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Reading Africa: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Teaching World History

Dixie Johnson Grupe, Hickman High School
Jill E. Taylor Varns, Hickman High School

    "If you've ever left a bag of clothes outside the Salvation Army or given to a local church drive, chances are you've dressed an African." So begins an article in the New York Times Magazine from March 31, 2002, entitled, "How Susie Bayer's T-Shirt Ended up on Yusuf Mama's Back." The author, George Packer, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo thirty years ago, continues his contemporary introduction by saying, "A long chain of charity and commerce binds the world's richest and poorest people together in accidental intimacy. It is a curious feature of the global age that hardly anyone on either end knows it." Packer's sentiment is true for much of what we as Americans know about modern Africa. Further, it is certainly applicable to what many of us, as experienced teachers, know about the history and literature of Africa.
    As teachers in a large mid-western high school, our academic background and training has been mostly focused on Western Civ and the western literary canon. Therefore, one of the biggest obstacles we have found to teaching about Africa is that we have had little consistent exposure to African history or literature in college, or to teaching materials and resources about African history in our professional training. We currently teach an interdisciplinary Advanced Placement World History and World Literature course at Hickman High School in Columbia, Missouri. Before we could hope to expose our students to the stories of Africa and its interactions with the rest of the world, we needed to begin the process of educating ourselves about the richness and diversity of African history and literature. As individuals, we participate in local institutes taught through the University of Missouri, and with the World History Network sponsored by the International Educational Consortium in St. Louis. We comb through the syllabi of AP English courses as well as introductory college world literature classes for potential African texts. We ultimately depend on suggestions, ideas and resources from colleagues who have lived or traveled in Africa. Last summer, thanks to the National Endowment for the Humanities, one of us even spent six weeks in Ghana studying its rich history and culture. Though we've now taught the AP World History and World Literature course for five years, each year we use our new experiences and training to revise and add to our curriculum in order to enrich the experience of our students.
    Even before the school year begins, we ask our students to read about Africa. Our summer reading assignment includes the "Prologue" of James Michener's Covenant, a work that chronicles the history of South Africa from Paleolithic times to the twentieth century. Although not a typical academic read, the Prologue introduces our students to the six themes of Advanced Placement World History: patterns and impacts of interaction among major societies, change and continuity across world history periods, the impact of technology and demography on people and the environment, systems of social and gender structure, cultural and intellectual developments among and within societies, and changes in functions and structures of states and attitudes toward states and political identities. We use this work of contemporary literature to introduce these academic themes because our high school sophomores easily identify with the characters and their struggles for survival: parent-child conflicts, love and lust, death and old age, struggles for power, and teenage rebellion. In addition, we believe it is important to begin our look at world history and world literature in Africa, the birthplace of humanity.
    The course is structured around the five periods suggested in the Advanced Placement World History curriculum; in each period we try to incorporate one or more major pieces of African literature so that Africa isn't taught in isolation, but as an integrated part of world history. In the Foundations Period (c 8000 BCE- 600 CE), we use myth and poetry to examine common motifs and archetypes in world literature. We discuss how those elements develop out of oral tradition and how they provide insight into ancient cultures and civilizations. For example, we use the ancient Egyptian myth of Isis, Osiris, and Set to examine the archetype of the dying god, and to introduce the Egyptian concept of the afterlife. Ancient Egyptian poetry allows us to examine the roles of women, the relationships between environment and power, and changes in political and religious identity as Egypt begins to interact with other Fertile Crescent powers in the New Kingdom. 4
    We focus on Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali in the Post Classical Era (600-1450), in order to illustrate the syncretism of Muslim and traditional African religions as well as the influence of Islam as a unifying cultural and economic force within Africa. In addition, this well-known epic provides insight into empire building in 13th-century Mali. The text allows students to draw parallels with other emerging empires of the time, and to draw parallels with epic heroes such as Odysseus, Beowulf and Gilgamesh.
     Kevin Reilly's "The Color of Slaves" provides the opening discussion for the third period in our course, the Shrinking World (1450-1750). We begin by examining notions of race and how that construct became enmeshed in slavery and the changes in trade, technology, and global interactions that characterize this period. Shakespeare's Othello allows our students to further explore notions of racial identity, gender roles, and power structures. The play leads to rich discussions about the origins, subtleties, and consequences of racism within families, communities and states. The conflicts in this play illustrate the issues facing the world during this period of exploration, interaction and change.
    During our next unit, The Age of Industrialization and Western Global Hegemony (1750-1914), we focus on Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, a complex story of a flawed hero who has been compared to the great heroes of Greek tragedy. Okonkwo's struggles with identity, tradition, and change reflect African struggles to maintain identity and tradition under intensifying colonial oppression. The book, a story of racism, resistance, and ultimately, rebellion as told through the life of one family, is a microcosm of this period of global transformation. We have also considered using selections from Buchi Emecheta's Joys of Motherhood to provide insight into these same struggles from a woman's perspective.
    Forging a Modern Identity is the theme of our final unit of the year, which covers the years 1914-2004. This year we are exploring the idea of reading The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kewi Armah, an author from Ghana whose story chronicles the struggles faced by nations and individuals as they seek to forge a new identity from the remains of traditional and colonial influences. In addition to class novels, our students form book groups that explore the theme of forging a modern identity in the final unit of the year. We prepare a list of books representing diverse cultures that provide insight into the themes we've studied throughout the year. Students select a text and then spend class time discussing their novel with a small group of peers and a teacher. This activity has worked well, especially after the national AP World History exam in early May, because it gives students the opportunity to extend their knowledge and to see the six AP World History themes in contemporary literature. In the past, students have chosen from among several novels: Mark Mathabane's Kaffir Boy, God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasarian and Three Inch Golden Lotus by Chi-Tsai Feng. We are considering adding several works by African women writers: So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba, Butterfly Burning by Yvonne Vera or Changes: A Love Story by Ama Ata Aidoo.
    The danger of teaching about Africa in isolation is that it remains foreign, exotic and separate from the world community. Throughout the year, we work to not only teach about diversity within Africa, but also to teach how Africa fits into the world's literary and historical mosaic. As we move through time in our course, we encourage students to make thematic connections between the literature and history of all peoples, including Africans. To facilitate this integration, we assign independent reading and small group activities which focus on continuity and change across all cultures. 9
    Our students participate in Reading a Culture groups beginning in second quarter and continuing until the end of the year. They have the opportunity to specialize in a region of the world by reading works of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction written by authors native to their selected region. In the past, regions have included South Africa, West Africa, East Africa, South America, Central America, Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia, and the Middle East. This last group is the most difficult group to identify, as it can include North Africa, Israel, Palestine and other nations more traditionally identified together.
    These Reading a Culture groups provide the foundation for further study in the form of a traditional research paper. As a curricular requirement of our sophomore course, students learn the process of gathering information from multiple sources, finding ways to organize that information into a meaningful and well-supported position, and crafting a formal, traditional research paper. Generally, we have asked students to select a topic that reflects the interaction of two or more cultures and to compose a paper that discusses the impact of this cultural interaction in the modern world. Students find Africa a topic-rich continent, and have researched the impact of such interactions as the transatlantic slave trade, the sugar trade, the Dutch and British colonization of South Africa, the relationship between West African art and the twentieth century Cubist movement, the development and demise of East African trading empires like Kilwa, the spread of Islam and its effects on women's roles in North Africa, and the impact of West African music on the development of modern jazz.
    Toward the end of his New Yorker essay, George Packer argues that Africans have responded in many ways to the second-hand clothing imported from the United States. Indeed, according to Packer "there are many Africas and used clothing carries a different meaning in each of them." Just like Packer's observations on globalization and used clothing, there are many ways to teach about Africa in a world history classroom. We believe that literature can be one of the most rewarding and successful.

