Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Why Studying African History is Good For You

with 2 comments

by Bronwen

I’m teaching about the post-war African colonial empires at the moment, and came across NYU Professor Fred Cooper’s lecture for the Stanford Humanities Centre while putting together the ‘further reading’ materials for my students.  I highly recommend this podcast.  (Number 29 here).

Listening to it, I was reminded why African history should not be a niche subject, but should be integral to all history curricula: the shape of how we think about the world owes a lot to how the world has engaged with Africa over the past 400 years. From humanitarianism to ‘development’, from ‘modern’ warfare to understandings of agricultural technology, from acceptable capitalism to unacceptable exploitation, concepts that we take for granted have emerged from our engagement with Africa.  What is the state for?  Are political parties inevitable in a democracy?  If ethnicity is defined by a shared cultural heritage and language, where does that break down territorially? What are the smallest and largest effective political structures?  All of these questions are raised by studying African history.

But even more fundamentally, studying African history is important for challenging the narrative of progress, as Cooper does so effectively in this lecture.  Yes, in some ways learning history is about learning how we got here.  But in other, equally important ways, it is about the roads not taken.  Learning African history can help demonstrate that the nation state has never been an inevitability, for instance, and that citizenship is a pretty arbitrary category.  The shifting categories of citizen, subject, and national in French Africa (the subject of the podcast) were not different ways of getting to the objectively ‘true’ form of citizenship as now practiced.  Citizenship, national identity, and supranational identities have always been negotiated and what we have now is just as arbitrary and negotiated a category as the forms that existed in the nineteenth century empires or in the mid-twentieth century Unions or Federations or Communities or Commonwealths.

This is particularly relevant teaching in the EU, where despite the contested nature of that body within English opinion, national and supranational citizenship are part of daily life.  But I imagine it would be equally relevant in both the EU and the US, where countries increasingly cling to an ‘origins’ notion of citizenship and nationality in an attempt to define the limits of social citizenship and its entitlements.

There are so many reasons to study history more generally.  But African history can provide a unique insight into the assumptions we all make about the ‘modern’ world, how we got here, and how completely different fundamental conceptions about how the world operates could be if one small thing were different.

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Written by apini

February 24, 2012 at 04:52

2 Responses

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  1. […] Why Studying Africa is Good for You. […]

  2. […] democracy and of being the only way that modernity could have happened.  But as I’ve said in previous posts, there are a lot of different ways that things could have turned out (and could still), and the […]


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