Taking American Race Relations on the Road…to Africa
by Rebecca Gearhart
I originally wrote this article in the summer of 2001, after returning from Kenya where I had spent the month of May with eighteen Illinois Wesleyan students enrolled in my travel course. Inspired by a series of articles devoted to study abroad programs in Africa (African Issues, volume XXVIII/1&2) in 2000, I hoped to contribute to the discussion by sharing the insights recorded in my students’ travelogues. Then the September 11th terrorist attacks occurred, and soon thereafter the U.S. Department of State issued travel warnings against travel to several African nations including Kenya, which has prevented me from offering the course since. Although I have never underestimated the benefits of openly discussing sensitive issues as important as race relations, I was unsure of how to fit the discussion into a post 9/11 framework of analysis, so I put the article away.
The recent resurgence of American students studying abroad and the growing interest in programs in Africa among my own students is what motivates me to revisit the discussion again now. It is my hope that my colleagues who are experienced dealing with the issues raised in the journals my students kept while in Kenya in 2001 will add their expertise to the comments shared here. Such a dialogue can only enhance our strategies for preparing students for the varied experiences they have in Africa, and may even lead to a better understanding of the tension that sometimes characterizes the encounters between Africans and African Americans in the U.S.
Rebecca Gearhart is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology at Illinois Wesleyan University.