As a writing and media studies professor at Florida International University in Miami, I follow in the footsteps of my progressive professors at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Below is an assignment I gave during my Spring 2020 Global Media and Society class. (I divided my 100 students into 25 groups of four). I hope readers of this blog will take the time to read the materials, answer the questions, and engage in dialogue. 

Group Assignment: African Storytelling
Describe African storytelling and manuscript writing before the slave trade and how it has intersected with Western thinking – during the colonial era and today.

Ashes of ancient manuscripts were discovered at a Timbuktu library in 2013. Credit Eric Feferberg/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The textbook’s section on the printing press – which Johannes Gutenberg invented in Germany in the 15th century – focuses on the cultural advances it enabled in Europe and colonial America. Indeed, the textbook discusses this major milestone in two different chapters.

At the same time, Portugal was initiating the transatlantic slave trade. As information was spreading throughout the Western world – bringing literacy, mass media and democracy along with it – Europeans and Americans were shattering millions of lives and thousands of years of African civilization.

Questions. Read the materials provided below to answer the following: 

What role did oral storytelling play in pre-colonial Africa? Name three topics that such stories explored.

How did the colonizing Europeans view Africans’ oral storytelling traditions?

Who in ancient Africa produced manuscripts and where? What were the topics? Name three examples.

Name three African languages that writers used.

Describe how Westerners’ views of African storytelling have changed in the last 200 years.

Where have these ancient documents been found in the last few decades? Who has found them?

Name three contemporary and highly acclaimed African authors; provide book names, too.

What was/were the most thought-provoking aspect/s of your research?

Photo of a man in Timbuktu, Mali by Sean Smith, The Guardian.

Required reading

Africa Before Transatlantic Enslavement,

“The Oral Traditions of Africa,” World Affairs Council of Houston

“West Africa’s Oral Histories Tell Us a More Complete Story than Traditional Post-Colonial Narratives,” Lavinya Stennett, Dec. 17, 2019, Quartz Africa

When Timbuktu was the Paris of Islamic Intellectuals in Africa, Lila Azam Zanganeh, The New York Times, April 24, 2004

Mali’s Cultural War: The Fate of the Timbuktu Manuscripts” by Harvey Morris, The New York Times, Jan. 30, 2013

“The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu” book review by Joshua Hammer, The New York Times, April 28, 2016

“Printing Press” Wikipedia page  and  “African Literature/Precolonial Literature” Wikipedia page

Synthesize the materials to demonstrate:

  • thorough reading of the texts so you can find examples
  • critical thinking skills
  • ability to express opinions clearly
  • team collaboration
  • historical perspective
  • that you have learned to honor African literary traditions
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