Biographical Note: Dixie Johnson Grupe teaches Advanced Placement World History and Advanced Placement European History at Hickman High School in Columbia, Missouri.

Jill E. Taylor Varns teaches Honors World Literature at Hickman High School in Columbia, Missouri.

Publications Cited

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (Anchor Books, 1994).

Ama Ata Aidoo, Changes: A Love Story (Feminist Press, 1993).

Ayi Kewi Armah, The Beautiful Ones are Not Yet Born (Heinemann, 1988).

Mariama Ba, So Long a Letter (Heinemann, reprint edition 1989).

Adam Bagdasarian, Forgotten Fire (Laurel Leaf, reprint edition 2002).

Bucchi Emecheta, Joys of Motherhood (George Braziller, 1980).

Chi-Tsai Feng, The Three Inch Golden Lotus (University of Hawaii Press, 1994).

Mark Mathabane, Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in South Africa (Free Press, 1998).

James Michener, Covenant (Fawcett, Reissue edition, 1987).

D.T. Niane, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, Longman African Writer's Series (Longman, 1995).

Kevin Reilly, "The Color of Slaves," from The West and the World: A History of Civilization. Second Edition. Volume 2. ( Harper & Row, 1989).

Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (Ballantine Books, reissue edition 1987).

Arundhati Roy, God of Small Things (Perennial, reprint edition 1998).

William Shakespeare, Othello, Folger Shakespeare Library (Washington Square Press, 2004).

Yvonne Vera, Butterfly Burning: A Novel (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002).


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