Instructor Insights

Africa as a Category of Thought

In this section, Professor Edoh explains what it means to say that Africa is a category of thought produced through material practices.

It’s strange that we talk about Africa as if it were a single place. How is it that we’ve come to talk about Africa as a thing, a place in the world, when in fact it includes over 50 countries, thousands of languages, millions of people? That’s actually a historical process, a political process, and it’s a process that’s ongoing.

When I talk about Africa as a category of thought, that’s what I mean. What is associated with this idea of Africa? Historically, it’s been all negative things: dysfunction, disease, war, famine, corruption, AIDS. The story of Africa as the “hopeless continent” has been the single story of Africa.

"Any time you have a single story, you know there’s a problem. You know it’s more complicated."
— M. Amah Edoh

Today, there’s another narrative in which Africa is the future of the planet, a place of innovation, economic growth, and possibility. It’s the hub of cultural production on the global stage. African creatives like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are household names in the US, African artists are being represented at the Venice Biennale in unprecedented numbers, and so on. So the narrative about Africa’s place in the world seems to be shifting in this moment. But if there actually is a shift from the story of Africa as a hopeless continent to a story of Africa as the future of everything, are we just going from one single story to another single story? Any time you have a single story, you know there’s a problem. You know it’s more complicated.

Interrogating Africa as a category of thought is about getting at these complexities, understanding how Africa is being made to mean, by whom and by what means. Through that, ultimately, it’s about understanding power and Africa’s place in the world.

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