Africa and World History – A Problematic Relationship *Hyperlinks, unless noted as

Africa and World History – A Problematic Relationship
*Hyperlinks, unless noted as optional, will take you directly to unit material available via the web
The first Africa problem in world history is that world history can and has been written without Africa. That story goes something like this: Historical progress left Africa behind, and therefore, it matters only as a place that needs to catch up or as a place that receives pity and help. Africa has thus not shaped the world; at best, it can be shaped by others. But it will never drive change in other parts of the world because it cannot do so within Africa (the narrative goes).
Kenyan scholars Nanjola Nyabola summarizes this as “Africa for beginners.” She points out that being a beginning – and thus coming with all those qualities of beginning: no experience, no knowledge – is good enough for making claims about what Africa supposedly is. As Nanjola puts it, Africa is best understood through what it is not by people who know little about its places, peoples, cultures, economies, etc.
The second problematic in world history is that many in the West/Global North are taught expect that Africa won’t/can’t catch up. Indeed, students in this part of the world are generally told Africa is stuck because it’s always been stuck. In this framework, inasmuch as professional historians study Africa, it is a study of deviations and pathologies – of things that could have been but will never likely be.
Nanjola describes this as a “negative” approach to Africa. This is not negative versus positive, but rather a situation in which individuals from other places approach African places looking not for what they are but for what the traveler thinks is missing based upon expectations from their homes. This, Nanjola concludes, keeps engagements with Africa and Africans as complex from occurring. What supposedly isn’t there becomes the start and the end.
This first unit is about these problems. It introduces you to the idea of “Africa” in world history (we could also say, “world” history because it tends to be Western navel-gazing), and it will seek to change what this word means. Africa, of course, is a continent that is often called, a country, as a TED Talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Ndichie points out. It’s geographically huge (seriously, just Google: Africa True Size). And it is a place associated with a certain set of meanings about race, culture, economic development, and political dysfunction.
According to Adichie, it’s a place where “single stories” are enough: where one African dictator means all African politics are corrupt; where one example of political violence means all African life is defined by conflict and death. It’s certainly not what the Kenyan band, Sauti Sol, considers it: a place “to live and die.” 
If you grew up in a similar context to me in the United States, this should all sound familiar. As the Kenyan essayist Binyavanga Wainaina illustrates in his punchy essay, “How to Write About Africa,” these meanings are so widely known and accepted by Westerners who write about Africa that they have become ridiculously formulaic. Wainaina’s list is not that long, and yet he captures most of the stereotypes about “Africa” in two-and-half pages.
Consider this feat: Here is a place that is about 5 times the size of the United States with nearly 1 billion people, and an essayist can sum up 200 years of Western writing about the continent in about 500 words. Which is to say: the proverbial bar is set low in Western writing about Africa.
Why? And where did this particular idea of Africa as a homogeneous, primitive, backward place come from?
It may surprise some of you to read that these ideas of African backwardness are relatively new. When a Catalan cartographer drew a world atlas in 1375, he included Mansa Musa, emperor of the Trans-Saharan kingdom, Mali. Musa is easy to pick out. He’s being carried, and he is holding a golden nugget above his head. The image is a representation of Musa’s pilgrammage to Mecca in which his caravan carried so much gold that its stopover in Cairo led to the devaluation of currency in southern Europe.
In contrast to much of what Westerners learn about Africa and Africans in past centuries, here is a 14th century leader who is known widely due to his kingdom’s economic power. This is not the image of Africa’s ancient past that we expect. The same disconnect between expectations and reality occurred when colonial explorers saw stone architecture at Great Zimbabwe. They concluded that Africans were not able to create permanent structures, and therefore, stone architecture must come from outside of the continent. We’ll see examples of these on screen in the next two units (look for them in the documentaries, “Empires of Gold” and “Cities”).
The famed Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, provides a good description of this process in his essay, “Africa’s Tarnished Name.” His argument is that Africa’s name had to be tarnished by something. For Achebe, this occurs between the end of the slave trade at the beginning of the 1800s and the acceleration of European exploration of Africa during the rest of the century. He picks on Joseph Conrad, whose novel, The Heart of Darkness, helped popularize the idea that Africans were sub-human “savages.”  Achebe’s critique of Conrad is really interesting: it’s not only that Conrad wrote terrible African history, but that he wildly misrepresented European history by describing the Congo as an unknown place. Simply not true, Achebe charges. The Kingdom of Kongo, the Vatican, and Portugal had a relationship for centuries. (This is not mandatory, but you can see an example of these communications here.) 
