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Connecting African History to the Major Themes of World History

Candice L. Goucher
Washington State University Vancouver

    Teaching about Africa has been an endeavor as marginalized as the continent's history. Yet the story of Africa's past is truly a global tale. The telling of that tale presents classroom opportunities to connect past and present in powerful ways.  In particular, it provides opportunities to re-tell the traditionally Eurocentric narrative of world history. The academic field of African history dates from about 1960, with the publication of the Journal of African History by Cambridge University Press. Almost immediately, African history became politically contested terrain, a flagship of African nationalism, cornerstone of African-American identity politics and the emerging field of black studies, and the target of those who (like British historian Hugh Trevor- Roper) claimed that African history was nothing more than "the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe."1 Eventually, the teaching and practice of African history did lead to major contributions to the discipline of history, making the reliance on cultural contextualization, oral evidence, and archaeology much more routinely acceptable since the last third of the twentieth century. 
    Given this success, why does African history continue to be marginalized by world history narratives? Africanists, including Patrick Manning and David Northrup, have played key roles in the rise of world history and the professionalization of the field. And the focus on Africa, inevitably selective, fits well with a thematic approach to world history.  Yet Africa's past has been omitted from world history for many of the same reasons it was marginalized as a field of history. Often, Africa is presented as an integrated whole, referred to as if it were a single empire rather than a continent. In too many textbooks, Africa is mentioned in only two or three chapters, where it is often lumped together comparatively with Latin America or another world region, reinforcing the colonial notion that Europe is the standard against which every other place must be measured. Invariably, even when Africa is included, the textbook focus of the few pages devoted to coverage of African history is on enslaved and colonized Africa.2  The entire history of a continent is still often taught in one or two semesters. Thus, after more than a generation of inclusion within the academy, African history remains largely segregated from the human story, dismissed to a terrain belonging to area specialists. This essay contributes to the emerging dialogue on the usefulness of thematically organized world history courses. It does so by suggesting how we can bring Africa to the core content of the world history classroom.

Human Migration In and Out of Africa

Where do we as world historians begin the story?  
    Current evidence points to the fact that the human story begins in Africa.  Migration both in and out of Africa weaves through the earliest human history, the peopling of the planet, the Bantu migration beginning about 5000 years ago, the African Diaspora extending into the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, and more recent displacements caused by economic factors, political oppression, conflict, and famine.3   The theme of human migration concerns not only historians – it encompasses processes basic to human history, the study of demography, ecology, economics, geography, and cultural change, to name just a few.  In order to communicate the centrality of Africa to world history, it is probably essential for world historians to build bridges to the understanding of the most distant human past, the period once relegated to "prehistory."  This project will require the assistance of other disciplines.  Genetic evidence, paleontology, biology, geology, historical linguistics – all beg for our historical attention, while offering compelling evidence regarding the history of the human species on the African continent and beyond.  By placing the slave trade in the context of other major events in the history of human migration in and out of Africa, teachers can also emphasize change over time and present more recent world history against the backdrop of the stunning longevity of the African past.  Beginning world history in Africa helps to place the continent's past in the center rather than the margins of historical discourse. It might also prompt essential classroom dialogues about race and racism in global and historical terms.

