essays, worked with nearly 150 international scholars and wrote many of the entries himself. Reviewers praised the three-volume set of invaluable information as a herculean task.

The award-winning project took three years; recovery from the fixation took two years. “All of that was taking up a huge chunk of my brain. If I could get it out, I’d have a huge space in my brain that I could start filling with other things,” he says.

That space is filling quickly. He’s working on two books of poetry, a book of short stories and a memoir about his lifelong spiritual and creative searches within the more rational and predominantly white worlds of schools and universities. 

From commune to classroom  

Prahlad’s gift to students is his ability to show each that he or she is the focus of his teaching.

“He’s brilliant. He cares about his students and takes care of them individually,” Piper says. “It’s hard to go to dinner with him because he’s followed by adoring students who want to talk and talk.”

Anand Prahlad

A world-renowned folklorist, Prahlad compiled and edited the massive three-volume Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Folklore, the first publication of its kind.

Cassi Landrus, BA ’05, remembers an Advanced Poetry class he taught: “His first lesson was to describe the way we breathe. He wanted people to learn to concentrate on how the rhythms of daily life, like your own breathing, the ambient noise and our music choices, can affect our writing.”

Prahlad’s ideas for inspiring students rise from methods to help them connect with their inner creativity. Yet he’s demanding and refuses to accept lazy scholarship, says doctoral student Claire Schmidt.

For doctoral student Jessie Adolph — father of four young children — Prahlad has been a mentor.  “I come from meager beginnings and didn’t have a father in my life. Prahlad has been a listening ear, even if I have problems outside academia. He helped me create a balance between family and academics,” Adolph says.

Prahlad’s teaching and mentoring skills will be recognized in October when the Mizzou Alumni Association honors him with a 2009 Faculty-Alumni Award.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

Not known as one who can multitask, Prahlad zealously focuses on one thing at a time. When he’s cooking, he can’t converse. When he’s teaching, it’s his only interest, which may explain why he forgets about holidays. “We don’t meet on the Fourth of July?” he asked during summer semester 2009.  

Even eating presents issues. In a restaurant, he must sit facing the door and always requires extra sauce; before going to a dinner party, he eats dinner at home. Travel, too, produces obsessions. To properly pack a suitcase, he practices with cardboard dividers marked for shirts, socks, pants. “Doesn’t everybody?” he asks.

However, keeping track of what day it is, or even the month, isn’t so important. “Almost everybody else knows, so I don’t have to,” he says.

A recent preoccupation — learning to master the mbira (pronounced em-beer-ah), an African thumb piano — consumed months of compulsive practice and spilled over into enrolling in a five-day mbira summer camp at the University of Colorado, Zimfest, where workshops and concerts consumed every day and night. 

Finally, there’s child rearing. In a role reversal, Prahlad the counterculture dad is rearing two traditional sons, Kahlil, 9, who gets dad’s full attention at soccer practice, and Nick, a law student at Columbia University. There are no communes in their future.

Kids can be such a challenge.

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012