So Many Africas, So Little Time: Doing Justice to Africa in the World History Survey
Jonathan T. Reynolds
There has been a recent flurry of attention to the
topic of Africa in world history. The issue has come up repeatedly on both
H-Africa and H-World in the past several months.1 The Board of Directors
of the African History Association saw fit to sponsor two panels on "Globalizing
Africa: Placing Africa in World History" as "of special interest" at the
2003 meeting of the organization.2
Historically Speaking: The Journal of the Historical Society will
publish a special forum on the subject in the fall of 2004. And, obviously,
World History Connected has chosen to do a special issue on the topic
as well. All of this attention to Africa in world history is good and proper,
and reflects the happy reality that world historians are more seriously
considering Africa as an integral and influential part of the human story
and that Africanists increasingly see the world as an important context
for African history.3
Despite such attention and progress, however, our work is far from finished.
Indeed, in the essay that follows, I will argue that despite significant
advances in our scholarly understanding of both African and world history,
these advances have largely failed to work their way into the vast majority
of world history survey classrooms. Instead, most representations of Africa
continue to be built around highly generalized and stereotypical "notions
of Africa." Only when we move beyond these oversimplified notions of Africa
can we begin to "do justice" to the continent's historical complexity and
diversity, and to teach more effectively Africa's role in world history.
Towards this end, I will here examine what I believe to be some of the key
reasons why Africa continues to receive marginal treatment in all too many
world history surveys. Further, I will examine what I believe to be some
of the most common misrepresentations of Africa in world history teaching.
Finally, I will offer brief thoughts on strategies to help teachers and
scholars more effectively present Africa in the context of world history.
Africa in the World History Classroom
Africa has long had an uneasy relationship with
the field of world history. From the earliest Enlightenment-era attempts
at what we might now recognize as world history to the first comprehensive,
synthetic world histories of the 20th century, scholars as diverse
as Hegel and Toynbee have shared a common perspective on Africa: that it
wasn't really part of the "historical world." One would be wrong to deny,
however, that quite a bit of progress has been made in the past century.
Thanks to such pioneers of African History as Carter G. Woodson and W.E.B.
Dubois, and also to the rise of African Studies as a discipline since the
1950's, much has been done to amend the notion of Africa as "ahistorical."
There now exists a large and complex body of scholarship on African history.
Further, there has been no small synergy between the expanding research
fields of African and world history. One need only look at the substantial
role played by scholars of Africa such as Philip Curtin, Ross Dunn, Patrick
Manning, Joe Miller, David Northrup, and others in the development of world
history over the past few years to see the reality of this exchange. Such
efforts have led to changes in the materials available to teachers at the
grassroots. An examination of contemporary world history textbooks will
reveal that almost every text dedicates at least a couple of chapters to
There appears, nonetheless, to be a continuing disconnect between the remarkable
advances in African and world history scholarship and the actual teaching
of Africa in the world history classroom. Intermittent attempts to gauge
student perspectives towards Africa reveal that stereotypes and misconceptions
about Africans and African history continue to be the norm, rather than
Certainly my own experience of teaching African and world history at a variety
of colleges and universities over the past decade bears this out.5 Most students are more
likely to think of Africa in terms of "ancient tribes" or as "stone age"
than as a continent characterized by a diversity of ever-changing societies
and civilizations despite the fact that many, if not most, have taken
world history courses before. Similarly, students are more likely to know
about the (contemporary) Masai or "Bushmen" than a host of historical societies
and states such as Aksum, Ancient Zimbabwe, or Benin. Thus, the "rubber"
of African and world history scholarship has failed to meet the "road" of
grassroots world history teaching. This is not a situation to be taken lightly.
For many students, a world history survey can be a critical element in the
formation of their first cognitive map of the world's history. If certain
components of that history are consistently omitted or misrepresented (positively
or negatively), then what sort of understanding of the world, past and present,
will they establish?
