- Courtesy of Jubek Yongo-Bure
BY JUBEK YONGO-BURE
Published April 22, 2014
I have always been apprehensive to take courses through the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies (DAAS) and the Department of History. Not because of the rigor or intensity of the courses, but out of fear about the way professors would portray my people. One day, I even spoke to an advisor (who is African American) about wanting to take a DAAS course. She remarked that she admired students who could take some of the courses and sit through professors inaccurately portraying Black history. As a young sophomore, I had no idea what she was talking about, because I trusted that this prestigious university would only hire the very best faculty across all disciplines. I had faith in professors who matriculated from prestigious universities and received their Ph.D in African studies. I simply expected the very best.
Eventually, during my sophomore year, I cracked and took an Introduction to Africa course taught by a Nigerian professor. He challenged the class to think about Africa as more than just the binary of poverty and disease. He taught us how the effects of colonialism disrupted African history, and how African leaders are a scapegoat for corruption due to neo-liberal policies that Western countries impose on African nations. He also taught us how the World Bank and IMF are further marginalizing African economies by imposing sanctions on development and high-interest loans. This professor taught the truth and did not hold back. He also taught more than just African politics. He taught West African culture and showed Nollywood movies, additionally, he invited world renowned drummers and musicians to class. This was a great Introduction to Africa course and I concluded that taking DAAS courses was something I should no longer fear. Unfortunately, this sort of teaching did not follow throughout the rest of the DAAS courses I have taken at this world renowned university.
Courses on Africa that I have taken since this class have been disappointing. They are great models of how not to teach a DAAS course. So for future reference, please take note.
If you are going to teach a DAAS course:
1) DO NOT tokenize the African students in the course and expect them to be the representative of the entire continent and the unanimous African voice.
2) DO NOT look me in the eye as you say “not to offend Africans, but____.” 9 times out of 10 what you are going to say WILL offend Africans and will probably be racist.
3) DO NOT tell me that because I have darker skin I don't have to worry about sunscreen or sunblock. I am well aware that due to my non recessive traits and wonderfully melanated skin, “I’m way too Black to burn from sun rays,” however I too can get skin cancer.
4) DO NOT show stereotypical videos of sick African children in unkempt environments. While some of these situations are true, you must understand that this is Africa's dominant narrative and it leaves students, like myself, feeling isolated and having to defend ourselves when you give no context to the video and generalize it as just being Africa. This may be a confusing point for some who lack the empathy to understand what I am saying. So here are a few clips about the danger of a single story and an African NGO that will hopefully help you understand.
5) DO NOT suggest that bake sales by the Mason Hall Posting Wall will “save Africa.” I’m sure an explanation here is not needed, because as University of Michigan students and faculty, I have some faith that you can think critically as to why there is just not enough brownie mix and cupcakes for you and your student organization to single-handedly “save” a continent. Just refer back to “movements” such as KONY.
6) DO NOT validate genocide as a modest repercussion of colonialism.
7) DO NOT paint colonial leaders as people who came in and saved Africans from harm. Through the exploitative and divide and conquer tactics of colonialists, it is clear that they never loved us, so DO NOT try to reframe history in what you deem is a positive or more conventional light for your comfortability.
8) DO NOT call Africans thugs for uprising to their oppressors, yet validate racist European colonialists for their “admirable” work of conquering colonies.
9) DO NOT spend more time talking about European leaders than African leaders in an African Studies course. If that is your motive, I invite you to title your course “European History that happens to take place in Africa.”
10) DO NOT validate you and your colleagues’ racism and savior complexes because you have Ph.Ds and have published, world renowned articles. Although you may have respectable academic credentials, it means absolutely nothing to me without cultural competency and cultural humility.
11) DO NOT dismiss Black students who challenge you or your content (or lack thereof) as “angry,” “hostile,” "sensitive," and “mad.” We are tired of being insulted and deceived, as you feed lies to the rest of our classmates about our history and people.
12) DO NOT focus on how Africans are impoverished and affected by diseases without even mentioning how colonialism has devastated the entire continent. Africans are not inherently disadvantaged. We were kings and queens prior to colonialism disrupting our continent and our history.
Note that all of these are experiences I have had or witnessed at this prestigious university. Please do not dismiss me as an angry Black student with idle time to rant about arbitrary racist experiences. These assumptions are inaccurate because: a) similar to students on this campus I am bombarded with school work and do not have the time to make stories that could potentially hinder my grades, b) never in my wildest dreams would I think of such horrible ways to offend students, and c) I am actually quite a nice person. As a student speaking up against academic departments, I face the risk of grade penalties, however I passionately feel that this is something that faculty and students should be aware of in order to do better.
Now of course, there are some wonderful professors in DAAS and the History Department, who are adequately performing their duties in a culturally competent manner. However, if the aforementioned traits characterize some or all of the ways you frame your courses, please alter your method of teaching. Or simply DO NOT mislead students, like myself, with captivating course titles and course descriptions because we are left triggered after every class session. Please be open to adjusting your method of teaching so as to stop thinking of African people as merely subjects for a study or a source for anthropological data. I urge you to stop dehumanizing my people and treat them with the utmost respect that they so rightfully deserve. In short, if you're going to teach a course about the history of Africa, Asia, Latin America, South America, the Middle East, or Indigenous People, do so in a non-Eurocentric, white-washed manner. Teach in a way that will challenge all students, not just cater to the comfortability of the dominant discourse.
Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.