OPINION | Amukelani Charmaine Matsilele: The relevance of American studies in African universities

If Americans are studying Africa, Africa needs to study America for a balanced engagement across public policy, civil society, corporate sector and at personal levels, writes Amukelani Charmaine Matsilele.


American studies have been undertaken in other parts of the world but not in Africa.

This is so much so that American studies is conflated with US studies, which is a separate discussion. Until the establishment of the African Centre for the Study of the US (ACSUS) at the University of Witswaterand, there was no such centre in an African university.

Research shows that there are at least over 20 American studies programmes offered around the world including at institutions such as US Studies Centre at University of Sydney in Australia, Centre for American Studies at Fudan University in China, American Studies Centre at the University of Warsaw in Poland, among others. Most of these centres approach American studies from the various interests of their countries.

According to an American studies abroad promotion service there are over 150 African degree programs in the US. Indeed, the leading association on African studies – the African Studies Association headquarters – is based at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Balanced engagement

These programmes have a role in shaping US polices towards Africa. With the lack of American studies programmes in Africa, the continent does not have these policy capabilities. In a recent article in the South African Institute of International Affairs, Prince Mudau makes a valid point that Africa needs to return the gaze on the US. In overall terms, if Americans are studying Africa, Africa needs to study America for a balanced engagement across public policy, civil society, corporate sector and at personal levels.

Even though American studies are not undertaken in systematic and deliberate ways in African universities, American content and approaches are preponderant in the degree programmes. As such, a pathway to creating an American studies programme at African universities would have to take the form of bringing together course units from existing degree programs. In addition, masters and doctoral dissertation focused on the US topics, can serve as source material for American degree programmes in various disciplines.

An American studies programme in an African university will have to take an interdisciplinary approach. For instance, contemporary race relations would cut across disciplines as they feature in most of the humanities and social science fields. The media and culture studies field could focus on the impact of Hollywood on African audiences particularly the youth. Popular films produced for children, young people, or, as family entertainment, reproduce dominant American ideologies of race, gender, the family, and individualism.This leads to the Americanisation of African citizens, culture, and societal practices.

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To address this problem of acculturation, universities would have to undertake research that focuses on the impact of these productions and suggest means for the promotion of indigenous cultures. American film and cinema should also not just be seen as entertainment but as creative and cultural industries with economic benefits for the US. American entertainment, products and services are similar to American goods and services such as automobile or electronic products. 

From the cognate disciplines of sociology and cultural studies, the topics of interest would include identification and definition of gender roles, sexuality and family structure which differ between the US and Africa. Topics revolving around the right to bear arms which link to gun culture in the US would be an important area of study. Related topics would include conceptions of manhood and womanhood, homosexuality, heterosexuality and what may be considered deviant sexualities in America and Africa. 

These would make for interesting discussions in lecture rooms because of their controversial nature in African societies.

In the same discipline, labour issues in the global economy can also be an interesting topic considering that the US is a major political economy with many employment disparities. Moreover, a comparison of labour issues in the US and Africa might show differences between African countries and the US.

In the fields of history, themes can include philosophical assumptions of citizenship in the slave era and contemporary American African slave experiences in the Middle Passage, the economics of slavery in the American South, slave culture, American Civil War and Reconstruction. Other issues would include the Great American Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Civil Rights movement, which are a significant aspect of thematic courses that African universities should offer as courses.

Potential immense 

Studies in philosophy would focus on the political thought of scholars and leaders such as Martin Robison Delaney, Frederick Douglas, Marcus Garvey, Booker T Washington, Anna Julia Cooper, Carter G Woodson, W.E.B du Bios and Cornel West. While the historical American philosophy borrowed heavily from Europe, the current philosophy is best seen in its political system which distinguishes between conservatism and liberalism.

There have been attempts to export these philosophies into the African continent, which can be subject to academic inquiry.

International Relations studies would focus on US foreign policy, the US war on drugs and terror, intersections between US domestic and foreign policy, US political personalities and institutions, US technology and industrial-military complex and American political ideologies. These issues would be analysed from an African perspective. 

Studies in the field of literature would include the various epochs of American literature. These would include the American novel, drama, and poetry in their various genres. The literary works that would inform the learning and teaching texts would include Toni Morrison, Maya Angelo, Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, and many others. In linguistics, it would be interesting for African universities to undertake comparative studies between American, British and the various dialects of English.

All said and done, the potential for American studies in Africa is immense because they have not been rolled out up to this point and time. Over and above African policy interests in structuring American studies, a pragmatic result would be the emergence of a new cohort of young Africans able to engage the US from the point of knowledge. 

– Amukelani Charmaine Matsilele is a Communications and Public Diplomacy
Researcher at 
the African Centre for the Study of the United States.

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