UT African studies courses expand over past 19 years

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Photo Credit: Leah Rushin | Daily Texan Staff

Titles such as “Beyonce Feminism/Rihanna Womanism” and “Black Studies & Social Media” fill up the spring 2015 UT course schedule. Students can learn about diverse topics, from African medicine to African film and dance. But 19 years ago, this wasn’t the case.

The Daily Texan published a column on Feb. 5, 1986, in which history senior Robert Polk described UT in one word: ignorant. Polk condemned UT for not offering enough African studies courses. 

“Africa’s strategic, political, historical and cultural significance cannot be denied,” Polk said. “And yet, the University seems to be doing just that — denying Africa’s significance.”

Polk wrote that the history department only offered two African history classes at the time, neither of which detailed the history of indigenous African peoples. He criticized the government department for not offering courses about African politics and the geography department for neglecting to teach courses on Africa’s geography.

“Africa is the world’s second largest continent, covering almost 20,000 square miles and containing nearly every variation of climate and geography on Earth, from tropical rain forest to desert to snow-capped mountain ranges,” Polk said.

Polk also noted that UT did not offer African language courses at the time, even though Africa consists of many diverse cultures.

“It is a continent divided into 52 nations composed of people of nearly every human ethnic, racial and religious group, speaking over 1,000 different languages and dialects,” Polk said.

UT now offers courses in Yoruba, a West African language spoken mainly in Nigeria. Courses in Swahili — a language people in Southeast Africa, including Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania, speak — are also available to UT students. 

In the article, Polk described common misconceptions of Africa. He blamed the school for perpetuating these ideas by not offering classes that address all aspects of Africa and its people.

“We must rid ourselves of the myth that Africa consists of Libya and Egypt at one end of the continent, and South Africa at the other, with a vast, dark void in between,” Polk said.

Over the years, UT expanded its courses to cover more in-depth African studies topics. This semester, for example, students can learn how recording artists Beyoncé and Rihanna contributed to African diaspora and black feminism conversations. Students in this class read Beyoncé’s self-titled biography and study Beyoncé’s and Rihanna’s music videos. 

UT also offers a course entitled, “Black Queer Literature/Film,” which emphasizes “understanding the historical and theoretical construction of sexual and gender identities … in black communities.” Other courses include “Sex & Power in African Diaspora,” “African History in Film and Photographs” and “Politics of Black Education.”

Ultimately, according to Polk, UT needed to make an active effort to avoid ignorance. 

“We all know that ignorance breeds more ignorance,” Polk said. “Therefore, the entire University community, students, faculty and administration, must come together in an effort to break the mental chains which bond us to old stereotypes and myths about Africa.”