It is impossible, however, to place the blame for this situation on any
single segment of society or academia. Certainly, popular media plays a
powerful (and not very constructive) role. Who can blame so many teachers
and students for thinking the Masai are representative of Africa when they
can be found everywhere from Nissan commercials to Sports Illustrated
swimsuit issues?6 How can we hope for balanced perspectives on modern
Africa when late-night television appeals bombard us with images of starving
African children, and when even "respected" media institutions such as the
New York Times focus almost exclusively on African disasters and
failings?7 Further, we cannot escape the fact that these modern
media images of Africa both feed off of and reinforce centuries-old stereotypes
and even overtly racist notions of Africans.
Quite opposed to these negative images of Africa
exists a perspective that presents an overly rosy picture of African history.
Not altogether correctly attributed to "Afrocentrism," these images are
often characterized by what Africanists call "Merrie Africa"an idealized
image of historical Africa as a land characterized by egalitarian societies
living in harmony with one another and with the natural world.8
One thing these incompatible stereotypes of Africa suggest is that while
students are willing to admit ignorance about many aspects of world history,
most think they know something about Africa. As a friend and colleague who
teaches a freshman Afro-American studies survey recently lamented to me:
"Almost all my students think they know a lot about Africa, and almost all
of them are wrong."9
The disparity between the extremes of negative and positive images of Africa
points up yet another difficulty facing those who seek to teach Africa in
the context of world history: the political nature of the field. In all
my classes I caution students that "the past is always political," but there
are few if any areas of history more political than those (like Africa)
that engage teachers' and students' notions of racial identity. Thus, teaching
Africa means treading into a veritable minefield of cherished beliefs, assumptions,
and sensitivities. No doubt, the potentially high-stress nature of teaching
African topics accounts in part for the relatively small footprint of African
history within world history classrooms. Especially at the public school
level, teachers are rarely encouraged, much less rewarded, for addressing
and engaging controversial and potentially divisive issues. Thus, perhaps
the overly generalized and stereotypical presentation of things African
in many world history classrooms is a coping strategy on the part of instructors.
By sticking to "safe" stereotypes of African history the teachers can avoid
controversy by teaching what their student audience already thinks they
No small share of the blame, however, must also be laid at the feet of Africanists
themselves. Until fairly recently, African Studies was a small field that
was limited largely to a handful of elite research institutions. As such,
African history has been fairly "top heavy" in terms of its emphasis on
highly methodological scholarship, with the vast majority of articles and
monographs being produced for a small and highly trained audience. Sadly,
this reality has meant that a great portion of the scholarship produced
by Africanists has proven inaccessible to non-specialists (which describes
almost all those teaching world history, especially at the secondary level).
It is hardly a surprise, then, that this audience has chosen to look elsewhere
for African resources, often turning to sources that are, in the eyes of
Africanists, dubious at best. But let's face itNational Geographic is
far more user-friendly for most teachers than the Journal of African
History. In recent years African Studies has grown beyond the research
institution tier of Academia, and hopefully the spread of scholars to more
teaching-intensive institutions will help facilitate both the writing of
materials more accessible to non-specialists as well as a new generation
of teachers who have studied Africa at the college level.
A final consideration must be given to the brutal challenge of teaching
world history itself. No field asks so much of its instructors and prepares
them so little. Faced with the absolute impossibility of covering all of
human history with any sort of equanimity, teachers are forced to brutally
winnow the scope and depth of their coverage.10
Given, as outlined above, the pervasive biases that serve to stereotype
African history in one way or another, the political complexities of the
field, and the inaccuracies or impenetrability of the resources available
to world history teachers seeking to do right by Africa, there can be little
surprise that most instructors wind up providing a rather shallow and over-generalized
perspective on Africa. What all too often results from this situation are
what I have elsewhere dubbed "notions of Africa."11
"Notions of Africa"
There are, indeed, what appear to be several different
"Africas" that compete for attention in world history classrooms. Each has
a certain internal coherence. But, largely through selection of and overemphasis
on certain aspects of African history or culture, these various notions
present painfully problematic oversimplifications of Africans' role(s) in
world history. Presented below is a brief overview of these competing versions
of Africa. I hope they will serve as a caution for those both teaching and
This is probably the most enduring stereotypical
paradigm for presenting Africa in world history. Here Africa serves as a
"foil" to the progress and eventual modernity ostensibly found elsewhere
in human history. The basic idea here is that by looking at Africa, one
is somehow transported back in time. Warning flags for this particular stereotype
of Africa should go up whenever the term "ancient" is used to describe anything
in contemporary Africa. For example, "the Masai are an ancient tribe" or
"the ancient process of basket weaving."12 Further, using contemporary
Africans as an example of ancient human behavior, such as citing the modern
Khoisan (aka "Bushmen") as an example of Paleolithic hunters and gatherers,
is a hallmark of this particular oversimplification of Africa's place in
this notion of Africa often relies upon a characterization of Africa as
"isolated." This perspective suggests that any part of the continent that
experiences contact with other parts of the world is somehow not "real"
Africa. Herein lies the tendency to try and define sub-Saharan Africa as
the "real Africa" and areas that regularly interacted with other world regions
as somehow "less African" or even "de-Africanized."
