HUM 211 Online Course Pack - Winter 2010
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SHORT CUTS on this web page: Introduction | Interview with Ali Mazrui (Summary) |
Issues in African History (Excerpt)
, by Prof. James Giblin | Interview with Chinua Achebe (Excerpt) | Works Cited


  The Dark Continent…wildlife safaris…apartheid…starvation…Our first impressions of Africa are often formed by news stories, adventure movies, or magazine photos. But Africa — the real Africa — is a land of rich cultures and ancient civilizations unknown to many in the Western world.  "Let's face it -- think of Africa, and the first images that come to mind are of war, poverty, famine and flies. How many of us really know anything at all about the truly great ancient African civilizations, which in their day, were just as splendid and glorious as any on the face of the earth?" 

--Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Wonders of the African World (PBS, 1999): http://www.pbs.org/wonders/

"Who Should Tell The Story of Africa?  All people need to learn about their past and need to be able to participate in the creation of their own legacy. In the past, the story of Africa has been told and defined by others and these 'others' have been considered authorities on the subject. The representation of African events and characters by non-Africans has led, in many instances, to the creation of a negative portrayal of Africa."

--The Story of Africa: Living History, BBC World Service:

   ”Since colonialism, the peoples of Africa south of the Sahara have been sadly misrepresented in much European-oriented history. The Africans have been presented by many European and American writers as a people "without a past," a people who never evolved a civilization of their own and contributed nothing to human progress. The world was made to believe that the history of the African people began with the coming of Europeans to Africa in the fifteenth century. If the Africans had any history before that date, these writers argued, such history could be summed up as "barbarism, chaos and stagnation.”
  “This picture of Negro Africa before the period of European colonisation was painted, it seems to me, for two purposes…. to justify European imperialism in Africa….[and] to perpetuate the myth of racial superiority and rationalize discriminatory practices against Negroes by white Europeans…. “

  "It is to correct these [Western] misrepresentations and restore the true value and place of Negro culture and achievement in the sum total of human progress that makes the study of African history today a double necessity for both Africans and non-Africans."

--K.B.C. Onwubiko,  "The Importance of African History Today,"
 History of West Africa, AD 1000-1800 (1967. Nigeria: Africana-FEP Publishers Limited, rpt. 1985).

“I want to appeal to the past in order to explain the present….So now I ask you to turn with me back five thousand years and more and ask, What is Africa and who are Negroes?”

—W. E. B. DuBois, “The World and Africa,” qtd. in “Retelling the Story,” 
Wonders of the African World
, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (PBS, 1999): http://www.pbs.org/wonders/Retell/retlng.htm


AFRICAN TIMELINES: History, Orature, Literature, & Film (Cora Agatucci, Prof. of English, Humanities Dept., Central Oregon Community College; Humanities 211: Culture & Literature of Africa, Central Oregon Community College, Bend, OR; Winter 2003):

THE STORY OF AFRICA (BBC World Service, n. d.): "The Story of Africa tells the history of the continent from an African perspective.  Africa's top historians take a fresh look at the events and characters that have shaped the continent from the origins of humankind to the end of South African apartheid.  See the rise and fall of empires and kingdoms, experience the power of religion, the injustices of slavery, and chart the expansion of trade between Africa and other continents.  Hear what it was like to live under colonialism, follow the struggle against it, and celebrate the achievement of independence."


Agatucci, Cora, ed. Summary of Interview with Ali Mazrui. [Audiotape, Boulder, CO; 1994.]  National Public Radio, 11 March 1994.
Ali Mazrui is a respected African historian and scholar.  This interview was conducted on March 11, 1994, in Boulder, Colorado, and aired on National Public Radio.  Mazrui created and narrated the acclaimed and controversial PBS TV series The Africans (1986), and edited the book of the same title.  Partially funded by National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the project was denounced by then NEH Chair Lynn Cheney because it sometimes presented views critical of the U.S.  Mazrui’s most recent work (as of 1994) is Africa Since 1935, part of the UNESCO General History of Africa, a multi-authored series of which Mazrui is the General Editor.  In the audiotape interview summarized below, Mazrui discusses the tension-filled dialogue between Africa and the West regarding African history and media coverage of African contemporary events.

