Image of Africa Syllabus

Here’s the syllabus for one of my fall courses. I’ve taught it before, but this is a fairly substantial fiddling with some of what I’ve done in the past. It’s a topic also that I’ve really changed my pedagogical orientation on: when I started teaching the class, I saw myself as exposing students to what I knew to be the consequences of this history, of teaching about the sources and causes of racism and of the imagined placement of Africa within global society. The more I’ve taught (and thought about) this subject matter, the less certain I’ve become about that.

This is one of the reasons I feel such antipathy for the way that “political bias” gets described by David Horowitz and his allies. A syllabus is like a picture: there are things inside the frame and things outside the frame. A syllabus has to have exclusions and inclusions, and both have to be principled, have to have some reasoning behind them. A syllabus, any syllabus, has an argument to it. Even Introductory Macroeconomics has a “politics”, in that it assumes that the subjects covered under the heading of macroeconomics are productively studied and understood through the lens of economics as a discipline, and proceeds from that assumption. But one would hardly want a professor teaching that course to feel obligated to accomodate that political objection, any more than I should design this syllabus around accomodating someone who thinks that representations or cultural history are completely irrelevant things to study regardless of what they’re about.

Good teaching isn’t about draining out all of the argument, all of the framing, all of the pointedness of a course, about eschewing “bias” to the point of becoming bland, neutral and terrified of giving offense to any viewpoint or orthodoxy. It’s about being exploratory, open to new thoughts and new angles, about evolutions to your teaching, and about welcoming all responses from all students. A strong Afrocentrist would certainly not be happy with the implied argument of my syllabus, but I’d want that person to feel welcome in the course, and provisioned with plenty of materials that allow them a legitimate “angle of attack” on the subject as I set it out. I wouldn’t be happy with anyone who was an obstructionist in the way they approached the class, of course, and that’s another important issue. A class can be open to all points of view, but it has to involve a willingness to play with ideas and consider challenges, whatever it is that you bring with you to the subject matter.


History 86 Image of Africa
Professor Burke
Fall 2005
Swarthmore College

This course is about the history of representations, of images both visual and textual, of the way Africa has been imagined, depicted, fantasized about in European cultures, among African-Americans, and in U.S. popular culture.

One of the common assertions of multiculturalism and identity politics is that images of this kind are crucial in influencing how people think and act in the world, that they are a continuing source or cause of discrimination and inequality. This course is intended to skeptically examine such assertions, to open up the debate. Nothing should be taken for granted or as a given in this course: how and whether representations mattered in the past or still matter in the present should be considered an open and complex question. We will look at how images and constructions of Africa have taken the shape that they have over time, and what they have meant and still mean to their audiences.

Course requirements:

2 short (3-4 pp.) papers
1 long (15-20 pp.) paper, with some research required
Regular attendance
Participation in discussion and an informed engagement with assigned materials

All students are required to make one contribution over the course of the semester to a weblog page tracking images or representations of African in popular culture and the media.

August 30th


Trope, representation, social construction

The missionary in the cannibal’s cookpot: a historical tour of an image
Intertextuality is hard!

September 1st

Medieval monstrosities and early modern European ideas about the world
Comparative frameworks for “the stranger”
The problem of origins in history

September 6th

The evolving context of Europe and Africa, 1750-1920

September 8th

Race and the idea of the “savage”: religion and science in the 18th and 19th Centuries
Causality: what drives changes in representations over time?

Reading: Z.S. Strother, “Display of the Body Hottentot”, in Linfors, ed., Africans on Stage: Studies in Ethnological Show Business

September 13

Explorers and the production of representations

Readings: Mungo Park; Henry Morton Stanley; Carl Mauch; Richard Burton (Blackboard)

September 15

Colonialism, ethnography, photography

Readings: Christraud Geary, In and Out of Focus

Also: Search eBay with the keywords “Africa postcard”.

September 17

Images in motion: the Denver African Expedition

Reading: Robert J. Gordon, Picturing Bushmen. Chapter 1-3, 5, 7 and Conclusion. Also be sure to look at the photographs referenced in the text.

September 20th

Exhibitionary culture I

Reading: Lindfors, Africans on Stage. Chapter Three and Four

September 22

Exhibitionary culture II

Reading: Lindfors, Africans on Stage, Chapter Seven, Eight and Nine

September 27

King Solomon’s Mines

Reading: H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines

September 29


October 4th


Reading: Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes

Paper #1 due at beginning of class. NO LATE PAPERS.

