Ways to Teach
on a Largely Homogeneous Campus
Date: July 3, 1997
Copyright 1997, The Chronicle of Higher
Reprinted with permission.
NOTES FROM ACADEME
Senegalese Scholar Focuses on Race in
By Carolyn J. Mooney
Dakar, Senegal -- An ocean breeze drifts
across the campus of Cheikh Anta Diop
University. It's a peaceful place, its
worn buildings and parched lawn separated
from the Atlantic only by the coastal
road that follows the Cap Vert peninsula
out of the congested city center. Most
mornings, the beach across the street
attracts exercising students.
Near the university's entrance is a
monument honoring its namesake. Cheikh
Anta Diop, who died in 1986, was a Senegalese
historian who argued for Africa's cultural
unity and its influence on classical
civilizations. Today he'd be called
Oumar Ndongo's students, though, are
more likely to look across the ocean
for inspiration. Until recently, their
image of America tended toward the idyllic:
They envisioned a land of fast fortunes,
of abundant computers, of opportunities
as boundless as the nation's highways
and the talent of Michael Jordan. But
during the past academic year, in a
course on racism in America, some of
them have taken a closer look. They
have discussed the lives of Frederick
Douglass and Malcolm X and the Rev.
Martin Luther King, Jr. They have explored
the Constitution, slavery, white-supremacy
groups, black nationalism, and affirmative
action. Gradually, a sharper picture
of a complex society has emerged.
"It may not be as positive,"
Dr. Ndongo says, "but it's more
Dr. Ndongo is an associate professor
of American literature at Cheikh Anta
Diop, the larger of Senegal's two public
universities. Wearing a caftan one day
and a sports shirt and jeans the next,
he seems to move as easily between West
African and American intellectual circles
as he does from French to English to
Wolof. He became a scholar after serving
as an administrator of a training school
for Senegalese military officers. There,
he developed a special interest in war
literature, and taught such books as
The Red Badge of Courage and A Farewell
He began thinking about how to teach
racism to Africans last year, when he
was a Fulbright scholar at the University
of Californa at Irvine. One day, at
a seminar on teaching slavery, he says,
"I realized that slavery in the
American context was quite different.
In Senegal, people associate slavery
with economic and social factors, not
This is not to say that differences
in skin color don't matter to Africans;
they can matter quite a lot. But in
Senegal, which until recently had a
highly stratified caste system, people
are more divided by occupation and ethnic
ties. There is still a "slave"
caste here, made up of people whose
ancestors were enslaved by other Africans
during tribal wars. Caste can still
carry a stigma when an upper-class Senegalese
marries someone from a "casted"
Dr. Ndongo developed the course on
racism to help his students -- many
of whom are studying English, in hopes
of landing a better job -- to understand
the complexities of race in American
society. He asked Peter Glomset, a University
of Washington lecturer who came here
as a Fulbright scholar, and who is white,
to teach it with him. Sometimes they
have held opposing opinions on the same
issue, making for lively class discussions.
But they agree that young Africans have
trouble relating to the experiences
of black Americans, whose lives are
shaped by a history they do not share.
"For black Americans, race is
a defining factor," says Dr. Glomset,
who is now back in Washington State.
"For Senegalese, it's low on the
list. Religion, language, gender, living
in an urban or a rural area -- those
things touch the students more than
Dr. Ndongo puts it this way: "When
African students read Malcolm X, they
don't see what is at stake." For
his course, he drew on the work of many
American scholars, among them Shelby
Steele, Cornel West, and Molefi Kete
Asante. But required reading lists are
an unaffordable luxury for a poor university,
as are computers (professors here pay
secretaries to type their papers), small
classes (the racism course has 300 students,
and Dr. Ndongo once taught a course
with 2,700 students), and air conditioning
(professors share offices that open
onto an outdoor corridor). "You
don't just tell students to turn to
page 35 in their book," Dr. Glomset
says. More than likely, they can't get
The course is based largely on lectures,
but students also make oral presentations
-- rare in a system that bases grades
on a final exam -- on a topic involving
race in America. They are asked to reflect
on their own culture as well. One student
discussed how the teachings of Elijah
Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam,
conflict with those of the Koran --
a relevant topic in this Muslim nation.
One afternoon, about two dozen students
from the class gather downtown at the
independent West African Research Center,
which is showing a videotaped documentary
called Secret Daughter. It was made
by an American journalist named June
Cross, who is the child of a white mother
and a black father. When she was 4 years
old, her mother gave her up to a black
woman to raise. Dr. Ndongo asks the
group to keep this question in mind:
"Have the color lines in America
Ms. Cross, the narrator, retraces her
life, beginning with the glamorous mother
who defied convention by becoming involved
with a black entertainer. But when the
baby was born, the mother felt unaccepted
in both black and white circles. She
married a white actor and saw her daughter
occasionally, but never publicly acknowledged
her. There is footage of Ms. Cross's
father in old films, his lips quivering
as he performs a Stepin Fetchit-style
The narrator tells of her anguish and
the years spent searching for traces
of herself in her mother's face. "I
want her to go on national television
to tell the world she's my mother,"
she says. Her mother finally agreed.
They began their interviews just as
jury selection in the O.J. Simpson trial
The documentary prompts lots of discussion
-- about whether Ms. Cross's mother
made the right choice, whether she had
a choice, whether her relationship with
a black man was "selfish."
Some students blame American society
for Ms. Cross's situation. But, says
Mary Lalyre, an English major, "Society
is composed of individuals." Others
cannot understand why, in such a democratic
nation, the idea of racial intermarriage
troubles so many people.
The dance routine and quivering lips
have struck a nerve. A few students
lament that black Americans are known
mainly as sports figures and entertainers.
"What did our ancestors create?"
one asks. But others applaud the opportunity
to exploit one's talent. The discussion
turns to the identity of mixed-race
children, then to that of African Americans.
"They are a minority in America,"
Dr. Ndongo says, "but in Africa,
they are Americans." The reality
of Africa doesn't fit the romantic image,
he says. Moreover, black Americans want
to discuss slavery, but Africans are
focused on colonialism.
"Africans always complain about
the past -- about how we've been slaves
and victims," says Fall Souleymane,
an English major. "We focus on
the American dream. But we need an African
Secret Daughter relates well to this
week's class topic, racial intermarriage.
But the weekly class ends up being canceled
because of a faculty strike over issues
of compensation. (The students missed
classes earlier this year because of
a student strike.)
Dozens of students show up anyway.
Some of them stay in the auditorium
to talk to a visitor about race in America.
They wonder what effect the University
of California's decision to end affirmative
action is having, and whether the average
black American can afford college. They
wonder if race relations are improving.
And they explain why they are eager
to visit America, even after exploring
America may not yet be a land of equal
opportunity, but it is a land of opportunity,
says Tamsir Mamadou Gueye, an English
major. "The dream of almost any
student here is to visit the U.S.,"
he says. "It's easier to succeed
there, even if you're black.
"I am still optimistic about America."
Copyright (c) 1997 by The
Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.
Title: Senegalese Scholar Focuses on
Race in American Society