Not long ago, I met a young woman who had taken a college course
in African literature. "What did you read?" I enthusiastically
inquired. I was in the midst of rethinking the African lit course I
am teaching this fall.
A quizzical expression settled on her face. Obviously her
thoughts had not revisited that course in the five or six years
since she graduated.
"Things Fall Apart?" I suggested. "Chinua Achebe. Nigerian."
"I think maybe," she acknowledged. Then she grinned sheepishly.
She had not expected to be quizzed about her college course work. "I
really didn't read all the books," she admitted.
There it was out in the open, the dilemma of teaching literature
to a generation accustomed to absorbing visual, rather than
literary, information. I felt a visceral twitch.
I am only a visiting professor. Even so, I do understand that
reading books and acquiring an education are only the ostensible
reasons for going to college. These activities rate much higher:
making lifelong friends, cementing those friendships by getting into
and out of memorable scrapes, checking out the possibilities of
finding a life partner, keeping up with fashion and celebrities. Oh,
yes, and trying to figure out what will be on the tests so as not to
waste time acquiring insights and information that will not be
required for regurgitation.
Given these realities of college life, I have taken defensive
action in my African literature course. Since Americans generally
get information about Africa from news reports - most of it negative
- I want students to read what Africans themselves have to say. I am
asking them to master ... er, study ... well, at least read 10 books
in as many weeks. And so I have chosen books they might actually
One is Camara Laye's "The Dark Child," with its warm
recollections of growing to manhood and falling in love in West
Africa - and being given the heart-wrenching opportunity of
postsecondary study in France. My students will have left home just
as Laye does and will understand the loneliness he encounters.
In Mark Mathabane's "Kaffir Boy" they will meet a young South
African. With grit and persistence (not bad qualities for college
students to contemplate), he claws his way out of an apartheid
ghetto and leaves for a better life in the United States.
In Ama Ata Aidoo's "Changes" they will read about an educated
professional woman trying to balance her desires for meaningful
marriage, work, and parenthood in a Ghanaian society where the rules
of conduct are in flux. …