I am a World History teacher at the Cooperative High School in New Haven. Each year my students challenge me with the question: “Why don’t you teach us more Black History, Mr. Herndon?” I have found that even though textbook publishers are including more chapters about Africa, the students seem to want more than the general facts that a survey course can provide. My students keep asking me what “life is really like” for young African people. In an attempt to help them answer that question, I have chosen to research a West African culture, the Ashanti (also “Ashante”), very rich in tradition, and about which a great deal has been written and is available. I hope that through the lessons presented in this two- to four-week unit, students and teachers alike will not only learn about Africa, but be challenged to examine our own family and educational values in light of African beliefs and practices that have endured for centuries.
I am enthusiastic about the art and “artifactual” approach to learning that the lessons in this unit contain. Many students in my classes are curious about art and artifacts, and are somewhat willing to speculate about them. Objects and visual images often can provide a focal point that brings out insightful comments and revealing observations. Interesting objects can appeal to shyer, less verbal, or less academically oriented students in ways that tend to actively involve them in the educational process. If successful, these lessons will challenge students to participate in a critical thinking process that will prove useful beyond the history classroom and that can affect their learning in other academic disciplines.
Ancient people of Africa became very skilled at fashioning objects of a practical nature made of materials close-at-hand. Most of these artifacts served a utilitarian rather than ornamental purpose. Yet many of these pieces, useful in family life, have a grace and beauty which raise some fundamental questions, such as: What relationship exists, if any, between beauty and function? What do these objects reveal about the persons who created them and the culture in which they were created? What standards of beauty prevailing in that culture do these objects communicate to us? How do these esthetic values compare with those of our own culture? As teacher and student learn together to become observers of objects (bowls, furniture, fertility figures), we may discover that the study of the art of a culture is a valid way to gain insights into that culture and its values.
My unit will focus on family customs among the Ashanti, a tribal group living in Ghana near the West African coast. The Ashanti are a matrilineal people, i.e., an individual’s descent and claim to land is traced through the mother’s lineage. Women have a great deal of freedom and are highly respected. The child, according to the Ashanti, inherits his or her blood from the mother and his spirit from the father. Even though descent is traced through the mother, it is the father’s responsibility to name his children, provide them with an education, and marry off his sons. Among the Ashanti, children may become “ranked” (given status) through their mother’s lineage, but there are certain titles, such as royal titles, which can only be handed down through the paternal line.
To illustrate how objects can lead to speculation about cultural standards, I shall ask the class to describe an Ashanti figure called an
(or akaba). We observe that it is made of polished wood, about 13 inches in height, and stained black. The head is in the shape of a large flat disc. The forehead is high, the nose is flat and the mouth is small. The head is held up by a slender neck, which appears to be composed of a series of rings. The body, neck and arms form the shape of a cross, the arms having no joints or hands. The base is circular, which allows the object to be free-standing. When we compare several figures, we notice that facial expressions and markings vary. Breasts are small, and some figures have a protruding navel. What does this stylized piece of sculpture tell us about Ashanti women? What possible use could it have to the Ashanti? What hidden symbolic meanings can we uncover? For a more detailed series of questions and possible student responses, see the “Strategies” section below. The students will discover that this Ashanti figure is carried on the back of an expectant mother during her pregnancy so that her child will be beautiful, having the same qualities of “beauty” as those expressed in the carving. The figures are also used by sterile women who hope, by keeping an
with them, to become pregnant. Little girls often learn how to take care of children by playing with
dolls. Sometimes these figures would be decorated with beads or precious stones, indicating ownership by a woman of wealth.
Interesting cultural beliefs and practices may lend themselves to engaging role-playing situations in the classroom. For example, it is an Ashanti belief that the parent, not the child, bears total responsibility for the child’s actions until the child reaches puberty. How, then, might a group of family members handle a misbehaving child who threatens by his actions to disgrace the family name because he will not stop stealing eggs from the neighbors? What threats (“the ancestor spirits will be displeased with you”), bribes (“you will be excused from weeding the garden for an entire month”), or proverbs and fables might the “family council” members discuss among themselves to discourage the child’s inappropriate behavior? This type of role play not only familiarizes students with Ashanti family practices, but emphasizes a cooperative family model of conflict resolution. Another entertaining role-play for female students might be a group of adolescent girls who advise a younger girl who is preparing for her “coming-of-age” ceremonies the next day. In this way students could review what we have discovered about female standards of beauty in regards to hair styles, jewelry, dress, make-up and other aspects of outward appearance.
This unit will attempt to involve students in activities that will give them an opportunity to observe and describe art objects, and to create an art object of their own, based on what they have learned about Ashanti objects. Through the creative process, and with the assistance of our very talented art teacher, students will have the chance to participate in “living history,” as they learn skills and methods that will help them make something uniquely their own, and then help them to analyze and even criticize what they have made.
I hope that this unit encourages teachers and students to become more active learners, and that the ideas and suggestions in this unit are worthwhile in helping cultural history “come alive” in New Haven’s classrooms.