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World History Makeover: Teaching About Africa…throughout the year!

Deborah Smith Johnston, Ph.D.
Lexington High School, Massachusetts

    Integrating regional studies into the world history survey is a challenging task. In an attempt to teach all places across time in world history, textbooks and teachers sometimes ensure "coverage" of a region by devoting time and study to just that place in isolation. Our teaching materials still tend to address "African Civilizations" and "Societies and Empires of Africa" as separate chapters. However, in order for students to see a less compartmentalized world that reflects very early hemispheric interaction, as well as later global exchanges, curricular integration is essential.
    In fact, African Studies provides us with a wonderful example of how to do world history since a substantial number of world historians are Africanists by training. Some argue that the study of African history lends itself to the study of world history. As Pat Manning—an Africanist himself—has said, "[s]ince African identity has been developed primarily in response to the experiences of slavery, colonialism and racism — largely imposed from outside the community — African studies give as much emphasis to interaction among communities as to autonomous development within communities."1 Another scholar makes the interesting assertion that in teaching about Africa, Africanists tend inherently to look more broadly since they have to cover 4.5 million years in 1-2 semesters.2 In other words, Africanists recognize the need to teach African history by selecting themes and case studies that will help students understand the "big picture." Once again, such practices have made it that much easier for African historians to make the jump to world history, where it is also necessary to choose themes and case studies to talk about the larger whole. Finally, another scholar argues that, in contrast to the study of European history, "there is no mistaken arrogance about the role of Africa and so Africanists do think in terms of a global context." At the same time, this same scholar insists that there is room for improvement, and that many Africanists fail to get out of their nation-state boxes to look at the broader patterns of interaction.3 Here, I suggest that we world history teachers similarly need to get out of our own "boxes" of textbook chapter organization to better integrate African history in our world history courses. 2
    World historical scholarship has already begun to integrate regional studies of Africa in at least five ways. The first is through inter-regional relationships. In Africa's Discovery of Europe, David Northrup establishes clear economic, religious, and cultural relationships between Europeans and Africans between 1450 and 1850 that allow us to understand the variety of ways in which Africans were active agents in engaging the world beyond their shores.4 Secondly, scholars compare unrelated case studies—such as decolonization in South Africa and India or the role of women in Asian and African Nationalist Movements—as a way of exploring world processes.5 Philip Curtin has also employed this method by comparing South Africa and Central Asia in order to explain how cultural change occurs in plural societies.6 A third means of integrating regions into world history is to depict a place (often a city or local area) as a nexus for global interaction. For example, by looking at the east African city state of Kilwa, it is possible to examine the Indian Ocean trade, the Swahili language, South Asian and Arab economic influence, the spread of Islam, the journeys of Ibn Battuta, Zheng He, and Vasco de Gama, and even the effects of the Black Plague. Fourthly, scholars can place a region in global context by focusing on connections. This has been done through a look at human migrations, plantation economies, and the Atlantic Slave trade. Finally, scholars can combine these methods to provide a rich look at both regional and global history. An excellent example is Donald Wright's The World and a Very Small Place in Africa, which uses a local case study to illustrate much larger global processes. Specifically, Wright documents how Niumi, a small area in West Africa, affected (and was affected by) global processes such as trade, European expansion, colonialism, and economic dependence.7 As educators, we can similarly introduce African history in these five ways throughout the world history survey.
     W. E. B. Du Bois, an African-American historian of the early twentieth century, set the initial framework for much current thinking about how to avoid presenting Africa as an add-on in world history research and teaching.8 Du Bois asserted that the roots of white racism toward blacks lay in the economic exploitation of Africans, beginning with the slave trade and continuing through the imperial conquests of African societies. The result of this "rape of Africa" was that "Africa and the Negro have been read almost out of the bounds of humanity. They lost in modern thought their history and cultures. All that was human in Africa was deemed European or Asiatic. Africa was no integral part of the world because the world which raped it had to pretend that it had not harmed a man but a thing."9 His work then proceeds to detail the points of intersection where Africa and Africans should be reintegrated into world history.

·      The peopling of Africa and their migrations to the larger world

·      The role of Nile civilizations in developing Europe

·      Ethiopia and its influence on Greece and Christianity

·      The Punic wars of the Mediterranean world, of which Africa was a part

·      The high culture of West Africa before European arrival (Mansa Musa, Ibn Battuta and others)

·      Bantu migrations and the movement of iron, language and agriculture

·      Indian and Arab connections in Africa from 500 –1500: racial intermingling, labor migration, trade, religion