Encounters Beyond the Slave Trade and European Colonization

Can teachers help students avoid the conclusion of European superiority and the inevitability of imperial conquest by placing the slave trade in its larger global context?  
    The "out of Africa" migration story can and should be extended to the migrations of the modern world, including the slave trade. Often the classroom focus on slavery and the slave trade in the Atlantic world is the most powerful way that historical analysis places Africa at the center of world history narratives. However, this focus simultaneously and inadvertently can communicate assumptions about European superiority, especially if most teachers of world history consider Africa only through the lens of the slave trade and the commonplace portrayal of Africans as passive victims 4
    The trade in enslaved Africans connected four continents (Africa, Europe, North America, and South America), and arguably the globalization of coerced labor after 1500 cannot be studied without also including (besides Africa) Asia and the Indian Ocean.  Turning the slave trade unit into the study of the globalization of labor after 1500 can also permit the use of the African Diaspora as one of several early sites where capitalist ties simultaneously created systems of exploitation as well as rich examples of global culture and interaction.  Recent scholarship on the Diaspora suggests how integral transplanted African technological expertise was to the construction of plantation technology in areas as diverse as rice agriculture and metallurgy. Indeed, the fact that modern African migration occurred in the context of slavery does not alter its global impact. 5
    Caribbean cuisine and cultural forms such as carnival, Trinidadian calypso, Haitian vodoun, Brazilian candomble, samba, and capoeira reveal the complex processes of creolization and syncretism at work on a global scale.  It is possible to use religion, food, dance, and other cultural forms to explore the story of enslaved Africans as a history of resistance rather than domination, cultural syncretism rather than simply acculturation, and survival and empowerment rather than victimization. David Northrup's accessible study of this interaction, Africa's Discovery of Europe:  1450-1850, suggests that it makes a difference if we view Europeans and Africans in the full variety of their encounters, sometimes as trading partners, sometimes mutually engaged in cultural practices beyond their place of birth, and sometimes (but certainly not always) engaged in the master/slave relations of domination.  This is wonderfully accomplished by Northrup through the presentation of collective experiences and individual lives over a wide swathe of time.
    Slave accounts are not the only classroom tool for presenting African voices. Recent studies of the African diaspora have explored the past through the use of archaeological and ethnohistorical recovery of maroon history (escaped African slaves), slave community history, and the transfer of technological and cultural traditions in the Atlantic world. These new directions in slave studies reveal the complexity of slave systems beyond the black/white dichotomy. Such work reveals that slaves initiated their own food production and that they re-created cooperative, communal values of food sharing that defied the greed and oppression of slavery and capitalism.  In addition, maroon freedom fighters maintained distinct political and cultural identities that derived empowerment from the persistence of African cultural patterns. Studies of the African Diaspora are better developed for the regions of the circum-Caribbean world, but also reach into the Indian Ocean world, where centuries-old connections between Africa and Asia flourished through maritime trade and immigration. The growing body of Diaspora scholarship has significantly influenced the field of African-American studies, and most recently has been used as a model for understanding the history of the western Indian Ocean communities, such as those in Mauritius and India.4  These approaches emphasize the history of slavery and the slave trade in an expanding global context.

Cultural Memory Systems in Africa and the Global Past

How can teachers provide insight into the non-written records of world history?  
    The sheer immensity (in terms of both historical time and space) and the staggering diversity of the African continent will continue to provide challenging barriers to non-specialists yearning to be inclusive.  Connecting the peopling of the planet with more recent migrations is a challenging leap across world history, one that requires expanding the sources typically used by world historians. A recent trend in African historical scholarship is to employ techniques that achieve deep historical time recovery through the reconstruction of change over time in a single cultural.  Donald Wright's The World and a Very Small Place in Africa is one example, where the author explores eight centuries in a single area along the Gambia River. Another is Allen Roberts and Polly Nooter's work on the Luba and cultural memory, which explores Luba art, history, and identity over millennia and raises important questions about why and how a society remembers its past.  Recent scholarship in African history demonstrates that it is often necessary to weave together the work of several scholars, writers, or artists in order to achieve the goal of chronological depth. Here again, reaching across disciplinary boundaries is useful for classroom teachers. Incorporating the work of African filmmakers or novels by African writers allows for a level of cultural specificity and access to authentic voices that world history teachers seek to embrace.  Comparing and contrasting two vastly different historical experiences from distinct cultural regions can be a powerful way to promote comparative thinking and at the same time demonstrate the cultural complexity of the African experience, both past and present.
    Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart is frequently used in both the high school and college classrooms.  It was written at a time when the only history of colonial Nigeria was written by the colonizers. Part of its appeal is that it allows readers inside of the colonial experience and hints at the mutuality of that experience for both colonizer and colonized. The novel's title (from the Yeats poem "The Second Coming") refers to the ominous period after Christianity's arrival into the ancient world. Achebe's title also suggests one approach to using his novel as a means of exploring change over time from ancient (precolonial) forest states to the arrival of Europeans on the West African coast. Writing during and after the colonial period, Achebe writes of a dynamic, historical, and specific culture. In so doing, he holds that Africa had its own history, culture, and civilization that were equal—if not superior—to that of the imperialists.  Below I explore some ways to contextualize Achebe's work and to extend its use in the classroom to both earlier and later periods of world history.

