If Americans study Africa, Africa must study America for balanced engagement across public policy, civil society, the corporate sector, and at the personal level, writes Amukelani Charmaine Matsilele.
American studies have been undertaken in other parts of the world, but not in Africa.
This is so much that American Studies is confused with American Studies, which is a separate discussion. Until the establishment of the African Center for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) at the University of the Witswaterand, there was no such center in an African university.
Research shows that there are at least more than 20 American Studies programs offered around the world, including at institutions such as the Center for American Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia, the Center for American Studies in Fudan University in China, Center for American Studies at the University of Warsaw in Poland, among others. Most of these centers approach American Studies from the diverse interests of their countries.
According to a US study abroad service, there are more than 150 African college programs in the United States. Indeed, the main association for African studies – the headquarters of the African Studies Association – is based at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
These programs have a role to play in shaping US policies toward Africa. With the lack of American Studies programs in Africa, the continent lacks these political capabilities. In a recent article by the South African Institute of International Affairs, Prince Mudau argues that Africa must look back to the United States. Overall, if Americans study Africa, Africa must study America for balanced engagement across public policy, civil society, the corporate sector, and at the personal level.
Even though American Studies is not systematically and deliberately undertaken in African universities, American content and approaches are prominent in the curricula. As such, one pathway to the establishment of an American Studies curriculum in African universities should take the form of amalgamation of course units from existing degree programs. In addition, master’s and doctoral dissertations focusing on American subjects can serve as raw material for American university programs in various disciplines.
An American Studies program at an African university will need to take an interdisciplinary approach. For example, contemporary race relations would cut across disciplines as found in most areas of the humanities and social sciences. The field of media and cultural studies could focus on the impact of Hollywood on African audiences, especially young people. Popular films produced for children, youth, or as family entertainment reproduce dominant American ideologies of race, gender, family, and individualism. This leads to the Americanization of African citizens, culture and societal practices.
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To respond to this problem of acculturation, universities should undertake research on the impact of these productions and propose means of promoting indigenous cultures. American film and cinema should not just be viewed as entertainment, but as creative and cultural industries with economic benefits for the United States. American entertainment, products and services are similar to American goods and services such as automotive or electronic products.
Drawn from the related disciplines of sociology and cultural studies, topics of interest would include identifying and defining gender roles, sexuality, and family structure that differ between the United States and Africa. Topics regarding the right to bear arms that relate to the gun culture in the United States would be an important area of study. Related topics would include conceptions of manhood and womanhood, homosexuality, heterosexuality, and what may be considered deviant sexualities in America and Africa.
These would make for interesting discussions in classrooms due to their controversial nature in African societies.
In the same discipline, labor issues in the global economy can also be an interesting topic given that the United States is a major political economy with many employment disparities. Additionally, a comparison of labor issues in the United States and Africa might show differences between African countries and the United States.
In the areas of history, themes may include philosophical assumptions about citizenship in the slave era and the contemporary experiences of enslaved African Americans in the Middle Passage, the slave economy in the Southern States States, slave culture, the American Civil War and Reconstruction. Other issues would include the Great American Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Civil Rights Movement, which are an important aspect of the subject courses that African universities should offer as courses.
Philosophy studies would focus on the political thought of scholars and leaders such as Martin Robison Delaney, Frederick Douglas, Marcus Garvey, Booker T Washington, Anna Julia Cooper, Carter G Woodson, WEB of the Bios, and Cornel West. While American historical philosophy was largely inspired by Europe, current philosophy is best seen in its political system which distinguishes between conservatism and liberalism.
There have been attempts to export these philosophies to the African continent, which can be the subject of scholarly investigation.
Studies in international relations would focus on American foreign policy, the American war on drugs and terrorism, the intersections between American domestic and foreign policy, American political figures and institutions, American technology and the industrial-military complex and American political ideologies. These issues would be analyzed from an African perspective.
Studies in the field of literature would include the different eras of American literature. These would include American romance, drama, and poetry in their various genres. Literary works that would inform learning and teaching texts would include Toni Morrison, Maya Angelo, Langston Hughes, Alain Locke and many others. In linguistics, it would be interesting for African universities to undertake comparative studies between American, British and the different dialects of English.
All in all, the potential of American studies in Africa is immense because they have not been deployed so far. Beyond African political interests in structuring American studies, a pragmatic outcome would be the emergence of a new cohort of young Africans capable of engaging the United States from a knowledge perspective.
– Amukelani Charmaine Matsilele Isa Researcher in communication and public diplomacy at the African Center for the Study of the United States.
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