Curriculum Planning

Teaching African History and Cultures Across the Curriculum

Africa is much more than pyramids, slavery, and colonialism, and incorporating deeper study of the continent has many benefits for students.

July 23, 2020
PJPhoto69 / iStock

“We do teach about Africa—our school covers units on ancient Egypt, slavery, and colonialism” is a notion often heard in curriculum discussions in American schools. While significant, these topics are a minuscule drop of water in a vast sea of knowledge about Africa.

As Dr. Jonathan Weaver eloquently states, “The only dark part of Africa is our lack of knowledge about it.” To prioritize global education and antiracist practices, here are four strategies to expand the curricular range across grade levels.

Teach About Africa’s Immensity

Africa is immense in all ways. Modern Africa comprises 54 countries, each with its own political history, cultural influences, and social intricacies. There are vast nations like Algeria and small island-states like Seychelles. Astoundingly, Africa counts more than 1,000 ethnic groups, who speak more than 2,000 languages (a number that soars to 3,000 if it includes dialectical varieties). We can identify at least 85 precolonial kingdoms.

Whether you’re just starting to teach about Africa or have experience doing so, adopting a stance of learning about this immense continent with students can be useful. A good place to start is with geography, making use of maps to build students’ geo-literacy to understand the relationships between representation, size, scale, and human diversity. Ask the question, “How big is Africa?” and use this How Big Is Africa? curriculum to help students learn about how mapping projections have reduced the continent’s size.

Identify Africa as the Heart of Humanity

Historically, Africa was considered by outsiders to be the periphery of the world. And the list of stereotypes held about the continent, rooted in long-standing racism, is long. Our students’ cognitive schema are influenced by these powerful messages that still operate in society. One way to provide a counter-narrative that humanizes and celebrates the continent and its people is to emphasize that Africa is the evolutionary birthplace of humanity.

In addition, the continent showcases pioneering advances in civilizations, such as the mastery of iron technology, and is critically significant to world history. Teach the ways that African history intersects with the histories of other continents. Precolonial African history is especially important because African countries’ modern borders were established by colonial powers, a fact that hides the (much longer) history of great societies and kingdoms that have spanned the continent.

One easy strategy to nurture your students’ reverence for African history is to study UNESCO World Heritage sites that help contextualize Africa’s global significance. Examine the Burkina Faso iron-smelting ovens that date back to the eighth century BCE to teach the mastery and intensification of iron smelting in Africa, or study monuments like the monolithic churches of Lalibela.

Connect to Africa Across Disciplines

The geographical, cultural, linguistic, and political diversities of the continent constitute an invitation to interdisciplinarity. Elementary social studies frameworks can draw on African contexts to study geography, migration, interactions between humans and their environments, the circulation of ideas and culture, and political geography and modern countries’ borders. Many teachers are now exploring layered interactive maps to develop inquiry about the intersection of places and culture.

French and English literature teachers can internationalize their scope of texts and choose from a solid corpus of excellent anglophone and francophone African novels, including Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu by Ousmane Sembène. Africa is easily integrated with math and science when educators teach about the history of the development of scientific and mathematical ideas that have African roots. Science teachers can connect with world history content when they teach about the emergence of environmental conservation as a reaction to the effects of colonial exploitation of land and resources.

Resources from African Studies Centers across the United States, many of which are National Resource Centers (NRCs), can help make the work of integrating Africa into the disciplines easier. At NRCs, outreach staff support instructional design plans with specific resources.

Teach Africa to Affirm Identities

Linking curriculum with aspects of African culture promotes global education for all students. In an era in which we are existentially threatened by climate change and political dangers, it is a vital educational approach to promote our students’ sense of unity and respect. Teaching about African history, politics, and culture supports our students’ developing identities as global citizens.

Additionally—and crucially—Africa has deeply shaped the cultural context of the United States, especially that of African American and African diasporic students. Given persistent racial injustice in education and the existence of curricula still plagued by Eurocentric perspectives, there’s an urgency to embrace Black Lives Matter at School and equity and antiracism approaches in the classroom.

This means that teaching about Africa can be part of an antiracist practice, as it enables historically marginalized student groups to become visible in a multi-perspective curriculum that affirms their identities and dismantles narrow, one-sided perceptions of their cultures.

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  • Curriculum Planning
  • Social Studies/History
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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