[ Revising/Correcting Western-produced Histories of Africa] 
Mazrui cites the recent work of Martin Bernal, especially Black Athenian, which posits the debt of the ancient Greeks to ancient Africa (especially ancient Egypt).  Bernal argues that this debt to ancient Africans and Semites has been de-emphasized because of Western racist attitudes toward Africa and the desire to deny that Western civilization has been influenced or shaped by African sources .

[ Images of African History]
In response to a question about Africa’s images of itself, Mazrui states there are 3 schools of African history.  The first two respond directly to Western accounts of African history, which have traditionally presented Africa’s past as full of simple, “primitive” peoples that have not yet evolved to the West’s definitions of high levels of civilization:

  1. “Romantic Primitivism”: responds to Western images of African history by celebrating the simple African herdsman—accepting Western accounts of African history as full of simple “primitive” peoples,  but rejecting what the West values (ie., complex,  monument building empires as the mark of advanced civilizations). 
  2. “Romantic Gloriana”: responds to Western images of African history by celebrating African castle-builders and empires, thereby rejecting Western accounts of African history (as full of simple “primitive” peoples), but accepting what the West values (ie. complex, monument-building empires as the mark of advanced civilizations) and trying to show that Africa’s past does meet these Western definitions of advanced civilizations.
  3. A "Third School" (Mazrui places himself here): “look at the facts of African history”—both the African herdsmen and the castlebuilders are “facts” of African history—and “forget the West,” its distorted images of African history, and its values.  [“Definitions belong to the definers,” as African American Nobel prizewinner Toni Morrison has observed; Mazrui thinks Africans should define themselves rather than letting others—i.e. the West—define them.]

[Western Media Coverage of African Current Events]  
Mazrui discusses a case of Western media “disinformation” in its coverage of modern-day African events.  The example suggests that Western audiences often gain distorted, sensationalized, and inaccurate images of contemporary Africa from Western media.  Mazrui is especially concerned that Africans themselves rely on Western news sources for information about Africa.  Mazrui bemoans the demise of the UNESCO attempt to establish a “new [world] information order,” largely because the U.S. withdrew its support.


Giblin, James (Dept. of History, Univ. of Iowa).  "Issues in African History."  Rev. 2003.  Art and Life in Africa Project.  Univ. of Iowa, School of Art & Art History, Iowa City, IA. 2003.  1 Jan. 2003  <http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/history/giblinhistory.html>.
"Like the art of all peoples, the art of Africans expresses values, attitudes, and thought which are the products of their past experience. For that reason, the study of their art provides a way of learning about their history. Through the study of African art we can study the questions which have long preoccupied historians of Africa. This essay -- written by an historian who studies the African past -- presents an introduction to these questions. Its purpose is to encourage students to use their knowledge of African art to think about issues in African history.

[Racial Stereotypes]

"As students of African art begin to consider the African past, they must also consider how Western conceptions of 'race' and 'racial' difference have influenced our notions of the African past. These ideas, which have usually contrasted the presumed inferiority of black peoples with the superiority of whites, arose in Western societies as Europeans sought to justify their enslavement of Africans and the subsequent colonization of Africa. Historians now recognize that ideas of racial inferiority have inspired the belief that in the past African peoples lived in a state of primitive barbarism. At the same time, they have realized that many of the European writings which they use to reconstruct the African past -- such as accounts by nineteenth-century missionaries and travelers, for example -- are themselves tainted by these same notions of African inferiority.

[African Perspectives]
"This realization has led historians to seek out alternative sources of information less influenced by European preoccupation with racial difference. These alternative sources include writings by Africans* (which are found in only a few portions of Sub-Saharan Africa before the twentieth century), the much fuller bodies of oral tradition which are found throughout Africa, the vocabularies and structures of African languages themselves, and the physical artifacts uncovered by archaeologists. African art is also one of these alternative sources of information. Like the other alternative sources, it helps us to understand African history not from the standpoint of Europeans, but from the perspective of Africans themselves. . . ."

