by Amanda Kae Fronk
It all started on the coast of West Africa in 1995. BYU French teaching professor Chantal Thompson fell in love—with Africa. Until then Thompson had spent her career teaching French and writing French textbooks, but that changed after a month in Senegal studying Francophone African literature with some of the continent’s most-respected authors. “I love the people—they’re not necessarily rich materially, but they are so rich in human values,” she says. “Some of them do live in sheer poverty, but they are happy because they have the right priorities: family, faith—very strong faith.”
Thompson returned to BYU with one question burning in her mind. “I went to the Kennedy Center, and I said, ‘How come we don’t have African studies at BYU?’” she remembers. The directors of the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies didn’t need much convincing and immediately set Thompson to work developing an African studies minor as the program’s founding director.
The program combined courses on African literature, languages, and culture and, at one point, attracted some 70 students. Unfortunately, BYU lost some faculty with African expertise, which hurt the program. It wasn’t until a number of new faculty with a penchant for African studies recently joined the ranks at BYU that the program was revamped and broadened. To incorporate fields such as Afro-Brazilian literature, the African diaspora in the Caribbean, and African-American studies, a new curriculum and a name change were in order.
The new Africana studies program involves three colleges and faculty from 11 departments and incorporates broader scholarship on Africa and its diaspora across the world, specifically populations in the United States, the Caribbean, and Brazil. Beginning fall semester 2015, students will be able to select from 21 classes with a variety of course titles, such as European Imperialism and the African Postcolony, Introduction to Jazz, Literature of the New Negro Era, Francophone African Literature, and History of Modern Africa.
“[Africa] is one of those areas of the world that we haven’t studied enough,” says assistant professor of English Peter Leman, an expert in East African literature. “Because we’ve entertained so many stereotypes and misconceptions about Africa for so long, I think the program really helps students change the way they think about Africa, helps students be the kind of intelligent, critical-thinking, global citizens that we hope they will be.”
Five Facts You Would Learn in the Africana Studies Minor
Want a taste of life as an Africana studies minor? Here’s a primer to get you started.
1. Africa is not a country. This might sound basic, but English professor Peter Leman says that it’s a mistake many make that can cloud perceptions of Africa. “There are a lot stereotypes people have and a lot of assumptions people have about Africa,” he says. “One is simply that people talk about Africa as if it is a country, but it’s actually a continent of 54 different countries”—and some 2,000 to 3,000 languages! “It’s such a diverse place,” Leman says.
2. Africa is about to take a prominent place on the world stage. Due to its wealth of resources, French professor Chantal Thompson says that Africa is a place to keep your eyes on. In the Washington Post, The Economist, and BusinessInsider, African countries make up about half of the countries on lists of the fastest-growing economies. Thompson remembers then–secretary of state Colin Powell’s response at a BYU Q&A to the question “If you could target two areas of the world to focus on, . . . what areas would you say?” “He didn’t even hesitate,” recalls Thompson. “China and Africa.” Leman agrees that Africa’s economy is on the rise: “We sort of have this perception [of Africa] as poverty-ridden—and, of course, poverty is a problem—but it’s also a booming place as far as industry growth.”
3. In the 1920s people of the African diaspora recognized their robust and rich literary heritage. In a flurry of literature, music, and visual arts, the Harlem Renaissance “was a rediscovery of and a taking pride in the contributions of African culture. It was a search for roots,” says humanities professor George B. Handley, who researches the impact of the African diaspora throughout the Americas. Parallel movements that celebrated African heritage in the Americas took place throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, bringing together artists like American poet Langston Hughes and Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén who both wrote poetry infused with black vernacular, Hughes in English and Guillén in Spanish.
4. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders found inspiration in a broader Africana world. In post–World War II Africa, during multiple anticolonial movements, African nations sought independence from European imperialism. The literature produced by Africans during this time told of their struggles for freedom—and many African-American leaders, like King and Malcolm X, took note, says humanities professor Robert Colson. During this period African Americans started “seeing the struggle for civil rights in the United States as a broader black struggle for freedom and independence throughout the world. There’s this global sense about it,” Colson explains.
5. Africana literature doesn’t just inspire people of Africa and the African diaspora. Though it may often tell stories foreign to BYU students, the stories contain meaningful lessons for all. “One of the primary values of the humanities is vicarious compassion,” says Handley. “Even though in a novel you’re reading stories about people that aren’t real in some literal sense, their experiences are very real and very true. Learning how to respond to them is really important to [your] moral development as a person.”
Find book recommendations by the College of Humanities faculty involved in the Africana studies program here. Along with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, these faculty members share poetry from Mozambique, memoirs of life in Rwanda during the civil war, and other literary works.