Local universities do not offer classes solely dedicated to teaching about the part of African history that predates colonialism.
Above: Photo by Amanda Nguyen for College Town.
A university should be a place where all courses are made available to study.
But right now, Duke University is not offering courses which place an emphasis on Africa’s deep past, pre-colonial history.
Two classes include some teaching on Africa’s deep past: “Old Worlds/New Histories 500-1500 CE” and “East Africa and the World.” While both may touch on the deep past of Africa, this is not the focus for either class. The first focuses on many other continents, and the second just focuses on a small part of Africa and its complete history.
In an email interview with the chair of Duke’s African American Studies Department, Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, he said that “history is just one of the disciplinary areas in which we offer courses. The strength of our faculty are in Cultural Anthropology, the interpretive Social Sciences, Cultural Studies and Art History/Visual Studies, across the diaspora (Africa/US/Global South). Thus our course offerings reflect as much.”
Yet the importance of offering these classes cannot be understated.
Dr. Samuel Daly, a first-year professor at Duke University in the African-American Studies department, spoke about the value of classes on the deep past.
“I think, arguably more than other fields, African history gives you a better understanding for the origins of sodalities and societies,” he said.
Daly is the professor of “East Africa and the World,” and he intends to teach a future class just about Africa’s deep past. He also spoke to the importance of teaching the longue duree (or the entire history) of Africa, with colonialism only being a small segment of it.
“I think that any time, whatever you chose, whether you’re teaching a course about the deep past or the very recent present, you’re always inherently going to end up talking about other time periods, too, because time periods are never hermetically sealed,” Daly said, providing an example of the necessity of talking about kingships in Rwanda and how society was structured before teaching the Rwandan genocide.
Students at UNC seem to face the same issues when looking to take classes about the deep past. While courses may touch on this, there is not yet one course solely dedicated to this. In an email interview, UNC professor of history Lauren Jarvis, said that creating a class just on the deep past is at the top of her to-do list.
“Africa’s precolonial past is still being debated by Africans themselves today,” Jarvis said. “In South Africa, for example, contemporary land claims are often attached to who lived where prior to the arrival of Europeans. And, more broadly, we have seen invocations of neotraditionalism that draw upon an imagined precolonial past to make arguments about how to be, act, and live in the world today. Understanding the precolonial past is crucial to unpacking these claims.”
While understanding its importance, Jarvis and her colleague Lisa Lindsay said that UNC does not offer these classes for fear that they would not “sell” well. UNC must be very conscious about enrollment, and classes about history anywhere in the world before 1900 do not tend to be popular, Jarvis and Lindsay said.
Daly, however, argued this principle. He believes that due to the multidisciplinary nature of these classes on the deep past, they will reach a larger amount of students such as those interested in not only history but also archeology or linguistics.
N.C. State also sees the importance.
“[Africa is] an entire continent of over one billion people whose history deserves to be covered,” said David Zonderman, the chair of N.C. State’s history department.
But N.C. State doesn’t offer any classes dedicated solely to Africa’s deep past, either. Zonderman said that it is a result of the recent retirement of one professor and phased retirement of another. He mentioned that the department is making it a priority to find faculty to fill this gap in the near future.