Resistance in African Children’s Literature: How the Legacy of Colonialism Impacts the Publishing Industry and its Ramifications

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Project Summary

My project, entitled “Resistance in African Children’s Literature: How the Legacy of Colonialism Impacts the Publishing Industry and its Ramifications on the Genre,” aims to understand the relationship between the history of publishing on the African continent to the production of children’s literature sold to African children. The project was inspired by my own personal experiences working in South Africa as well as schoolwork during my last two years at Penn that have centered on how media connects to larger social and political movements, and how ideologies within those movements are discussed through literature, including children’s literature.

The paper that resulted from this research was for my senior honors thesis for my bachelors degrees in English and African Studies. Throughout the course of about a year, I purchased 42 children’s books published by African and British publishing houses with publishing dates ranging from 1964 to 2018. My aim in collecting texts from different geographical locations and cross-temporally was to understand how the books differed depending on who published them, as well as to see the changes in narrative theme, characterization and materiality over time. I chose Britain for my non-African texts because of it’s colonial history as well as its role in building the publishing industry in Anglophone Africa.

Going into this project, I expected to see a difference in the content published based on the publisher and over time, but I did not realize the extent in the difference of what I would see. Moreover, scholarship on this topic is by no means extensive, and based on my research, inadequately conveys the nuances of the African publishing industry, instead claiming that African children’s literature continues to cater to Western audiences and ideological frameworks. Through my analysis of the 42 books I collected, most of them African-published and intended as English-language books for elementary school children, I discovered that these books are both engaging with a local contemporary culture while at the same time creating a dialogue (and sometimes resisting) the Western culture whose language they are being taught through the use of the books. Within the African books some of the most interesting themes were: discussion of health epidemics such as HIV/AIDS and the importance of friendship in dealing with loss, combining “traditional culture” with fantasy to empower girls to inhabit leadership roles, and discussions about the relationship between technology, modernity, capitalism, and traditional ways of life of African people. In this way, my findings from this project deepened an understanding of current publishing on the continent, and in many ways extended or disputed arguments made by other scholarship that argues that African children’s literature continues to portray African people as stereotypical colonial subjects, or Africa as “Darkest Africa”.

Participating in this project provided me with the opportunity to participate in original research about a topic that is under-represented in academia. I was able to apply my studies on post-colonial Africa with my studies in the English department to understand an industry that impacts millions of African children, and how Britain’s colonial legacy shapes their understanding of the world.