Lessons from listening in South Africa: towards a multi-centered study of the global past

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Seminar Date
May 14, 2008
This is an essay about World History, a sub-discipline that has become increasingly dominant in the production of knowledge about the global past in the United States over the past decade and that is now actively reaching out to professional historians and history teachers around the world. It is an essay written from the inside, by someone who has taught World History and written some as well. Ever since completing my dissertation on the topic of slavery and colonialism in the late nineteenth century in two small parts of West Africa, I have been asked to teach courses covering the entirety of the human past around the world. With some variation, this is not an unfamiliar scenario for many young scholars in the United States, and I made the transition with a mix of enthusiasm and apprehension both at the University of New Orleans and at San Francisco State University. As the lone Africanist in both departments, World History represented to me a way to tell stories that would both dislocate and appeal to my students. In my classroom, I have viewed World History as a valuable tool in the promotion of a multi-lateral and multi-cultural way of viewing the world. Yet over the past six years I have also become increasingly aware that World History has both limits and dangers, problems that are framed by the uneven relationships of power between World Historians and our subjects and colleagues, especially those from the global south, and between academic historians and others who “know” the past.
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