To avoid falling into this particular trap, teachers and students need to
consider that African societies, like societies everywhere, have constantly
undergone processes of economic, social, political, and technological change.
Examples of such change include the radical transformations that came with
innovations in agriculture and metallurgy, the development of long-distance
trade systems in salt, copper, gold, and kola, and the centuries-long participation
of Africa in the spread and development of Christianity and Islam. Looking
at such broad developments and exchanges, it is difficult to see Africa
as either static or isolated. At least for contemporary issues, African
newspapers (easily accessed via the internet) provide an excellent window
through which students can catch a glimpse of how many Africans see their
In many ways, this notion of Africa shares key components
and tendencies with Primitive/ Static Africa, although this perspective
tends to crop up more in the context of cultural or anthropological discussions
than in those regarding historical periods. The key component of the "Exotic
Africa" perspective is that it selects for aspects of Africa that teachers
and students find "different." Indeed, the more foreign or seemingly outlandish
a cultural aspect, the more likely it is to become part of the notion of
Exotic Africa. Exotic Africans seem to spend their entire lives performing
one ceremony or another. As already alluded to, certain groups, such as
the Masai, are over-represented in popular portrayals of Africa precisely
because they so fit western notions and desires of what Africans are supposed
to be like. A painfully overt case of the Exotic Africa stereotype was the
"African Edventure" website recently hosted by Arizona State University.
This website chronicled the journey of a fungal biologist across Africa
during 1999 and 2000, and featured, among other things, a cartoon of the
safari-clad biologist shaking hands with a spear-holding and skull-wearing
African. The original website is, at the time of my writing this essay,
blissfully no longer available. Sadly, Google reveals hundreds of links
to the site by primary and secondary schools in the US, Europe, Australia,
and South Africa a clear sign of just how readily the Exotic Africa notion
has been, and continues to be, embraced.15
Perhaps the first step in dealing with Exotic Africa is to address the stereotypes
head on. For example, during a recent visit to a local secondary school,
a student's description of Africans as 'people who drink blood' led us to
a discussion of the Masai. I asked the students "of roughly 700 million
Africans, how many do you think are Masai?" The initial answer was 200 million.
After a bit of prodding that this was perhaps too high, the students pragmatically
reduced the number to 50 million. When I said that the total population
of Masai was more likely in the range of less than 1 million, and thus only
a small fraction of one percent of the total African population, I was left
with a thoroughly perplexed group of students. From here I was able to move
into a very rewarding discussion of why the Masai seem to loom so large
in our popular image of Africa, despite the fact that there aren't actually
very many of them. Indeed, one of the key goals of addressing Exotic Africa
is to discuss African diversity. Representing millions of Africans via the
Masai is, quite simply, wrong. The Masai may be roughly representative of
East African pastoralists, but to push the comparison any further is misleading
The challenge raised by this notion of Africa is
to balance what is perhaps unique about African settings and societies against
the dangerous tendency to revel in the exotic. At the root, the question
is whether we want to teach students that Africans are inherently "different
from us" (which is the essence of defining them as exotic) or as essentially
similar, although living in what were (or are) different economic, political,
social, and physical environments. Indeed, by looking at the reality of
Africa's experience in world history, we gain a much more complex and complete
understanding of key historical themes and grand narratives. For example,
how have Africans experienced and influenced the expansion of world religions?
