The New World History: Teaching Africa across Boundaries

By Kea, Ray A. | Social Studies Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview
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The New World History: Teaching Africa across Boundaries


Kea, Ray A., Social Studies Review


In a recent article, historian Kathleen Smythe calls for a re-thinking of Africa's role in world history historiography. She criticizes world history textbooks because, she argues, African history is less consistently integrated into world history narratives than other geographical regions. She acknowledges that world history textbooks discuss African history more now than they did two decades ago, but, she contends, Africa is generally not considered in any significant detail before 1 500 CE, ancient Egypt being a noted exception. Thus, African history is consistently marginal in world history narratives covering pre-sixteenth century periods. The low profile of Africa implies that the greater part of the continent has been isolated from worldhistorical change and events and has consistently lagged far behind other, favored regions of the world in political development, social complexity, and technology. Smythe challenges this point of view in the following way:

"African history. . .can and should have a stronger impact on our study of history and models of historical processes because it was a place of significant historical developments and offers alternatives to the accepted narrative of the development of civilizations. In short, thorough incorporation of African history into world history changes how we see the world" (Smythe 2004).

The recognition of Africa's critical role in world history is not new. Two decades ago an insightful historian, the late Marshall Hodgson, had this to say about Europe, modernity, and the non-European world:

"It was also necessary that there exist large areas of relatively dense, urban-dominated populations, tied together in a great interregional commercial network, to form the world market which had gradually come into being in the eastern hemisphere, and in which European fortunes could be made and European imaginations exercised" (Hodgson 1993).

These words still resonate. And now, a broad body of recent archaeological research supports this statement, challenging established conceptions of African history by showing that West Africa certainly qualifies as one of Hodgson's "large areas of relatively dense, urban-dominated populations, tied together in a great interregional commercial network." For example, a 1996 archaeological survey of West Africa brought to light important new information about West African history:

"Between Lake Chad and the Atlantic Ocean there are about 10,000 town walls, 25% or more of them on deserted sites. They represent the largest concentration of past urban civilization in. ..Africa; yet only a handful have been surveyed. There are also about 250,000 unsurveyed tumuli [i.e., funerary monuments], several million unchartered iron-smelting sites, and an unknown number of ancient terracotta sites, most of which have been looted" (Darling n.d.).

How are historians using this new information to change interpretations of African history? The archaeologist Anne Haour is one case. Haour has written extensively on the history of urbanization in West Africa, and has already begun to re-think West Africa in world history terms. In her most recent book, she has written a comparative history which looks at European countries around the North Sea and in the Lake Chad basin of West Africa for the period 800-1500 CE. In both areas, new monotheistic faiths - Christianity in northern Europe and Islam in West Africa - were replacing polytheistic faiths at the same time that states and empires were consolidating, new trading networks were being set up, new cities and towns were founded, and fortifications were built as symbols of political authority and in defense against raiders and invaders (Haour 2007). This study is innovative and unique and offers a challenge to current world history historiographies and their treatment of Africa.

Given such new information, how are teachers and students to understand African history? In what ways should they think about African history and what are useful points of departure and points of reference?

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The New World History: Teaching Africa across Boundaries
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