Reaching Back to Ancient African Worlds Completes a Global Story

What is the ancient world alluded to in the title of Achebe's novel?  
    The Ibo past is now well-documented both archaeologically and in oral traditions. Archaeological excavations at Igbo Ukwu in southeastern Nigeria hint at rich cultural continuities over a millennium. Bronze artifacts uncovered there suggest trade connections across the Sahara and beyond, possibly prior to the arrival of Islam. The same artifacts also appear connected to modern Ibo cultural traditions such as scarification and titled political office.  Excavated by the British archaeologist Thurstan Shaw, the three sites of Igbo Ukwu revealed the most surprising cache of metals in all of West Africa.  Together the sites suggested a complexity, virtuosity, and sheer wealth of metal known only from later, and much larger, trading states and empires.  Two of the sites were provisionally identified as a storehouse of regalia and a royal burial chamber, (the third was probably a disposal site), and included staff ornaments, regalia, pendants, anklets, copper rods, human heads with scarification marks, and symbolically powerful images in bronze such as horses, leopards, and elephants. 
    At first it was thought that such sophisticated metalworking could not date from the period before the arrival of Europeans.  Yet strikingly, there were no finds to suggest a European presence – no smoking pipes or cowries, for example, which suggest a date at least prior to 1650.  The existence of an object (known as the Horseman's Hilt) depicting a human rider astride a horse suggests a date after 1000 CE, when horses first appeared in West Africa as a result of the trans-Saharan trade.
    What was perhaps most intriguing about the finds at Igbo-Ukwu was their cultural context, based on the observations of contemporary Ibo people and traditions.  Who were the individuals connected to these 1000-year-old sites?  What can we say about their society? Unlike the ancient empire of Mali, celebrated in the songs of griots, no single great kingdom or state had been remembered in the oral traditions, yet these objects clearly reflected access to long-distance trade and technology as well as the accumulation of great wealth. One clue lies in the scarification marks, called Ichi marks, identical to those of the local Nri culture, which suggest the possibility of cultural continuity with the present in at least some form.
    Other implications of the archaeological evidence of Igbo Ukwu have to do with its link to a larger world beyond the small forest community. The presence of bronze and copper objects, the image of the horse on the horseman's hilt, and also imported glass beads suggest a sophisticated social hierarchy as well as the existence of highly specialized craftsmen. In addition, such a complex society must have had a rich agricultural basis.  Yet unlike comparable technological and artistic centers such as Chavin de Huantar in the Andes or urban centers like Anyang in China, Igbo Ukwu did not attract a large population. Igbo Ukwu thus did not form the foundation for a large-scale political system. Indeed, its existence seems to deny much of world history's emphasis on the seemingly inevitable growth in scale, complexity, urbanization, and empire-building of most societies once touched by the forces of globalization. Igbo Ukwu was in fact associated with larger forces of trade and interaction, and yet remained a small-scale, local society. For that reason alone, Igbo Ukwu presents an excellent case study for the persistence of localism in globalizing economies. 13

