Quick, grab a piece of paper and write the word “Africa” at the top. Now write down whatever comes to mind. Take two minutes. I’ll wait.
Before my undergraduate students begin to discuss Heart of Darkness, I ask them to think about “Africa” and make a list of all of the things that come to mind. A few weeks ago the board looked like it always does:
Then I ask students to look for themes. They are quick to note that most of the items on the list are negative: disease, poverty, war, etc. The positives are often animal related (The Lion King comes up within the first ten items every time). What I notice most is the list demonstrates lack, as if Africa were the lacuna of the planet. It gives us the chance to talk about the danger of thinking of the continent of Africa as a monolith, as a country instead of a continent. I even brought in one of Ev’s books that has a page called “African animals.” As you can guess, we don’t use that title. Instead we call the page “animals you might see on safari.” I remind students that Egypt and South Africa are two different places with different problems, languages, government systems, arts, literatures, etc. But it is so easy to think of Africa in such a way, with only one story. From Sally Struthers to KONY, the messages about the monolithic Africa have become the only story we know of the giant land mass. To do the work of finding out anything about this place beyond the story of lack is exhausting. I get it. However, as scholars and teachers, we are obligated to think of our own ideas about “Africa” and examine them. Sometime what we see isn’t pretty.
Think about this image when you read Things Fall Apart. The first third can be tiring, but I would argue that the didactic nature of that section is working to undo the beliefs that the English-speaking world has about Africa, and by showing very clearly that one tribe in Nigeria has its own systems in place, Achebe attempts to rewrite the story of “Africa.” For your blog post, write a response to the terms and the novel. How do you see those ideas working in the text? What happened when you wrote your list? I imagine there will be some strong material coming out of this week’s posts.
Here’s Chris Abani‘s TED talk about the stories of Africa. I think this will give you a great place to start thinking about your own attitudes about the “dark continent” and the literatures coming out of it.
And here’s Adichie on the same topic:
Week 8: Begins March 20
This week’s readings will ask you to push the idea of the body as a site for the colonial project and consider the role of gender in colonization and the effects on “gender” in the post-colonial era.
I have had students sit in my office and say that Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman At Point Zero is the most depressing book they have read. In many ways I agree with them, but I also see a strain of resistance in the face of oppression that has me leave the book every time I read it with a sense of optimism, though sad optimism. What does this novel say about the forms of resistance available to women when their existence is enough to make them targets of oppression–both psychic and physical?
I think this anxiety over women’s agency came to a head with the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year old girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban because she advocated for the right for girls to go to school. Girls are dangerous, right? Think about it: if the idea of female empowerment didn’t matter, didn’t work toward dismantling patriarchal hegemonies, no one would pay attention. But hegemonic forces DO pay attention. And they do walk onto buses and shoot 14-year old girls who dare to say girls should have access to an education. The idea that a girl might want to think is the most terrifying idea to many power structures. I am critical of this trope, though, being used for the purpose of just reifying western power, as you can read here in my discussion of the film Girl Rising.
So keep all of this in mind as you read this week’s theory, novel, and definitions.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts about the depiction of agency, power, and resistance especially on/by/against the “colonized body.”
Lest you think this kind of reading and inquiry are not one of the keys to helping us work toward a world where women can go to school (for one thing), here’s a great reminder from Elif Shafak about why reading matters.
I have had some questions about the final assignments for the class, so here is what I am looking for:
Most importantly, I would like you to leave the class with something useful to you in your life beyond May.
For the teachers in the group, I imagine a well-thought out unit plan that would last several weeks and use one or more of the course texts will probably be of use and serve as a final project. For the academics, a final paper that could serve as a conference paper or the beginnings of an article will be useful (I’m thinking 10-15 pages). I am also open to hearing other ideas for a final project.
If you are going to do a unit plan, I would like there to be two-page rationale that explains why teaching postcolonial texts is important. Imagine that you have to make a pitch to your principal or school board to make the case for a new unit (you don’t even need to know what your unit would look like yet). Explain to them what postcolonial texts are and give a theoretical framework for this kind of study in a secondary classroom.
If you are thinking about writing an academic paper for your final project, in your intro, pick several theoretical pieces to tangle with. Summarize them. Pull out their claims. Respond to them. Explain why you see them as useful. What questions do they make you raise?
If you have questions, let me know. You are welcome to schedule time with me during my office hours after break. But you can also contact me over email.
I would love to know what you are thinking of doing. Maybe you could leave me a paragraph comment to give me a sense of your direction?
Well, piggybacking on what I said last week, if there is a second essay that has most informed my writing, it would be Gayatri Spivak’s essay “Can The Subaltern Speak?” (Here is the full text that you will need for this week.) Spoiler alert: the answer is no. But I am guessing you could have guessed that.
Caveats: It is hard to talk about gender without falling into the trap of thinking about sexuality. I come from the school that believes gender is constructed (so for example, I don’t believe that women are naturally less violent, but that societal constructions force women into such a mold, to be simplistic. When I teach a gender theory course, we will spend weeks just thinking about gender in general). Gender is not sexuality, and the two should not be conflated, though the theories certainly inform each other (see anything by Judith Butler, but make sure you give yourself enough time to work through her convoluted sentences).
Now that you know a little about my own scholarship, you will see how important the work of Leila Ahmed is to the study of women in the Islamic world. I have asked you to read some of her writing, but I would suggest you listen to the interview with her first to give you some foundation. You can listen to it from your computer or download it here. Throw on your iPod and take a walk and give it a listen. We all need to admire the budding daffodils, and why not do something for yourself while you are doing your homework. Your dogs will thank you for it. Mine are Calvin and Theo. I call them “the mangiacs” (Theo had mange when we adopted him). They are lounging in the office with me while I write this post.
Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s seminal piece “Under Western Eyes” forced Western feminists to consider their own subject position and their own role in reifying the hegemony of the “West.” She offers a critical lens for reading “world” texts about women.
The Gyasi short story link on the syllabus works.
As for this week’s blog post, I ask that you respond to the theoretical pieces and the stories.
Go outside. Take a walk. Take care of yourself. Enjoy the green. Take a breath.
Someday read this book: