A brief conversation with Dr. Jonathon Earle, Visting Assistant Professor of History
Q: What is the basis for your fall-term course, African Kingdoms & Colonial Empires?
A: When Europeans began arriving in Africa from the 16th-century onward, they largely believed that Africans were without history or political sophistication. For would-be colonizers, African history and ‘civilisation’ commenced with the advent of European commerce and Christianity, but Africa’s precolonial landscapes were dynamic. Prior to European colonization, Africans had long created complex and powerful societies, communities, and kingdoms that challenged and shaped what colonialism looked like on the ground.
Q: How did you introduce the complexities of African history into the course?
A: African Kingdoms & Colonial Empires began by studying the precolonial kingdom of Kongo, which we then used to reflect more broadly on the theme of cosmopolitanism in central Africa in the 17th- and 18th-centuries. By cosmopolitanism, we mean that preceding colonialism Africans were connected to different regions of the continent and to other parts of the world through trade, the exchange of ideas, and the migration of people. Further, African societies were flexible and complex enough to deal with the influx of new ideas and the movements of goods and people that would occur during the formal scramble for Africa in the late 1800s.
Q: How was community-based learning used as part of this history course?
A: To help students connect with western and central Africa’s precolonial pasts, I used the theme of cosmopolitanism to illuminate central Kentucky’s connection with precolonial Africa. In particular, I used a cemetery for enslaved Africans and African Americans near Centre College to show how the possibility of both Centre College and Kentucky—through the emergence of agricultural economies and the use of enslaved labor—was intimately interconnected with what was taking place in kingdoms such as Kongo. Indeed, members of Centre College and Commonwealth legislatures were both active in the formation of the American Colonization Society in the mid-19th-century, which worked to establish Liberia as a resettlement colony for former enslaved Africans. So extensive was this connection that one resettlement county in western Liberia was named ‘Kentucky in Africa’, today’s Montserrado County. What’s more, two of Liberia’s earlier presidents were central Kentuckians—Alfred F. Russell and William D. Coleman. Simply put, by using community-based learning, our course examined the extent to which Africa’s past is our past.
By John Rusnak