Balancing Mobutu with Tutu Teaching “Africa” in U.S. History Classes

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As a full-time instructor of United States history at a community college, most of my work involves teaching courses related to the U.S. past, including both halves of the U.S. history survey, African American history, and the history of U.S. foreign relations. In any of those courses, regardless of the professor, some content related to Africa would surely be included. But, because of my research interests and personal connections to Zambia, my courses probably include more discussion of various African nations, issues, and people than the usual amount in community college U.S. history courses.

After focusing my research on motivations of Maine soldiers in the U.S. Civil War while earning my bachelor’s degree and master’s degree, my doctoral dissertation investigated relations between the United States and Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. In 1998, one year after earning my Ph.D., Front Range Community College offered me a full-time teaching position. Nearly 20 years later, I am still at Front Range and still very happy teaching history. Since taking the job, I have been lucky enough to get my revised dissertation published in 2001, write a biography of Andrew Young (especially regarding his role in U.S.–Africa relations) that appeared in 2003, and finally in 2016 see Kenneth Kaunda, the United States and Southern Africa roll off the presses.

This latest project began in April 2003 when Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia’s president from 1964-1991) attended a conference at the University of Colorado. During one of our conversations in Boulder, he encouraged me to visit Zambia and begin archival research in Lusaka, which I did in July 2003, conducting promising initial research. When attempting to depart from Zambia and visit Zimbabwe, I missed the plane. Fortunately, I jumped on a bus to Livingstone, Zambia, and enjoyed a friendly conversation and lunch with a Zambian journalist named Heather. After a whirlwind courtship, we got married on the Zambezi River above Victoria Falls in June 2004. Funded by a Fulbright grant, we resided in Lusaka for all of 2005 while I thoroughly researched Zambian political and diplomatic history. In 2006, we returned to Colorado, where we currently live with our two children, Ellen and Zeke.

There are challenges inherent in presenting material about places such as Angola, Rwanda, or Zimbabwe to students in a U.S. history course. Chances are that few students signed up expecting to learn much about Africa, and many possess very little prior knowledge of African history or geography. For starters, it helps to have good maps in the classroom, and we are lucky to have large colorful maps hanging in our history classroom at Front Range Community College.

A key step in approaching African topics, not unlike with any historical sub-field, is to foreground complexity and discourage generalizations. Many students have referred to Africa as a “country” in papers submitted to me over the years, and so it is particularly important to discuss the fact that Africa includes more than 50 different nations. The variety of cultures, economies, climates, and political systems across the nations of Africa is incredible, and it is a good starting point for any unit that features African material.

Another useful concept to underscore, whether the subject is the U.S. intervention in the Angolan civil war in 1970s or the booming transatlantic slave trade from western Africa to the British colonies in the 1770s, is to emphasize that African people’s actions are not fundamentally different than anyone else. They were motivated by the same confusing combination of factors as people from Asia, Europe, or elsewhere. Some Africans (especially elites) sold other Africans to the slave traders from European nations such as Portugal, Holland, or England, prompted partly by the desire for weapons which could be used to solidify power over their neighbors. While African complicity in the slave trade is tragic on many levels, it is no different than one Native American tribe attacking their neighbor or France fighting Germany in the first World War, partly in pursuit of power.

As with teaching any historical topic, in exploring the relations between the United States and African nations, it is crucial to strive for balance. For every Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe, and Mobutu Sese Seko encountered, it is important to examine Phillis Wheatley, Cinque, and Nelson Mandela. For every example of leaders in Ghana selling their neighbors or of genocide in Rwanda, students should also learn about positive contributions to U.S. history such as slaves from Sierra Leone providing key rice-growing knowledge in colonial South Carolina, or Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa inspiring police departments in cities such as Longmont, Colorado, to utilize restorative justice.

In every course, my goal is to stimulate student interest by using many different methods, including the analysis of primary documents, listening to music, or watching clips from movies or films. No matter how energetic of a lecturer someone might be, watching a clip from a documentary such as the segment in the CNN Cold War series on Angola, or perusing a letter from Kenneth Kaunda to Lyndon Johnson requesting nuclear weapons, always adds spice and gets more students excited to learn. My own research comes in handy, as photos and documents that I have accumulated for book projects on US–Zimbabwe relations, Zambian foreign policy, and the diplomacy of former ambassador Andrew Young have facilitated the creation of several detailed PowerPoint presentations.

When introducing material regarding U.S. relations with an African nation or region, it is probably more important than usual to employ a variety of tactics to stimulate student interest, because for many students Sierra Leone or Zambia sound like such distant, exotic places that they may struggle at first to make a connection to the motives or experiences of people there. Clips from a film such as Blood Diamond, in which the character played by Djimon Hounsou is concerned first and foremost with the safety of his family, or a music video by singer Kachanana featuring scenes of freedom fighters in action in the 1960s as well as shots of smiling children dancing in contemporary Zambia, help students in an introductory history class identify with African people, issues, and places.

On a personal level, my goal is to bring African issues to life and encourage students in the United States to empathize with people in African nations. Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Angola, or Ghana are not far-off mysterious places where the inhabitants must be too different to comprehend. At the beginning of every semester part of my emphasis is on my family ties to Zambia. Although some students may grow tired of seeing the occasional photo of when I met my wife Heather (who was working at the time as a journalist for the Zambia Daily Mail) on a bus going Livingstone, or of our children Ellen and Zeke playing with their cousins in Lusaka, it helps other students realize that many people in African nations share the same life experiences that they encounter in the United States.

Of course, not everyone attempting to discuss African-related material in their U.S. history courses is able to show family photos from Zambia, but anyone can strive for balance in their teaching of African issues. Even-handed course content should include examples of positive accomplishments by Africans such as Tutu or the Nobel Prize-winning environmentalist Wangari Maathai, or successful U.S. initiatives such as Jimmy Carter’s contributions to Zimbabwe’s independence, John Kennedy’s creation of the Peace Corps, or George W. Bush providing much-needed funds to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS. At the same time instructors must not avoid topics such as the role of some Africans in the transatlantic slave trade or the Rwandan genocide, and they should discuss less-successful U.S. interventions such as the early 1990s effort in Somalia.

Finally, in this age of YouTube, any instructor can show a scene from the film Amistad, a spectacular soccer goal by Zambian striker Emmanuel Mayuka, or a lively music video by Sudanese hip hop artist Emmanuel Jal. Presenting African issues, people, and places in U.S. history courses is ultimately no different than any other history teaching. It is best done by encouraging empathy, emphasizing complexity, employing a wide variety of tools, and striving for balance. We must remember to not only focus on corrupt dictators such as Mobutu, but also to emphasize the inspirational work and philosophy of figures such as Tutu.

Andy DeRoche teaches history at Front Range Community College. His research and writing focus on US relations with southern Africa during the Cold War. He lives in Longmont, CO with his wife Heather and their two children.

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