Connecting Colonial and Postcolonial Struggles

How and why should teachers link the past and present of Africa?  
    Early Ibo history is less accessible by comparison with many other early histories.  There are no written documents, and the symbolism of the archaeological finds must be inferred from much more recent ethnohistorical research. Historians once described complex societies like that at Igbo Ukwu as "stateless," suggesting somehow a lack of civilization.  In fact the social order designed by the ancient Ibo—including an intricate weaving of social relations, political decision-making, economic achievement, and cosmological well-being—provided a remarkably resilient cultural fabric.  Teachers might consider using Ibo history alongside the history of the Bambara (including the era from the kingdom of Mali as remembered and told by the griots) or the history of the Luba (from the perspectives of archaeology, the bana balute, men of memory, and their mnemonic devices known as memory boards) to demonstrate that there are a variety of ways of recording and remembering the past. Indeed, in societies like the Ibo, Bambara, and Luba, the past lives in the present.
    An example of Ibo history that reinforces the idea of living history is the story of the events termed the "Aba Riots" by the British colonizers, but remembered in women's oral traditions as the Ibo Women's War (1929).  The Ibo Women's War was a significant event in the history of African colonialism.  During the 1929 events, Ibo women engaged in the tradition of "sitting on a man," a cooperative and non-violent protest against abusive male power, in this case directed against the colonial system.  These techniques of protest and rebellion used kinship and other associations, and they can help historians reach into the distant cultural past of patriarchal Ibo society. Since these methods of protest and revolt continue today in Nigerian cities, they provide a window on the links between the past and the present.
    Other aspects of Africa's past are also accessible through novels and films, such as those of African filmmakers Ousmane Sembene (Senegal) or Souleymane Cisse (Mali) or Safi Faye (Senegal).  Many of their works explore contemporary issues of identity, courage, and corruption, by pairing global tensions with local traditions, and by setting their plots in distinctive historical eras. Like Achebe's novel, their films succeed in giving local voice to West African perspectives on world history, from the rural village to the urban enclave. 

Remembering the Present and Re-imagining the Past

How might the inclusion of African history alter the world history narrative?  
    In his recent volume The Origins of the Modern World, Robert Marks writes about the origins of the modern world, its historical inequities, conjunctures, and contingencies, with clarity and an engagingly persuasive style.  And if ever a topic called for the inclusion of Africa, this is it.  Yet the book is notable for the disappointing lack of inclusion, neglecting much of Islam, Africa, and Latin America in favor of a narrative that deftly links China, India, and Europe.  And while the author (a China specialist) clearly does not seek such balance, the failure to be fully inclusive of the world beyond Europe does little to address his stated goal of supplanting Eurocentrism.  Africa remains the elephant in the room.  Told globally, African and African Diaspora examples might have supported the author's thesis.  Instead, this China-centered East Asian perspective narrowly focuses on the story of a British-led Euro-American world system.
    The Marks volume in fact provides the arguments for such inclusion of Africa.  Africa is unique in having been connected to forces and trade routes external to the continent via very different directions. Viewed on a global scale, Africa's past contains the diversity of local and global historical examples. Should world historians frame Africa differently, depending on the mercantile networks in force during any particular historical era? Must the view from the Atlantic exclude the littoral Africa that was brought into the 13th-century world system through Islamic and Indian Ocean connections?  We are clearly only beginning the process of integration, a process that will rely on Africanists and others both in and out of the classroom. Africa's unique role in world history will be defined differently depending on one's perspective, chronological framework, and specific thematic interests.  Yet the continent's historical depth and its placement both within and outside the modern story of globalization should demand that we consider refocusing the narrative.  Why was globalization incomplete?  Why has it been met with resistance?  How were the gaps created by imperialism deepened by the processes of globalization? These are but a few of the questions that emerge from an Africa-centered narrative of world history. .


     The practice and teaching of world history straddles the tension between the specific historical narrative of a place in time and space and the larger patterns and processes of the past. This battle to resolve this tension is, in fact, part of the heady lure of the field. The interdisciplinary nature of African history and its reliance on multiple sources to recreate the past have much to suggest for altering the world history narrative beyond making it more inclusive. Africanists, writers, filmmakers and scholars have also debated these tensions in their own ways.  The writer Ngugi Wa Thiong'o has searched the implications of the political, social, and economic circumstances of the neocolonial period.  Eschewing the colonizer's English, Ngugi eventually chose to write in Gikuyu, explaining in his book Decolonizing the Mind:

" [A] specific culture is not transmitted through language in its universality, but in its particularity as the language of a specific community with a specific history. Written literature and orature are the main means by which a particular language transmits the images of the world contained in the culture it carries.  Language as communication and as culture are then products of each other. . .  Language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we perceive ourselves and our place in the world. . .  Language is thus inseparable from ourselves as a community of human beings with a specific form and character, a specific history, a specific relationship to the world these works help the reader determine if a novelist's portrayal of African society fully reflects its social relations, political arrangements, and economic factors." 5

