Africans Study African-Americans
US history courses in South African universities are putting more emphasis on black issues
JOHANNESBURG — HISTORY departments at universities in South Africa are placing greater emphasis on African-American studies.
Black history month in the United States was the catalyst for South Africa's first postgraduate course in African-American history.
"We have observed black history month since 1989," says Ernest Messina, lecturer in history at the predominantly mixed-race University of the Western Cape near Cape Town.
"As things were changing at the university - and in the society outside - there was a need to expose students to other influences elsewhere in the world," says Professor Messina, who has pioneered the country's first bachelor of arts honors-degree course in African-American history.
"In February 1989 we had a telephone debate with our black counterparts in the US, and the course developed from there."
Messina says the University of Western Cape's honors-degree course in African-American history had initially been hampered by the limited range of books South African publishers offered on the subject.
"What I know about African-American history is self-taught," Messina says. He was supported by the innovative University of the Western Cape, which - although a creation of apartheid - has drawn many former exiles to its staff and is known as South Africa's "university of the left."
Messina was further inspired by a visit to the US in May last year and returned with the acclaimed civil-rights public television series, "Eyes on the Prize," which now forms part of the course materials.
The course explores the rise of black power, black theology and black consciousness, the philosophy of nonviolence and the similarities in the US civil-rights and South African anti-apartheid struggles - including the role of the clergy and the role of Islam.
The course also focuses on slavery, the alienation of African-Americans, how black-studies programs evolved at US universities in the '60s, and economic advancement and underdevelopment.
"We also examine the phenomenon of the black underclass," Messina says. "We see whether parallels can be drawn with the phase that black South Africans are in now."
African-American studies are often a special topic in undergraduate and postgraduate courses in history departments at other South African universities. (See story on Page 13 on a typical history course.)
Lecturers at black universities who teach courses with American studies themes find a mixed reaction from students.
"My students have a love-hate relationship with the subject," says Leonard Seransky, lecturer in political science at the predominantly Indian University of Durban-Westville.
Dr. Seransky, who spent 14 years at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, teaches courses in comparative government and foreign policy in which the US is a major point of reference.
"There is a gut reaction among students that the US is imperialist and capitalist," he says. "Yet [students] seek scholarships and want to study in the US," he says.
In the African literature department at Witwatersrand University here, students can study for an honors degree in African-American literature.
"Most departments use US studies as a major point of reference," says Peter Thuynsma, associate professor of African literature at Witwatersrand. "Our department has a more focused interest. African-Americans form part of the black diaspora, and we are part of Africa."
Professor Thuynsma says studying African-American literature provides black South Africans with a welcome alternative to the British-centric approach to literature.
"Black Americans have a wonderful turn of phrase and a tremendous sense of humor," he says. "They present a marvellous model for black South African writers to emulate."
The phenomenon of rap music/culture also comes under the spotlight. "Black Americans have taken a language that has belonged to the mainstream and tailored it to their own need. This is quite a remarkable achievement," he says.
Thuynsma would like to see a Center for American Studies established at Witwatersrand University by bringing together all the courses into one program.
"American Studies needs to be kick-started with a full-blown university venture," he says.
* Part 1 of this series appeared Feb. 3, Part 2 on Feb. 10, and Part 3 on Feb. 18.GRAPHICCAPE TOWN STUDENTS: A bachelor-of-arts honors-degree course in African-American history at this mixed-race university is the first in the country.