Seminar in African History

Seeing Africa in the 20th C

Seeing Africa in the American Century is an undergraduate research seminar that blends African and American history and the history of photography to explore the ways in which images in popular media shaped the ways that Americans understood Africa during the Cold War.


Two powerful historical dynamics defined this era:  the emergence of the United States as the dominant global superpower and the fight for freedom in Europe's African and Asian colonies.  The dramatic story of the coming of independence to Africa captured the imaginations of Americans, from policy makers to private citizens.  They struggled to understand what was happening in what many of them mistakenly thought of as "the Dark Continent."


Photography in popular magazines, such as, National Geographic, Time, and Life, played an important role in introducing Americans to African issues and in defining their attitudes toward the continent.  Magazines mirrored Americans' conflicted thinking, which ranged from support for independence to a strong suspicion that Africans weren't ready for freedom.


In this course, students may choose to develop research projects on a variety of topics.  They many decide to look at the way that photography in popular media affected public policy toward Africa, the work of non-profits and activist groups, the ideas of private citizens, and even the creations of the entertainment industry.  Alternatively, students may opt to examine ways in which photography by Africans -- for instance, images of the anti-apartheid in South Africa -- offered Americans a very different perspective on the continent.


Students in the course will first read about the histories of Africa, American foreign policy, and photography.  They will then develop research projects, with the assistance of the instructor, and produce a seminar paper that showcases their own original research.

Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia
Nau Hall - South Lawn
Charlottesville, VA 22904


(434) 924-7147
(434) 924-7891
M-F 8am to 4:30pm
Department Contacts