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Willamette Celebrates Africa

Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella Heart of Darkness is considered a cornerstone of the Western literary canon and is widely studied in high school and college classrooms. But do its reflections of racism, sexism and imperialism perpetuate negative stereotypes toward Africans?

This was one of many questions addressed recently during Willamette University's Africa Week. Professors from multiple disciplines -- art, anthropology, history, French, English and film studies -- discussed the challenges of the book, its place in history and its continued effects on today's culture.

"Most of the critique of the novella is not about the style, it's about the treatment of the indigenous people," said Amadou Fofana, assistant professor of French and film studies. "Presenting them as cannibals and savages is dehumanizing of a civilization."

Those are some of the stereotypes that students and professors wanted to address when they created Willamette's annual celebration of Africa four years ago. Growing student interest in the continent -- fueled by multiple faculty members who are from Africa or do research there -- led them to host the event to educate others about the true nature of the continent and its diversity.

"We want people to celebrate the diversity of Africa's nations, and not just think of the continent as one country," said Kelsey Walsh '09, one of the organizers. "We're lucky to have professors who care about teaching what is good about Africa."

The theme of this year's celebration was "Africa Around Us: Recognizing the Contributions of Africa and the African Diaspora throughout the Globe."

Keynote speaker Sylvester Ogbechie, a renowned art historian and professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, discussed African art's impact on the arts and cultures of the West. Other events included a film screening, a panel of community members discussing their advocacy work related to African issues, and an open mic night. The week culminated in a community celebration of Africa with a market, food, performances by marimba bands, an African dance workshop and a display of a giant puzzle map of the continent.

At the Heart of Darkness panel, the professors discussed ways the book's negative stereotypes were a reflection of the time when it was written and its intended audience. They noted that all these issues made it essential for teachers using the book in the classroom to provide historical and cultural context for the story. "For some students, this book is the only view they have of Africa, and that's problematic when they don't get any context to go with it," said Joyce Millen, associate professor of anthropology.

The discussion raised many interesting questions as each professor brought his or her own expertise to the table. As Andries Fourie, the assistant professor of art who led the panel, noted: "This is the greatest value of a liberal arts education, that we can have this type of discussion with people of very different disciplines."