Challenges in Teaching the History of Africans and the African Diaspora

Michelle Moyd

Figure with Sword, Benin, 17th-18th cent.
National Museum of African Art

    The teaching of African history presents several challenges to the experienced and inexperienced alike. Here we outline a few questions to keep in mind while preparing to teach courses dealing with African and African American history. Where possible, we provide references for resources useful can use in teaching in this field. There are many resources available through libraries, the web, and colleagues. This site is simply intended to introduce you to some of them.

    Teachers initially confront the problem of stereotypes about Africa and Africans as primitive, exotic, without history, static, etc. It is useful to begin with an exploration of such stereotypes and the problematic nature of the theoretical and descriptive terms used to represent Africa as a place, Africans as people, and African experience as history.

    A second area in which you may encounter difficulty is inherent in the nature of the material being dealt with, particularly with regard to the era of the "Atlantic Slave Trade." It is quite likely that some students will respond emotionally to the material in one way or another. It is incumbent on the conscientious educator to be well enough informed about the issues to be able to explain them to students in such a way as to make them comfortable while simultaneously promoting sophisticated learning. Some of these issues include:

    A third area that challenges educators stems from the overwhelming amount of material to be dealt with in a short period of time. For example, how does one condense all of African history into a semester-long course? What are the most important issues? What can be left out? How do you make meaningful generalizations about a continent that is so richly diverse in cultures, religions, peoples, arts, histories, and geography? It may be useful to consider other syllabi and articles, and to use them in building your own courses.

    Fourth, how does one go about selecting a text? Here we provide a link to an annotated bibliography of African history texts that may be helpful in designing a course syllabus. Most importantly, one must be aware of the author's approach to the subject matter. The teacher must consider the audience he/she will be teaching, and choose a suitable text accordingly.

    We have also found that one of the best ways to engage students in African history is through the selective and contextualized use of images in the classroom. There are a number of sources available for this purpose including various web sites, university slide collections, and books. One cautionary note -- to use images in a meaningful way, the teacher must understand their historical context and be prepared to address any questions that arise. This method can backfire if the teacher does not fully understand the image, and thus can not answer important questions.

    Finally, written primary sources are valuable tools in educating students on Africa and its peoples, as well as in historical method. Often students find these primary sources fascinating and stimulating, because they are the real "voices" of history.

    Again, this site is only intended to introduce you to some useful resources for teaching about Africa. We hope you find it useful.


Primary Sources


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