[Challenging the Tribal Model of the African Past]
"Perhaps no idea about the African past is as persistent and misleading as the idea that Africans traditionally lived in isolated and homogenous 'tribes.'
This idea implies that connections among different societies, language groups and regions were unimportant. It also implies that Africans lived in a politically undeveloped condition, for 'tribes' are usually assumed to be based on kinship and genealogical descent (they might be thought of as very large extended families). Thus African 'tribal' life might be regarded as being governed not, as in Western societies, by sophisticated political institutions, but rather by primordial bonds of kinship and affinity. An additional implication of this 'tribal' conception of African life is that difference and conflict existed between different "tribes" (hence the idea of "tribal" warfare), but not within tribes. Consequently, the 'tribal' model of the African past leads us to overlook the importance of inter-regional connections, to underestimate the political sophistication of African cultures, and to ignore the importance of conflict between social classes, genders, and generations in African life.

"In recent decades, historians have questioned the 'tribal' model by investigating inter-regional connections, political institutions, and the multiplicity of social identities which existed in the African past. Historical research has been particularly effective in demonstrating that, far from living in isolated "tribes," Africans developed institutions which maintained political, social and economic relationships across wide regions. Consequently, African identities were shaped by both village life and the world of road and market, and by highly localized concerns as well as inter-regional relationships. This historical research poses a formidable challenge for students of African art history. It not only challenges them to seek manifestations of these aspects of social life in African art, but also forces them to ask whether we should be satisfied with the conventional ethnic or 'tribal' classification of African art."

Read Prof. Giblin's online article in its entirety for more issues in African art history:
Courtesy of Art and Life in Africa Project, Univ. of Iowa, rev. 2003:
Art and Life in Africa Online - Table of Contents:


Bacon, Katie.  " An African Voice."  Interview with Chinua Achebe.  Atlantic Monthly 2 Aug.  2000. Atlantic Online, Atlantic Group, 2000.  1 Jan. 2003  <http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/interviews/ba2000-08-02.htm> [Access now restricted to Subscribers, Aug. 2004 ~CA]

"Chinua Achebe's emergence as "the founding father of African literature ... in the English language," in the words of the Harvard University philosopher K. Anthony Appiah, could very well be traced to his encounter in the early fifties with Joyce Cary's novel Mister Johnson, set in Achebe's native Nigeria. Achebe read it while studying at the University College in Idaban during the last years of British colonial rule, and in a curriculum full of Shakespeare, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, Mister Johnson stood out as one of the few books about Africa. Time magazine had recently declared Mister Johnson the "best book ever written about Africa," but Achebe and his classmates had quite a different reaction. The students saw the Nigerian hero as an "embarrassing nitwit," as Achebe writes in his new book, Home and Exile, and detected in the Irish author's descriptions of Nigerians "an undertow of uncharitableness ... a contagion of distaste, hatred, and mockery." Mister Johnson, Achebe writes, "open[ed] my eyes to the fact that my home was under attack and that my home was not merely a house or a town but, more importantly, an awakening story."

In 1958, Achebe responded with his own novel about Nigeria, Things Fall Apart, which was one of the first books to tell the story of European colonization from an African perspective. (It has since become a classic, published in fifty languages around the world.) Things Fall Apart marked a turning point for African authors, who in the fifties and sixties began to take back the narrative of the so-called "dark continent."

Home and Exile, which grew out of three lectures Achebe gave at Harvard in 1998, describes this transition to a new era in literature. The book is both a kind of autobiography and a rumination on the power stories have to create a sense of dispossession or to confer strength, depending on who is wielding the pen. Achebe depicts his gradual realization that Mister Johnson was just one in a long line of books written by Westerners that presented Africans to the world in a way that Africans didn't agree with or recognize, and he examines the "process of 're-storying' peoples who had been knocked silent by all kinds of dispossession." He ends with a hope for the twenty-first century -- that this "re-storying" will continue and will eventually result in a "balance of stories among the world's peoples."

