Reading Africa: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Teaching World History
Dixie Johnson Grupe, Hickman
"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
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
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.
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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