History | Voices From Africa
E104 | 0140 | Hanson


Topic: History in Novels, Films and Memoirs

Students must enroll in a discussion section.

Narratives are an important genre in African oral and literate traditions.
Oral heroic epics, often focused on the lives of kings and queens, are a
way of preserving and transmitting knowledge about the African past in
societies without writing.  Africans who can write continue to write
heroic epics, but they also compose personal narratives and historical
novels.  More recently the African past has become the topic of feature
films.  Historians often dismiss these forms of representing the past as
"mere entertainment," but in this class we probe these accounts for the
historical  meanings that they convey.  In the process, we will learn
about the African past, the nature of the discipline called history and
how to become a critically aware reader and viewer.

We begin with one of the most celebrated novels about social life in
nineteenth century Africa, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.  Using the
novel initially for its dramatic representations of African social life,
we investigate central themes in the history of the continent.  Then we
move to accounts of Africans captured during the trans-Atlantic slave
trade: The Life of Olaudah Equiano, the personal history of an African
enslaved in the eighteenth century;  Roots, the novel by Alex Haily; and
Amistad, the feature film by Steven Spielberg. We explore these diverse
representations of the slave trade individually for their insights into
the past, and comparatively for the differences between the perspectives
of participants in events as opposed to novelists and film-makers removed
from events.  We also revisit Things Fall Apart to compare Achebe's
reconstruction of Igbo life with Equiano's account.  Then we read accounts
of the reign of Shaka, the nineteenth century ruler of the Zulu people of
South Africa: Chaka, a historical novel by a mission-educated African and
several travel narratives of Europeans.  In this section we compare
perspectives across cultural divides and probe for influences of
Christianity on local cultures.  Finally, we read Sundiata, a Mande oral
tradition in English translation, investigating the processes of making
and transmitting oral traditions and reflecting on the similarities and
differences in the historical vision of participants in events and those
who reconstruct the past, bards, novelists, film-makers and historians.

Course Requirements The final course grade is determined by the quality of
work in several short writing assignments (50%), two essay exams (40%) and
class participation (10%).

Books (available for purchase at local bookstores) Achebe, Things Fall
Apart. Bohannan and Curtin, Africa and Africans. Edwards, ed, The Life of
Olaudah Equiano. Mofolo, Chaka. Niane, Sundiata.