Africa: Moving Beyond Popular Culture

Beth Whitaker, Political Science, UNC Charlotte

Most Americans’ impressions of Africa are strongly influenced by portrayals in popular culture, including Hollywood movies, bestselling books, videos on social media, and the activism of celebrities around selected causes. Such efforts have raised awareness about important issues in Africa and renewed interest in a continent that has long been marginalized. Even so, portrayals of Africa in popular culture often are over-simplified, formulaic and paternalistic, reinforcing stereotypes about a continent and its people that can undermine genuine efforts to resolve ongoing problems.

This seminar will explore the history and politics of Africa by moving beyond popular culture and examining alternative representations of the continent, mainly from Africans themselves. We will use Binyanvanga Wainaina’s “How to Write about Africa” to start a discussion about the portrayal of Africa in popular culture. Examining a collection of children’s books and viewing clips from movies like “Blood Diamond,” “Hotel Rwanda” and “Kony 2012,” we will critique the dominant narratives that are perpetuated by such works. Over the summer, we will read books and watch movies by African authors and directors such as Ngugi wa Th’iongo, Ousmane Sembène, Chinua Achebe and Mariama Ba to examine alternative perspectives of Africa. In the fall, we will explore topics such as corruption, political violence, ethnicity, gender issues and public health (including HIV/AIDS and Ebola).

We will compare and contrast the representations of these topics in popular culture to those in alternative works and supplement our readings with academic articles. Instead of dismissing popular movies and books entirely, particularly given their widespread availability, we will discuss how to use them in the classroom despite their shortcomings. This seminar may appeal most to social studies, English, foreign language and elementary teachers, but our discussion of breaking down stereotypes about other cultures is also relevant to disciplines like art, music, health and science. In short, there are many topics that can be explored through a seminar on Africa.