There are contradictory reports coming from Africa from news outlets, academics, entrepreneurs and businessmen, artists, and countless ordinary Africans. For some, there is an optimistic “Africa Rising” narrative that gestures to the continent being a trend-setter for the 21st century in the realms of entrepreneurship and investment, arts and culture, and innovation and design, among other things. There is also another narrative of despair, with cultures of impunity in contemporary contexts giving way to ethnic conflict as witnessed in Rwanda and Kenya, and more recently Sudan; corruption; continued slavery; famine; and a general socio-economic spiraling for the continent’s vast majority population that – according to some news reports – is enveloping Africa. Many interested observers of the region believe the presses’ mono-causal explanations are insufficient in understanding these contradictory narratives either on a stand alone basis, or when read together, yet they themselves lack the knowledge to make sense of contemporary Africa and the problems facing the continent. Unquestionably, to understand Africa as it exists today, one must be able to place current issues within the broader historical trends and themes that have dominated the continent’s past. Accordingly, this course will provide an historical context for understanding processes and issues as they exist in contemporary Africa.
Through lectures, readings, films and section discussions this course will offer students an integrated interpretation of sub-Saharan African History from the middle of the nineteenth century and the dawn of formal colonial rule through the period of independence until the present time. Because of the size and complexity of the African continent, this course must of necessity offer an overview of the main historical trends that have characterized sub-Saharan Africa during the last century and a half. Emphasis will be given to the methods particular to the study of African History, to the major debates among historians of Africa, and to the important themes in the continent’s past. These historical themes will include the end of the slave trade and the evolution of “legitimate trade;” the technologies of imperialism and the justifications for colonial rule; the natures of European colonialism; transformations within African societies as a result of the dramatic changes that have taken place over the last 150 years; nationalist debates and internal struggles on the eve of independence; and African independence and post-colonial conditions. Selected case studies will be offered in both lecture and in the readings from all parts of the continent to provide illustrative examples of these major themes.