How has industrialization influenced Africa, as opposed to Europe? What
of the African experience with contemporary "globalization"?17
Such questions allow endless opportunities to challenge students' notions
of Africa. Tell your students that American country music has been wildly
popular in Africa for decades, and you can't help but shake up their conception
of the world.18
Another common "notion" of Africa is one that seems
to lack human agency. Here we find an Africa that is populated almost exclusively
by thundering herds of wildebeests, majestic elephants, proud lions, and
any number of other critters. When humans do enter into the story of Environmental
Africa, they exist either as part of the landscape, or as a threat to it.
For example, during my last trip to the Cincinnati Zoo, I made a visit to
the gift shop, only to find a coffee-table book entitled The Bushmen
for sale side-by-side with nature photography books on elephants and lions.19 Such a presentation
suggests that "Bushmen" exist only as part of the landscape though in
a sort of idyllic and harmonious way. In contrast, Environmental Africa
is also inhabited by "bad" Africans who threaten to destroy the continent's
otherwise pristine landscape via poaching and deforestation. Thus, Environmental
Africa often represents "primitive" Africans as good and "modernized" Africans
as bad. Environmental Africa is often presented as something of a "last
Eden," an unspoiled wilderness that must be isolated and protected from
the encroachment of destructive modernity.
The warning flag for Environmental Africa should go up any time a teacher
finds him or her self showing documentaries set in Ngorogoro Crater or any
other famous East African game preserve. To avoid the Environmental Africa
stereotype, teachers and students must realize that Africa, like every other
part of the world, has experienced a long process of human interaction with,
and modification of, the environment. Examples of African crop domestication
and systems of environmental management for the control of tse-tse flies,
for example, can be used to highlight this long process of give-and-take
between humans and the African environment. It is also important to stress
that Africans are far more involved in the urban and "modern" than the wild.
I like to point out that the vast majority of Africans are thousands of
times more likely to see a Mercedes on any given day than they are to see
a lion, elephant, or other "wild" animal.
This is perhaps the most contemporary version of
Africa an Africa where nothing ever works and all good intentions come
to naught. This image of Africa stresses all the bad things about Africa,
highlighting political corruption, famine, violence, and sickness as the
defining characteristics of African life. For example, in her popular Food
in History, Reah Tannahill dismisses the very idea of African cuisine
because "... when shortages are the currency of everyday life, filling the
stomach is the only art."20
Thus, because Tannahill believes Africans have always been on the verge
of starvation, she assumes that nobody ever took the time to develop tasty
recipes. Anyone with experience in the diversity and edibility of African
cooking would find this a laughable notion. Sadly, Tannahill's book
has been in print for three decades without this brutal absurdity being
While all too many observers seem to embrace the stereotype of Broken Africa,
the explanations for Broken Africa seem to be legion. They could be attributed
to the brutal African environment, dysfunctional African culture, the Transatlantic
Slave Trade, or rapacious capitalist globalization. The upshot, however,
is usually the same. Africa is broken and is doomed to remain so indefinitely.
Africanists often refer to this perspective as "Afro-pessimism," the idea
that there is no hope for Africa in the foreseeable future. Given the very
real challenges facing all too many contemporary Africans, it is of course
important not to ignore many painful African realities. On the other hand,
a comprehensive approach to contemporary and historical Africa shows us
that such modern hardships are the exceptions to the rule, and are hardly
an accurate representation of any abstract (much less permanent) African
Here is an image of Africa that stands in sharp
contrast to the negative generalizations already discussed. Utopian Africa
is the abode of egalitarian societies living in harmony. This Africa often
serves as an idealized land for those disaffected with the racism or the
greedy materialism of modern life in the "West." Here, every village raises
every child, and wise elders solve every problem through consensus. Utopian
Africa exists for many as a vision not so much of modern Africa, but as
a glorious African past. If it exists no longer, its destruction is often
attributed to the hostility and duplicity of outside aggressors. Such images
of a Utopian Africa are often rooted in a nationalist approach to African
history and culture that assumes a "natural" unity for all people of the
"Utopian Africa" is a particularly difficult notion of Africa to critically
engage in the world history classroom. Given the politics and sensitivities
of race already discussed, engaging this idealized Africa is a supreme test
of a teacher's diplomatic skills. Like all the other "notions" of Africa,
it is critical here for the teacher to encourage students to question why
they think of Africa in a certain way, and to use the answers to think more
critically about their own beliefs and assumptions. Similarly, it is often
worth noting that to romanticize a time or place is never to do it historical
justice. Just as we deny the complex humanity of individuals we characterize
as "heroes," we deny historical reality when we idealize any historical
setting. Every region of the world comes with its own collection of achievements
and failings, good and evil.
