Africa is not a country, but it is taught like one.
When Africa appears in a U.S. classroom, it is typically shoehorned into a discrete unit framed by the beginning of European exploration and the end of decolonization, if time permits anything more than a survey of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But the African continent and its people have a long and enduring history, replete with cultural, linguistic and economic diversities. When we permit a one-dimensional understanding of Africa, we are undermining not only our academic knowledge but also the voices and lived experiences of those individuals from or associated with Africa.
Therein lie the two goals of teaching Africa in the classroom: to humanize the diverse people of Africa and to normalize the various lives they lead. For many students and teachers, African studies is an amorphous concept because we lack varied African perspectives and teaching resources. This may lead us to inadvertently lump all of Africa into a singular entity, which ignores the identities and agencies of those individuals. This, then, has implications in our daily lives in how we consider and interact with the real people from our imagined versions of Africa. In the context of African studies, in order to uphold the humanity of those who we study, we must incorporate African perspectives and representative visuals into our classrooms and acknowledge differences while celebrating similarities.
In the video “African Men, Hollywood Stereotypes,” four Kenyan men discuss their frustration at how the Western world portrays them. Videos featuring citizens from various African countries and their perspectives can serve as a starting point from which to explore the sources of our knowledge; understand the limitations of our sources; analyze how the media impacts our perceptions; and discuss and share similar cases of prejudice that are perpetuated by popular culture. Similarly, social media accounts such as @barbiesavior, @everydayafrica and @adjustingfocus on Instagram offer entertaining and captivating opportunities for students to reflect on how they view Africa and to engage with content that complicates the singular narrative.
In working to normalize African studies, it is imperative to recognize that certain parts of the continent are fundamentally connected to our history as a country, and an even more integral part of our human story from the perspective of world history. The United States is profoundly—and shamefully—indebted, not only to the free labor of enslaved Africans and their descendants who built this nation, but also to the transfer of knowledge about foodways, architecture, religion, music and language brought from the African continent and adapted in the American context. In the newly released six-hour PBS series Africa’s Great Civilizations, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. explores the African origins of human civilization, culture, writing and animal domestication. He argues, “Human history was born on the African continent, which makes Africa the wellspring from which all of the world’s history flows.”
Africa, and area studies more generally, should not compose standalone units or lessons. Rather, African people, history, achievements, arts and scholarship should be incorporated into all content areas and all grade levels. We often relegate Africa to the history classroom and neglect to see the value in using examples of African literature in English classes or African case studies in math classes. However, by blending area studies into all subject areas, we normalize what is sometimes stigmatized as the “other” and foster an understanding of equality among different populations. The goal should be comparative integration into all coursework.
The prospect of addressing the pedagogical urgency of effectively teaching the complexities of Africa in the classroom can be daunting, especially when many educators themselves are not well-versed in African studies. However, federally funded National Resource Centers (NRCs) exist to support educators in doing just that. With thousands of free online resources and hundreds of annual workshops nationwide, the African Studies Association Outreach Council is ready to help design interdisciplinary curricula that humanize and normalize African studies in the classroom.
The online Languages of Africa series, offered through Boston University’s African Studies Center, features several languages spoken around the continent and focuses on the personal and cultural connections each language has for its speakers. These videos can serve as a starting point from which to highlight the linguistic diversity of the continent; discuss the ways in which languages carry different meanings and values; and use languages as a means by which to understand transnational trade networks, migration and economic systems.
Like with all education, the most effective approach to teaching about Africa’s diversity through African voices and visuals is always to make it relevant to students’ lives and to activate prior knowledge. If we work to reposition Africa in our classrooms, regardless of grade level and subject area, we can begin to more accurately comprehend our global past and to more empathetically understand our global present.
Elliott is a Massachusetts history teacher who currently works as the outreach specialist at Boston University’s African Studies Center.