    The marginalization of African history is only one legacy of colonialism, imperialism, and globalization. Colonialism tried to justify its systematic rules of oppression and exploitation by resorting to claims of racial superiority. Many African writers and filmmakers countered such claims by producing artistic works that showed that Africa had its own history, culture, and civilization that were equal if not superior to that of the imperialists. In so doing they became the 21st century griots, propelling the traditions of the continent into the most recent era of globalization.  One of the famous lines in Achebe's novel is "proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten." What does this mean? Palm oil is the rich yellow oil pressed from the fruit of certain palm trees and is used both for fuel and for cooking everything from fried plantains to soups. Proverbs truly enrich language use, adding complexity and nuance. The use of proverbs is a measure of full cultural literacy, a fullness that escaped the colonizer. Sharing proverbs in the classroom encourages students to recognize the richness and complexity of Africa – culturally, a world away.  But as another Ibo proverb reminds us, "a hot soup is licked gradually from the edge," suggesting that world historians first must use the available fragments of the outer ordering of the world to understand its inner core and ultimate flavors. After all is said and done, world history without the flavors of Africa's past can no longer satisfy the appetites of our global community.  20

Biographical Note: Candice Goucher is professor of History and Liberal Arts Coordinator at Washington State University, Vancouver, where she teaches courses in African History and Caribbean Studies. She is the co-author, with Linda Walton of Portland State University, of the world history textbook In the Balance: Themes in Global History (McGraw-Hill, 1998). She is also a lead scholar in the creation of a 26-part video series and interactive website called Bridging World History, which is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting/Annenberg.

For Further Reading

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (London: Heinemann, 1958).

_____, "The Novelist as Teacher," in John Press, ed., Commonwealth Literature: Unity and Diversity in a Common Culture (London: Heinemann, 1965), 201-05.

E. Kofi Agorsah, ed., Maroon Heritage:  Archaeological, Ethnographic, and Historical Perspectives  (Kingston, Jamaica: Canoe Press, The University of the West Indies, 1994).

Douglas V. Armstrong and Kenneth G. Kelly, "Settlement Patterns and the Origins of African Jamaican Society: Seville Plantation, St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica," Ethnohistory 47:2 (2000), 369-397.

Herbert M. Cole and Chike C. Aniakor, Igbo Arts:  Community and Cosmos (Los Angeles, Museum of Cultural History, UCLA, 1984).

Alice L. Conklin, "Boundaries Unbound: Teaching French History as Colonial History and Colonial History as French History," French Historical Studies 23:2 (2000) 215-238 Candice L. Goucher, "African metallurgy in the Atlantic world," African Archaeological Review 11 (1993), 197-215. Candice Goucher, Charles A LeGuin and Linda A. Walton, In the Balance:  Themes in Global History (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998). Jay B. Haviser, ed., African Sites Archaeology in the Caribbean (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers; Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 1999). John N. Oriji, "Igbo Women From 1929-1960," West Africa Review 2:1 ( 2000).

Mary Nooter Roberts and Allen F. Roberts, Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History (New York: Prestel, 1996). Thurstan Shaw et al., eds., The Archaeology of Africa: Food, Metals and Towns (London: Routledge, 1993). Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Decolonising the Mind (London: James Currey; Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1986). _____, Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams (Oxford: Clarendon; New York: Oxford UP, 1986). ______, "Europhonism, Universities, and the Magic Fountain: The Future of African Literature and Scholarship," Research in African Literatures 31:1 (2000) 1-11. Judith Van Allen, "`Aba Riots' or Igbo `Women's War'? Ideology, Stratification, and Invisibility of Women," in F.C. Steady, ed., The Black Woman Cross-Culturally (Cambridge, Mass: Schenkman Publication Co, 1981).

Judith Van Allen, "Sitting on a Man: Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of the Igbo," Canadian Journal of African Studies 6:11 (1972).


1 Reported in the Listener after a BBC lecture (November 28, 1963).

2  There are exceptions among the currently available textbooks and not surprisingly the best coverage of Africa is by Africanists involved as authors.

3 The Bantu migrations dispersed speakers from their probable homeland in the Nigerian Cameroon highlands; eventually they occupied most of the continent south of the equator. 

4 See for example the archaeological research of Amitava Chowdhury on maroons in Mauritius (History Department, Washington State University).

5 Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Decolonising the Mind  (London: James Currey; Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1986), 15-16.




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