You may be thinking: Who cares? What are the stakes of authoritative history telling? In this case, telling false histories about both Africa and Europe helped justify colonial rule and the ideologies of white supremacy that defended them for at least a century. As I said in unit one, though it went mostly unnoticed, Dylann Roof wore a flag a Rhodesian flag on his jacket in a Facebook profile. South Africa and Rhodesia were linked through shared apartheid policies and through false histories that said Africans and people of color had nothing to offer in the past and now. (Optional news story.)
But Achebe wants you to recognize something else as well. He ends with a strange story about a documentary in which an African immigrant is giving birth in a British hospital and is being assisted by white nurses and doctors. Why, Achebe wants us to ask, do we accept as natural that white doctors should help Africans? Why can’t it be the other way around?
Achebe has already given you his answer in the essay’s title. He’s not only concerned that expectations of African as set apart or not quite fully human have not gone away in our world, but also that they are reproduced unconsciously even among those who are not intending to be racist. In other words, it’s one thing to say we’ve moved on from the past and quite another to tell stories and think of the present and the future in a ways that make a clean break from colonial pasts and the expectations that colonial ideologies create. Such unconscious racism, he concludes, can only be defeated if we tell new stories about the past, moving beyond what Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.”
What do we do with this invented Africa? In this course, we learn how to identify its elements and critique its moves. At this point in the course, I want you to see how representations of Africa’s deep past are simply wrong; the evidence tells a different story (and one that absolutely explodes the white supremacist histories that drove colonization). This will be important for our units on colonialism.
For now, we’ll challenge these representation by dipping our toes into Africa’s deep past (as we do in the next unit). To warm up for that, we have readings that show the complexity and advancements of Africa’s deep past.
World Histories
World histories are metanarratives, or narratives that attempt to explain the most important events in world history. This unit assess two ways of excluding Africa from the mainstream of human history.
First, Africa doesn’t count in most world histories because many world historians don’t expect them to count.
The practice of writing world histories began between the late-1800s and early-1900s, a time at which Europeans justified rule over Africa (and certainly, a time at which segregation was defended in our own country). At this point, world history was self-serving project that attempted to explain why some societies rose and others did not. For example, the West rose because of scientific and technological advances, while almost nothing is said about the role of slaves from Africa in Western economic growth. Conversely, Africa’s discovery of iron was considered a “borrow” from another civilization because of prevailing ideas of what Africans could do were so low.
The second problem in world history is what I call, “Africa used to be good but fell behind” narrative. A good example is Diamond’s, “How Africa Became Black,” a chapter from his best-selling book, Guns, Germs, and Steel.
The main point of Diamond’s work is that societies endowed with natural resources and good climates advance while the rest do not. This, he claims, is what kept Africa from the types of industrialization that created economic and political power in the West. If and when they escape from the limitations of a harsh climate, there is nothing biologically inferior, he asserts (rightly, of course, but for the wrong reason) that keeps Africans from joining the rest of the world. Diamond’s story is shot through with myriad problems we do not have time to cover in this unit. Indeed, many of his themes pertain to our units on slavery and colonialism.
Let me focus on one of his biggest errors from a historian’s perspective: for a society to be included in world historical narratives it must achieve certain forms of economic, technological, and political power. Africa, for Diamond, “became black” because it did not achieve what Europe or the United States did between the late-1700s and the near present.
It’s difficult to overstate how big of a historical sin this is. Assuming that our present society represent the apex of world historical civilizational is pompous given how many society altering events are unforeseen. But even worse is that Diamond makes little to no effort to understand these societies on their own terms. Put differently, the past is useless unless it leads to a particular industrial present or future. This means that the only things from Africa’s deep past that matter are those that make Western industrial change plausible. The rest gets bracketed out.
Easy Solutions to this Problem …
Geez, Dr. Grace, sounds like you hate world histories … and Diamond? Ummm … when done well, I love world history. Diamond is a trained biologist, and I’m sure he’s great at that. I’d be a lousy biology author, I’m sure.
If Diamond and other metanarratives are part of Adichie’s “single story,” then what?
Easy, we look at sources written by Africans and by those who have approached the continent’s societies with nuance and empathy. And so that’s what we do in this unit through a variety of primary and secondary sources.
The satirical piece by the late Kenyan essayist, Binyavanga Wainaina, straddles that line between primary and secondary source. As we use it here, it is primary source: it provides us a way to see how an African intellectual took on the way others write about Africa. Keep in mind: it’s totally satirical. This is a list of all of the failures of writers who have defined Africa as an abject place since the mid-1800s. Here, the solution is simple: don’t fall into this pattern. Feel free to combine it with another primary source, the music video by Sauti Sol, in a primary source analysis.
Both speak to the ways that Africans do and have taken ownership of their own lives. They are evidence that that is where others should always begin an analysis.
In this unit, they provide evidence brick-by-brick that stereotypes about Africa as weak, homogenous, or backward have no standing.
I wonder: what is the biggest surprise about early Africa from this unit?