[Q:] In Home and Exile, you talk about the negative ways in which British authors such as Joseph Conrad [in Heart of Darkness] and Joyce Cary [in Mister Johnson] portrayed Africans over the centuries. What purpose did that portrayal serve?

[Achebe:] It was really a straightforward case of setting us up, as it were. The last four or five hundred years of European contact with Africa produced a body of literature that presented Africa in a very bad light and Africans in very lurid terms. The reason for this had to do with the need to justify the slave trade and slavery.
The cruelties of this trade gradually began to trouble many people in Europe. Some people began to question it. But it was a profitable business, and so those who were engaged in it began to defend it -- a lobby of people supporting it, justifying it, and excusing it. It was difficult to excuse and justify, and so the steps that were taken to justify it were rather extreme. You had people saying, for instance, that these people weren't really human, they're not like us. Or, that the slave trade was in fact a good thing for them, because the alternative to it was more brutal by far.

"And therefore, describing this fate that the Africans would have had back home became the motive for the literature that was created about Africa. Even after the slave trade was abolished, in the nineteenth century, something like this literature continued, to serve the new imperialistic needs of Europe in relation to Africa. This continued until the Africans themselves, in the middle of the twentieth century, took into their own hands the telling of their story.

[Q:] You write in Home and Exile, "After a short period of dormancy and a little self-doubt about its erstwhile imperial mission, the West may be ready to resume its old domineering monologue in the world." Are some Western writers backpedaling and trying to tell their own version of African stories again?

[Achebe:] "This tradition that I'm talking about has been in force for hundreds of years, and many generations have been brought up on it. What was preached in the churches by the missionaries and their agents at home all supported a certain view of Africa. When a tradition gathers enough strength to go on for centuries, you don't just turn it off one day. When the African response began, I think there was an immediate pause on the European side, as if they were saying, Okay, we'll stop telling this story, because we see there's another story. But after a while there's a certain beginning again, not quite a return but something like a reaction to the African story that cannot, of course, ever go as far as the original tradition that the Africans are responding to. There's a reaction to a reaction, and there will be a further reaction to that. And I think that's the way it will go, until what I call a balance of stories is secured. And this is really what I personally wish this century to see -- a balance of stories where every people will be able to contribute to a definition of themselves, where we are not victims of other people's accounts. This is not to say that nobody should write about anybody else -- I think they should, but those that have been written about should also participate in the making of these stories.

[Q:] And that's what started with Things Fall Apart and other books written by Africans around the 1950s.

Yes, that's what it turned out to be. It was not actually clear to us at the time what we were doing. We were simply writing our story. But the bigger story of how these various accounts tie in, one with the other, is only now becoming clear. We realize and recognize that it's not just colonized people whose stories have been suppressed, but a whole range of people across the globe who have not spoken. It's not because they don't have something to say, it simply has to do with the division of power, because storytelling has to do with power. Those who win tell the story; those who are defeated are not heard. But that has to change. It's in the interest of everybody, including the winners, to know that there's another story. If you only hear one side of the story, you have no understanding at all . . . .

[Q:] There are those who say that media coverage of Africa is one-sided -- that it focuses on the famines, social unrest, and political violence, and leaves out coverage of the organizations and countries that are working. Do you agree? If so, what effect does this skewed coverage have? Is it a continuation of the anti-Africa British literature you talk about in Home and Exile?

[Achebe:] "
Yes, I do agree. I think the result has been to create a fatigue, whether it's charity fatigue or fatigue toward being good to people who are less fortunate. I think that's a pity. The reason for this concentration on the failings of Africans is the same as what we've been talking about -- this tradition of bad news, or portraying Africa as a place that is different from the rest of the world, a place where humanity is really not recognizable. When people hear the word Africa, they have come to expect certain images to follow. If you see a good house in Lagos, Nigeria, it doesn't quite fit the picture you have in your head, because you are looking for the slum -- that is what the world expects journalists covering a city in Africa to come back with.