October 5th

Showing of Sanders of the River (7pm)

October 6th

Comics and Boys’ Own Adventures

Reading: Kai Friese, ”White Skin, Black Mask”, Transition 80: 1999, pp. 4-17. (Read online at JSTOR) ; Herge, Tintin au Congo


October 18th

Theories of Colonialism and Representation
Edward Said, Orientalism, pp. 1-91; pp. 285-328

October 20th

Said as Model; Alternatives to Said

Mitchell; Richards; McClintock; Prakash, Bhabha: “colonial discourse”

Thomas, Porter, Cannadine, Scott: lived complexities of empire

Gary Taylor on cultural adaptation; Susan Blackmore on memes

October 25th

Africa in America; the diaspora discovers itself
The problem of Oladauh Equiano


October 27th


Reading: Wilson Jeremiah Moses, Liberian Dreams, Introduction, pp. 24-38, pp.58-67; pp.87-114; pp.122-124; pp.130-140; pp.150-168

November 1st

Liberia and Garveyism

Reading: Ibrahim Sundiata, Brothers and Strangers

November 3rd

Travels to Africa

Readings: Kennedy, Black Livingstone; Hughes, Big Sea; Lamming, Passages; Harris, Native Stranger; Charles Patterson, “What is Africa to Me?”, Transition 1964

Paper #2 due at the beginning of class.

November 8th


Molefi Kete Asante, Afrocentricity
Kelefa Sanneh, “After the Beginning Again: The Afrocentric Ordeal”, Transition 2001, 10:3 (read online at JSTOR)

November 10th

Tejumola Olaniyan, “Return of the Native Son”, Transition, 72: 1996. (read online at JSTOR)
Alexis Sindhuhije, “Welcome to America” Transition 78:1998. (read online at JSTOR)
Paulla Ebron, Performing Africa, Chapter Seven

Coming to America (clips)
Shaft in Africa (clips)
Richard Pryor clip

November 15th

Henry Louis Gates, Wonders of the African World (video viewing)
Various responses to Gates’ series

November 17th

Africa in US Popular Culture, 1940-present: a visual overview

One-paragraph précis of long paper’s argument and outline due at beginning of class

November 22nd

Michael Crichton, Congo

November 29th

Barbara Kingsolver, Poisonwood Bible

December 1st

Alexander McCall Smith, Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency

December 6th
“Second contact”: African recirculations of Western images (visual presentation)
So what?
Chickens and eggs: the causality of the representation
The hidden mechanisms of cultural reproduction
The redemption of images and the making of consciousness

December 17th: FINAL PAPER DUE. No late papers, no extensions.

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12 Responses to Image of Africa Syllabus

  1. A. G. says:


    Do you discuss Albert Schweitzer, especially the image of the kindly old doctor among the natives? I am interested, as I am writing a book on Schweitzer, and will discuss his image. WEB DuBois has a fine essay on this topic.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Schweitzer is what one of my possible “long essay” research questions that they can choose to write on is built around, so sort of. I teach more heavily about him in my history of medicine in Africa class, for obvious reasons.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I should add parenthetically, and you’ll know more than I about this, but I’m fascinated first by the fact that my students have typically never heard of him–his image disappeared with extraordinary suddenness–and that once they read his own works, they’re struck by how cranky he is, as well as patronizing, but also at the (to us) very obvious ways that he worked extremely hard at image-building.

  4. dominic says:

    Seems a bit of an appropriation to categorise the Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith as an instance of “US Popular Culture”…

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I’ll talk about that a bit when we get to it: I’m putting him in there because the book has been so popular and widely read in the US; I’m offering those three books as examples of different recent presentations of Africa within US popular culture, but one of the observations I want to make is that Smith’s work shows signs of how heterogenous that image has become, that there are popular productions of “Africa” that draw much more from African self-presentations, from history and ethnography, than the sort of Tarzan-King’s Solomon’s template. (Unlike “Congo”, which shows on the other hand how resilient that template is…) Anyway, one of the things I may suggest is that Smith is able to break from that template because he’s coming from somewhere else besides the United States…

