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No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists over a Half Century, 1950-2000

Edited by William Minter,
Gail Hovey, and Charles Cobb Jr.
Published by Africa World Press.
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Using No Easy Victories in Teaching

Jeanne Penvenne, "Race, Class, and Power in Southern Africa"
Tufts University, Fall 2008
   Reflections|Syllabus|Discussion Memos

Race, Class, and Power in Southern Africa
History 150 - Tufts University - Fall 2008
Prof. Jeanne Marie Penvenne

My classes always emphasize active citizenship, but in election years the emphasis is particularly important—this election year we clearly leveraged the Obama/McCain energy. I typically combine documentary film, essays by African activists/intellectuals (Steve Biko, Mamphela Ramphele, Njabulo Ndebele, Mahmood Mamdani) short stories, poetry, and photography (Mtutuzeli Matshoba, José Craveirinha, Omar Badsha, Peter Magubane). No Easy Victories provided an excellent opportunity to incorporate a full unit on African / American activist collaboration. The film "Have you heard from Johannesburg?" worked beautifully with the book. Students invested more in the reading because the visual images fueled their interest.

This class enrolled students from freshmen to graduate students (3 freshmen, 16 sophomores, 14 juniors, 10 seniors, 3 graduate students), and reflected the fact that Tufts students are predominantly Euro-Americans and international students; six were of African heritage). When students had just begun No Easy Victories we had a class viewing of the film, followed by small group discussion of how the film and book interfaced. Given the length of the film, I scheduled the showing as a pizza evening. Since chapters were assigned over a period of time, however, key themes shaped the way students viewed, read and discussed subsequent assignments, particularly Steve Biko. When students had completed the book, we had a scheduled in-class discussion with a required and evaluated 'discussion ante.'

A discussion ante is like the ante in a card game—before the game starts everyone has to put their little bit on the table, to ante up. A discussion ante has two parts. The first is simply a quote, name, image, or anything that the student chooses to put out for discussion. The second part is several paragraphs about the book and why the student chose her or his focus for discussion. We break into small groups and all students read their antes; once we have ‘anted up,’ the discussion is wide open. During the last 15 minutes of class, reporters from each group share one aspect of the group’s conversation with the whole class, and I do a ‘wrap’ based on the reports.

In a large class, small group discussions with graded ‘antes’ have multiple advantages: all students come having both read and reflected on the assignment, all voices, including those of the congenitally shy, are heard at the outset, and hearing the range of points that others raise encourages discussion. I always prepare film and discussion memos on assignments featured in class discussions, and since this was my test drive of No Easy Victories, I asked students to highlight two terms they thought I should feature in a discussion memo. The book and the film both mention scores of groups and people. I know many of these people in person, but the students have never heard of most of them, so I wanted a better sense of what would ‘stick’ for this generation.

Since I taught the book with the film, I can’t know how it would have worked without the film, but my sense is that the two leveraged each other beautifully. I will continue to combine them. The many reflections students shared in their discussion antes, class discussion and exam essays on No Easy Victories, suggest a very rich reception, but three themes merit particular mention.

First students developed a more sophisticated appreciation of social and civic activism in the longue durée. This is a generation ready for and in many cases engaged in activism, but scripted to think activism was something people did in the 1960s.

Second, and related, students truly took heart from the long and at times really discouraging slog of individual and small group initiatives from the civil rights era to South African sanctions to the present. They appreciated that very small groups made a difference if they stayed with it long enough.

Third, students were apt to be conflicted about white privilege, black consciousness / black power. White students had to work out Steve Biko’s point that whites had their own arena of struggle, and to appreciate where collaboration was appropriate, and to see it as collaboration and not 'help.' Thinking of oneself as the person who can ‘help others’ is an insidious part of white privilege. No Easy Victories included many stories written by whites, but often with an emphasis on the ways blacks taught and inspired whites to act. The stories by blacks and whites accorded black actors full agency and dignity. Thanks to "No Easy Victories," students more fully appreciated the fully dialectical nature of Atlantic conversations about race, class and power.