"Now, if you are covering America, you are not focusing on slums every day of your life. You see a slum once in a while, maybe you talk about it, but the rest of the time you are talking about other things. It is that ability to see the complexity of a place that the world doesn't seem to be able to take to Africa, because of this baggage of centuries of reporting about Africa. The result is the world doesn't really know Africa. If you are an African or you live in Africa, this stands out very clearly to you, you are constantly being bombarded with bad news, and you know that there is good news in many places. This doesn't mean that the bad news doesn't exist, that's not what I'm saying. But it exists alongside other things. Africa is not simple -- people want to simplify it. Africa is very complex. Very bad things go on -- they should be covered -- but there are also some good things.

"This is something that comes with this imbalance of power that we've been talking about. The people who consume the news that comes back from the rest of the world are probably not really interested in hearing about something that is working. Those who have the ability to send crews out to bring back the news are in a position to determine what the image of the various places should be, because they have the resources to do it. Now, an African country doesn't have a television crew coming to America, for instance, and picking up the disastrous news. So America sends out wonderful images of its success, power, energy, and politics, and the world is bombarded in a very partial way by good news about the powerful and bad news about the less powerful."

[Q:] You mentioned that literature was used to justify slavery and imperialism. What is this negative coverage of Africa being used to justify now?

[Achebe:] "It's going to be used to justify inaction, which is what this fatigue is all about. Why bother about Africa? Nothing works there, or nothing ever will work. There is a small minority of people who think that way, and they may be pushing this attitude. But even if nobody was pushing it, it would simply happen by itself. This is a case of sheer inertia, something that has been happening for a long time just goes on happening, unless something stops it. It becomes a habit of mind. . . . .

[Q:] Has living here [in the U.S.] changed the way you think about Nigeria?

[Achebe:] "
It must have, but this is not something you can weigh and measure. I've been struck, for instance, by the impressive way that political transition is managed in America. Nobody living here can miss that if you come from a place like Nigeria which is unable so far to manage political transitions in peace. I wish Nigeria would learn to do this. There are other things, of course, where you wish Americans would learn from Nigerians: the value of people as people, the almost complete absence of race as a factor in thought, in government. That's something that I really wish for America, because no day passes here without some racial factor coming up somewhere, which is a major burden on this country."

Learn more about Achebe's home country Nigeria:
Learn more about Achebe's people the Igbo:
Courtesy of Art and Life in Africa Project, Univ. of Iowa, rev. 1999

Works Cited

Agatucci, Cora (Prof. of English, Humanities Dept., Central Oregon Community College). African Timelines: History, Orature, Literature, and Film.  Humanities 211: Culture & Literature of Africa, Central Oregon Community College, Bend, OR; Fall 2007.  15 Sep. 2007 
< http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum211/timelines/htimelinetoc.htm

Agatucci, Cora, ed. Summary of Interview with Ali Mazrui. National Public Radio, 11 March 1994. [Audiotape, Boulder, CO; 1994.]

Bacon, Katie.  " An African Voice."  Interview with Chinua Achebe.  Atlantic Monthly 2 August 2000. Atlantic Online, Atlantic Group, 2000.  1 Jan. 2003 <http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/interviews/ba2000-08-02.htm>.

Giblin, James (Dept. of History, Univ. of Iowa).  "Issues in African History."  Rev. 2003.  Art and Life in Africa Project.  School of Art & Art History, Univ. of Iowa, Iowa City, IA. 2003.  1 Jan. 2003 <http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/history/giblinhistory.html>.

The Story of Africa.  BBC World Service [n.d.].  11 Aug. 2004 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/index.shtml>.

Wonders of the African World with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. PBS Online: Public Broadcasting Service. 1999. Jan. 2000 <http://www.pbs.org/wonders/>.

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