·      The role of Africa and Asia in preparing Europe for the Renaissance

·      The beginning of the slave trade in west Africa

·      Sugar and cotton as the industrial fuel powered by African labor

·      Current patterns of trade

·      The Pan-African movement in response to colonial exploitation

·      The role of Africans in the World Wars

     Even a cursory glance at this list makes it clear that Africa has never been an isolated world entity, and that there are numerous opportunities for integrating Africa in world history courses. Moreover, we could add several more recent items to Du Bois' list, including African participation in global organizations (such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organization of African Unity), decolonization, international sanctions against apartheid, the Global AIDS pandemic, Africa's participation in the Cold War, and human rights issues.
    One way to approach the issue of integrating Africa in world history courses might be to present students with the historiography on that very subject. Indeed, students seem to find Africa's exclusion from narratives of world history compelling. William McNeill, the "father of world history," did not see the significance of African societies in his path-breaking 1963 survey The Rise of the West. Twenty-five years later, in his retrospective essay critiquing the book, McNeill still insisted that "Sub-Saharan Africa never became the seat of a major civilization, and the continent therefore remained peripheral to the rest of the world, down to and including our own age."10 In contrast, J. Roland Matory makes the argument that Africa was an integral part of the world's history, but in regional, rather than continental, terms. Examples include early migrations out of Africa from the Great Rift Valley, which extended into the Near East; East Africa's connections to the Indian Ocean world; and West Africa's connections to the Atlantic world. As part and parcel of these regional exchanges, Matory argues for the importance of Africans in shaping a wide variety of cultures and events outside Africa, from the political ideas that contributed to the Haitian revolution to the agricultural expertise that allowed for production in the New World. 11 Placing the arguments of scholars like McNeill and Matory opposite one another in the classroom might provoke an interesting debate, and would allow students to engage in the interpretation of world history themselves.
     In addition to presenting students with the historiography about Africa's role in world history, there are three additional approaches to integrating Africa into world history that teachers may find useful. The first is to focus on the three maritime worlds—the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and the Atlantic—of which Africans have been a part. This approach is conducive to exploring change over time. Specifically, issues of slavery could be addressed in all three maritime worlds. For example, students' stereotypes may be challenged by learning that slaves in early Mediterranean history would not have been African. Another possibility would be to look at commodities such as spices, sugar and silver in the three maritime worlds, incorporating ideas from "Southernization" as well as the "Plantation complex."12 A second approach would be to choose a more limited scope of time, such as 1492 to 1888, to talk about global processes. A teacher could ask questions such as, "How did Circum-maritime societies such as France, Britain, Brazil, and Haiti respond to the slave trade?" Or, "in what ways did the Atlantic system create new identities, forced and voluntary, during this time?" By beginning with global processes, one can then provide the case studies to support bigger ideas.
     The third approach is to simply ensure balance throughout the curriculum. Beginning with early Human Migrations, one might consider cave art in southern Africa compared to the cave paintings usually used from Lascaux, France.13 The spread of religion is another topic that allows for easy integration of Africa, as Islam and Christianity spread across the continent via trade and missionaries. Indeed, Aksum was the oldest Christian kingdom in the world. Hemispheric trade patterns, of course, included Africa early on. This is clearly evidenced by early European gold coinage, minted from African gold, depicting Hannibal's elephants. For empire, the Roman Empire could be contrasted with later West African kingdoms. Or, East African city states and Great Zimbabwe could be juxtaposed with others in the Americas and Eurasia at the same time, comparing architecture, oral traditions and art. Reading the West African epic Sundiata allows students to make comparisons to other epics such as the Odyssey, and also to other familiar books in world history courses, such as Journey to the West. Students need to have an understanding of the emergence of racism and why European science was used to justify slavery and imperialism. Comparing Latin American colonization and missionary efforts with African case studies can also be instructive. Slavery could be approached by discussing its global nature, where enslaved persons have not just been African but also Arab, Slavic, European, Asian, and American. In teaching about the "Scramble for Africa," teachers can use stories of early resistance in Ethiopia under Menelik and, in West Africa, under Samore Toure. These leaders can be placed alongside other stories of resistance of oppressed peoples in Oceania and the Americas. By the 20th century, it is perhaps even more apparent that there are no global issues which exclude Africa, whether it be global issues of environmental concern (elephant populations, effects of damming the Nile river, or desertification), health, decolonization, conflict, or micro-businesses.
     Barbara Brown, an outreach director for African Studies at Boston University, agrees there are many ways of integrating Africa into world history, but argues that students need to know what else is happening in the world at the same time in order to appreciate relationships, similarities and differences. She suggests that it makes sense to follow a small number of places through African history, arguing that "[i]t is impossible to do a general overview of all of Africa so focus on a few places—perhaps Ethiopia, the Eastern Congo, and Zimbabwe to show the process and the roots."14
    African history is part of world history and it should be neither left out nor privileged in its telling. Integrating Africa effectively in our classrooms means stepping back from the compartmentalized regional approach of the past, using new scholarship as well as thematic approaches in making over our world history survey. 10

Biographical Note: Deborah Johnston teaches world history at Lexington High School in Lexington, Massachusetts.


1 Patrick Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 159.

2 Candice Gouncher, Professor of History, Washington State University Vancouver. Conference Call with Goucher and Walton, February 22nd, 2002.

3 Ken Curtis, California State University, Long Beach, Chief Reader, AP World History. Phone interview, February 20th, 2002.

4 David Northrup, Africa's Discovery of Europe: 1450-1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). See also the recorded book talk on AP Central with Professor Northrup.

5 Peter Stearns et. al., World Civilizations: the Global Experience, 3rd Edition (New York: Longman, 2003), chapter 33 AP edition.

6 Philip D. Curtin, The World and the West The European Challenge and the Overseas Response in the Age of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), chapter 4.

7 Donald Wright, The World and a Very Small Place in Africa (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1997). If integrating African history over time is new to you, and you have to choose one book to read, this is it, especially if you teach AP world history.

8 W. E. B. Du Bois, The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part Which Africa has Played in World History (New York: International Publishers, 1976, enlarged edition, originally published 1946).

9 The World and Africa, 80.

10 William McNeill, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991, originally published 1963), xx.

11 J. Lorand Matory, Harvard University, Keynote Presenter "The 'New World' Surrounds an Ocean" at full day NERC Conference, Africa in World History. March 7, 2001, Boston, MA.

12 Philip Curtin, The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Lynda Shaffer, "Southernization" Journal of World History 5 (Spring 1994), 1-21.

13 Look for a new video series supported by Annenberg and produced by Oregon Public TV that will be available free to all educators in January. Bridging World History has one episode on Human Migrations, and offers excellent suggestions for global integration throughout its 26 programs.

14 Barbara Brown, Outreach Director, African Studies Center Boston University, MA. Phone interview, February 18th, 2002.




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