Conclusion: Rethinking Africa in World History
A fairly predictable solution to the problem posed
by the existence of many flawed and competing "notions of Africa" would
be for teachers of world history to gain enough knowledge of Africa to present
the single "right" history of Africa and Africans. I would argue, however,
that to try this would be yet another mistake. Indeed, the common theme
among all the stereotypes of Africa discussed here is that each suggests
that the complex and intricate history of Africa can be boiled down to some
single essence or generalization: "Africa is like this." To deny the intricacy
and diversity of African history is to visit a terrible indignity upon the
continent, since such a claim suggests that African history is somehow less
complex than that of other parts of the world (such as Europe) which tend
to receive closer examination. Moreover, as is so often the case with history,
those who suggest that there is a simple answer often do so because they
have an agenda to advance. In this case the agenda is to use Africa to make
a point about some aspect of human history or the character of some group
of people. I would argue, though, that history is not about making the past
into what we want it to be, it is learning about ourselves by examining
Thus, rather than generalizing and oversimplifying the history of Africa
to make it easier to squeeze the continent into an already crowded world
history, a better strategy would be to embrace the fact that there need
be no single meaning or even coherence to the history of Africa. As my colleague
Erik Gilbert argues in his own essay for this issue of World History
Connected, a more accurate picture may well be gained by breaking Africa
down into multiple units of analysis. Africanists already do this within
their own field, dividing the continent up into geographical, cultural,
and thematic regions and recognizing that what is true for one area of study
may not be true for another. There is no reason to assume that world history
would not also benefit from a similarly textured approach to the continent.
Further, this approach would facilitate a more thematic and less geographical
approach to world history. Rather than having African material appear as
a "patch" in our world history quilt, why not have it be part of the very
warp and weave of the fabric interwoven with other similar threads from
distant parts of the world?
Furthermore, the lesson of how African history has been stereotyped can
also serve to point up how other regions of the world have received similarly
generic attention in world history. The success of Area Studies programs
is that they have proven that places like Africa and South America are very
much part of the historical world. Their inclusion has been an important
step forward for world history.22 However, it is also
true that continents nonetheless represent something of "blunt instruments"
when it comes to providing tools for historical analysis, even at the macro
level of world history. World history needs to move beyond being "inclusive"
at the continental level. The field needs to reflect the fact that little
if anything in world history is fixed even the identities and geographical
constructions which we use to understand and organize our contemporary world.
Just because "Africa" holds real meaning for us today, it does not mean
it is a relevant unit of analysis for 500 BCE.
Finally, the examination of Africa in world history highlights the dilemma
of attempting to impose fixed units of analysis on a world that has always
been ever-changing. Human societies are never static. They grow, shrink,
merge, split, move, mutate, and reinvent themselves in a constant process
of interaction with one another and with their environment (which itself
constantly changes). Thus, it makes much more sense for our units of historical
analysis to change along with the human societies that are ultimately the
focus of world history. World history is a moving target, and frameworks
of study which say "meanwhile, in Africa" every few chapters (or weeks)
do little justice to African's place in history. All of this means that
history is far more complex than we thought it was. That also means, thankfully,
that it can be far more inclusive and far more interesting. Herein lies
the great potential of world history. By recognizing the diversity within
our existing units of analysis we will be able to undertake a much more
comparative and meaningful examination of what we all share in common, and
what makes each of our great variety of cultures and societies unique.