  6. Alan Baumler says:

    It seems like an interesting course, and I am not really in a position to make many informed suggestions, but one of the things I noticed was that the images were all from Western culture. That is the title of the class, and there are lots of good reasons to do it that way. Maybe as a possible paper topic you could do something on other views of Africa. I was thinking specifically of Arab views, especially early ones, India, in connection with the Indian diaspora, Chinese/Russian views esp. after WWII. Maybe Brazilian views? I realize that this is taking you off topic, and I am sure there is a much better literature on Western views. On the other hand, it might be good for students to realize that there were, occasionally, outsiders whose views of Africa mattered as much or more to Africans as the views of Americans. Western views matter more, to some extent, since they were tied up with the major colonial project, but there were other projects as well that had at least some impact.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s actually a very interesting, compellng suggestion, Alan. There’s a bit of material on Russia, some of which deals with the Patrice Lumumba University and African students in the USSR during the Cold War. Brazilian views get taken up a bit in the middle section of the class, but I could certainly do more (I have a colleague who teaches extensively on religion in the African diaspora where a lot of “images of Africa” circulate). Arab and Indian views are a really fascinating thought but one I know very little about–it would be interesting to try and pick apart where and how the strong racialized distinctions that many North Africans are prone to make between themselves and sub-Saharan Africans originated, and I’d wager that someone must have done research on that. I’ve got a few slides of “darkie” images from East Asia (on toothpaste and such) but that mostly draws on iconography from the US rather than representations of Africans. In my opening cannibal slide show, I’ve also got some images from all around, including Japan.

  8. Alan Baumler says:

    I’m not sure what literature there would be on Indian views of Africa, (Bend in the River comes to mind) because they were never articulated as part of a larger imperial project. You need an imperial state for archives and to encourage people to think of what they are doing as “changing Africa.” I’m pretty sure there were a lot of Indians in East Africa, and that they had at least an economic impact.

    As for East Asia (the place I know best) there is some stuff that probably would not matter. Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter has a character who obsesses about Africa, but that is just using Africa as a conveniently blank Other. There is a lot of that. I can’t see why it would matter much to African history. I assume you know Phillip Snow’s The Star Raft, which has some stuff on Chinese attitudes towards Africa in the context of development aid, where it would actually matter. I would have to think that some of the Africans who studied in China or Russia must have written memoirs or something by now.

    Another topic you might want to consider is the relationship between the imperial and popular and post ’45 aid-organization discourses and the academic discourse you are asking them to join. Donald Lopez did a very interesting book called Prisoners of Shangri-la on basically that topic but dealing with Tibet. I liked the book a lot because he traced the development of the popular discourse very well (Tibet has a much more unitary image than Africa) but also because he was pretty clear that this popular discourse and the academic one were closely related. Of course there is a lot of stuff on how modern Asian studies is connected to the imperial projects.

  9. A. G. says:

    Tim, thanks for the comments. One of the sections of my book is called in draft “Whither Schweitzer?” (too hackneyed perhaps for final formulation), and I too am amazed by how he disappeared from public view. I have a number of hunches about that, to do with his kindly doctor among the natives image, to the bad press his hospital got late in his life, to his Christianity. I wouldn’t call his writing cranky. I particularly enjoy his letters to Helene, and am using them to build a discussion about his momentous decision to go to Africa. Aside: I interviewed his only child, Rhena Schweitzer Miller, age 86, born on her father’s birthday, at her daughter’s home in Pacific Palisades, in March. And oh, btw, I got a nice connection from another professor who read my comment and contacted me, a historian who has written a book on Gabon. He too said very few people under 35 have heard of AS.

  10. A. G. says:

    Me again. I would enjoy seeing the syllabus for the history of medicine in Africa course, if possible. If you have it on your website, I will get it, or possibly you could send it?

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    I’m moving syllabi over to this site, should be up here pretty soon.

  12. scratchy888 says:


    My doctoral thesis will be in the area of African literature — specifically autobiographies.

    What bothers me about how many in the West seem to tackle African studies is this obsession with “representation”, which, in my view is derivative from a very Western psychological perspective wherein one’s “image” is considered reflexively to be one of the greatest determinants for personal success.

    When I speak to Africans from Zimbabwe, however (and I am myself a white African from Zimbabwe), self-representation is not the most important issue in their lives, either subjectively or politically. They are often more interested in practical issues of survival and also — as you have mentioned in another entry — in having others show respect for black nationalism. If this nationalist approach evokes notions of representation, then these are different sorts of representation than that most prevalent in the west. It has more to do with attitudes of self-determination and identification with the leader as symbolic of that self determination, rather than to do with considerations which could be framed, “How do I look to others as an African because of pictures shown to them at the movies?”

    That kind of concern is much more that of a self-consciously politicised, greedy for economic gain, calculating … westerner.

    But westerners, in their mistaking epistemology, often apply the same psychological framework to Africans and “their interests” as they are used to applying to themselves.

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