“The Headstrong Historian”
My all time favorite writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, just came out with a new book. Americanah. I had no idea how THICK it would be! It just might be the longest book I’ve ever read. I’m savoring every page, and getting into trouble with Anga for neglecting my share of house chores and sneaking off to read.
At school I’m reading one of Adichie’s short stories, The Headstrong Historian, with my 7th graders. It’s about the invasiveness, big and small, of colonization. The kids get to know a totally bad ass mom, Nwamgba, and see how the story of her son and grandchildren unfold throughout British colonization and into Nigerian independence.
I was inspired to read the Headstrong Historian because of a way of teaching history I learned from a professor at UVA. Here is our recent exchange:
Dear Professor Braun,
I took your class several years ago, and I just want to say thanks so much for teaching us the power of studying history through literature instead of textbooks.
I am a history teacher now myself in Belgium- 7th grade. I recently was in the middle of a unit teaching King Leopold’s colonization of Congo and I my kids were just NOT reaching the level of empathy for Congolese that I had hoped for. As soon as I reached out for African literature… they started to see the light. What took them over the edge and into finally feeling the SADNESS of being bullied into hating your own culture… was The Headstrong Historian by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Beautiful story, so rich with history and the human experience.
Thanks again for teaching me that fiction is great way to grow empathetic historians!
Thank you very much for your lovely message. I looked for and read The Headstrong Historian, in The New Yorker. Yes, that would work for 7th graders and for college students. Teaching college students is easy, and a huge challenge. Seventh graders… oh, my!! In the modern view of things, we teach right from wrong in K-12, us and not them, our quest for identity, for me, who am I (?). And then, so the idea goes, we turn that around and teach the context of peoples lives in college, us and them, them and us. But we have so screwed things up teaching “me-things” until age 18, that many students can never get beyond themselves. To get 7th graders beyond themselves is a radical gesture, and a necessary one. I have many more sources available to me than do you, fiction and historical monographs. What a challenge you have set for yourself. And then, perhaps all it takes is a few brief moments of a felt SADNESS on the part of your students to turn them around, to plant the seeds for a mind that looks for the lives of others. And of course, it is not always sadness that we are looking for.
What do you make of Hochschild’s King Leopold’s?
I looked you up. Looks like fine work. You went from Africa to Belgium?