Kathleen Smythe, associate professor of history, discusses how teaching in Africa impacted her life and the intertwining of African and American history.
Q: What led to your interest in African history?
A: My childhood experiences sparked my interest in different peoples and places so that when I graduated from college with a degree in Russian history, I sought an opportunity to teach abroad. I spent a year in Kenya teaching at a secondary school from 1988 to 1989. While there, I was surprised by two things: first, how hospitable Kenyans were, and second, how knowledgeable they were about the United States. In contrast, I felt stingy and ignorant. Intellectually and emotionally, I was hooked.
Q: How has your involvement in the field changed you as a person?
A: I am far more aware than I was before of how unique the United States’ individualism and materialism is in contrast to much of the rest of the world. As a result of my experiences in Kenya and Tanzania, I try to live out the hospitality, graciousness and resilience I have found in Africans. I also find myself reflecting on the ways in which Africans I know tended their babies, raised their children, and lived their lives, as I try to find my way in this world.
Q: How can we see African history living in or impacting current American culture? Are there things that might surprise the man in the street?
A: One of the most interesting aspects of African history to me currently is the interrelationship in the developments across the African diaspora. This is particularly clear for the 19th and 20th centuries, as peoples from the Americas and Africa shared their ideas and dreams. The abolitionist movement in the U.S. was heavily influenced by a similar movement in Great Britain, a movement that was greatly indebted to the work of freed slaves in Great Britain.
African-Americans were some of the first Americans to take up missionary work in Africa. W.E.B. Du Bois, founder of the NAACP and one of 19th and 20th century America’s leading intellectuals, found a second home in Ghana with African nationalist Kwame Nkrumah. And, Africans’ nationalist aspirations in the 20th century went hand in hand with the work and aspirations of North Americans fighting for civil rights. American history is dangerously incomplete without African-American history, and African-American history is equally inexplicable without African history. The era of the Atlantic slave trade linked Africa with the New World via the Atlantic Ocean. But far more than economic ties developed: cultural, intellectual and spiritual ties did as well.