Reflection from Darryl L. Jones on his course "Africa in the World"
As we near the completion of Freedom Summer Collegiate this year, I posed the following question to my students at the J. Austin White Cultural Center in Eudora, Arkansas, yesterday: “What is the point of studying Africa?” It might appear that such a question would be best posed at the beginning of the course three weeks ago, but I purposely waited until the students had been exposed to a diverse range of topics before asking for their reflections. Although Africa is the most ethnically diverse continent – and arguably the most complex – it is probably the least understood and sparks the least amount of engaging curiosity for inquiring minds. Africa is the one continent where everyone seems to have strong impressions and opinions, yet the one where people seem the least interested in actually learning about.
My course “Africa in the World” has offered an interdisciplinary approach to studying Africa and, as its name implies, has sought to explain the continent’s history, contribution, interaction, and relations with the rest of the world. As I crafted this course, my foremost intention was to incorporate material from around the continent so that it was worthy of being categorized as a “African Studies” course. Within the discipline of African Studies, a plethora of research, case studies, and examples revolve around Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. My biggest criticism of the discipline is that the focal area studies of individual countries are all too often generalized and applied as being indicative of the entire continent, for good or bad. Algeria is very different from Botswana. West Africa is different from East Africa. I constantly impress in my students’ minds that when talk about Africa, we need to reaffirm the sovereignty and dignity of individual nation states and the diverse peoples who inhabit them.
The students of “Africa in the World” have been exposed to cases in Lesotho, Mauritania, and Niger, to name but a few countries many people have never heard of. We have covered a wide variety of issues, many of which are familiar and resonate with Americans:
Music and sport
We have investigated the challenges marginalized people face when attempting to carve out a livelihood in a developing country. We have studied the geopolitical consequences of the Arab Spring, and the historical significance of the legendary, but very real, city of Timbuktu. We have studied some of the cultural peculiarities of the Amazighs (“Berbers”), Issa, and Wodaabe peoples, and the students have added new terms to their vocabularies that they can easily explain: paradigm, globalization, human resource capacity, transhumance, and autochthonous. Anyone who thought this course would revolve around “heritage studies” or Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther” was (and is) gravely mistaken.
It has been an extraordinary pleasure to “return” to The Natural State – a land in which I was born 30+ years ago but have never lived – to teach (and learn) with a talented group of curious and inquisitive students. This experience has reaffirmed the passion I have for the field of African Studies, and has endowed me with sincere gratitude to teachers worldwide in the very challenging task of creating a lesson that expands knowledge and induces critical thinking while remaining engaging.
I congratulate the entire 2019 cohort of Freedom Summer Collegiate teachers who embarked on this journey with me in Jackson, Mississippi last month, and I extend my sincere gratitude to the various communities in Chicot County, Arkansas that have graciously welcomed and encouraged me since my arrival in town. “I am a part of all that I have met.”