Biographical Note: Dr. Jonathan T. Reynolds is an Associate Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University, where he received the Outstanding Junior Faculty Award in 2001. He teaches African, World, and Middle Eastern History, as well as courses on Historical Method. He also serves as advisor to the International Student Union and the Phi Alpha Theta History honor society. He and co-author Erik Gilbert recently published Africa in World History: From Prehistory to the Present (Prentice Hall, 2004). Reynolds has also authored The Time of Politics (Zamanin Siyasa): Islam and the Politics of Legitimacy in Northern Nigeria, 1950-1966 (UPA, 2001) and several articles on "Africa in World History" and Islam and Politics in West Africa.
1 See the thread "African History" on H-World, accessible via the H-Africa "Notable Threads" at http://h-net.msu.edu/~africa.
2 The author would like to extend special thanks to Dr. Joe Miller for his efforts in gaining ASA Board sponsorship for these panels.
3 As an example of how the situation represents a change in the status quo, the 1999 release by the American Historical Association entitled Perspectives on Teaching Innovations: World and Global History, included essays on integrating the Middle East, the United States, the Caribbean, South America and India into world history, but none on Africa. In fairness, an essay from another part of the collection entitled "The World Outside the West Course Sequence at Stanford University" by Names Lance and Richard Roberts (pp. 37-45) did include mention of the 'small scale societies' of Nigeria.
4 See, for example, E. Perry Hicks and Barry K. Beyer, "Images of Africa," Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 39 (2) (Spring 1970), 158-166; Barbara Wass Van Ausdall, "Images of Africa for American Students," The English Journal, Vol. 77 (5) (September 1988), 37-39; Barbara B. Brown, "Africa: Myth and Reality," Social Education (October 1994), 374-375; and Sheila S. Walker and Jennifer Rasmimanana, "Tarzan in the Classroom: How 'Educational' Films Mythologize Africa and Miseducate Americans, " The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 62 (1) (Winter 1993), 3-23.
5 I have had the pleasure of teaching not only at large "majority" institutions such as the University of Tennessee (Knoxville), and Northern Kentucky University, but also at Livingstone College, a small "historically black" Liberal Arts college.
6 In 1996 Nissan produced an extensive series of commercials for the Pathfinder SUV that were set in East Africa. The Masai really dug the leather trim. In 1998, Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Edition featured a visit to the "ancient tribe" of the Masai in East Africa.
8 A great variety of scholarly and non-scholarly perspectives are often lumped together under the label of "Afrocentrism," and there is a tendency by some scholars to use the most outlandish variety of Afrocentric perspectives to represent the whole.
9 A doff of the hat to Rodney Daniels of the University of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky University for this telling insight.
10 As I say to my students, "world history is a constant commission of sins of omission."
11 This concept provides the Preface to Africa in World History: From Prehistory to the Present (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003) authored by Dr. Erik Gilbert and myself.
12 For Africanists, the word "tribe" sets off a whole set of alarms regarding a diverse set of stereotypical African images.
13 As with the use of "tribe," scholars of Africa often break out in hives or develop facial tics when confronted with repeated use of the term "bushmen."
15 The "African Edventure" lives on in the form of a summer Study Abroad program. The current website welcomes visitors with a large image of a woman with decorative lip plate, a practice found almost exclusively in Ethiopia, despite the fact the summer trip in question is destined only for South Africa and Namibia. See http://blackboard.is.asu.edu/index.html.
16 As Jo Sullivan and Barbara Brown of the Boston University African Studies Center Outreach Program have pointed out, representing Africa via the Masai is roughly equivalent to using the Amish as the "typical" Americans. See Barbara B. Brown, "Africa: Myth and Reality" Social Education (October 1994). See http://www.h-net.org/~afriteach/afticles/myth.html.
17 For an excellent example of how such questions can be addressed, see Donald Wright, The World and a Very Small Place in Africa: A History of Globalization in Niumi, the Gambia (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2004).
20 Reah Tannahill, Food in History (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1995), 279.
21 See, for example, Chancellor Williams, The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race from 4500 BC to 2000 AD (Chicago: Third World Press, 1987).
22 See Chapter 8, on "Area Studies," in Patrick Manning's excellent Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), 145-162.
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