Taking a Closer Look at the History of Africa, Through the Lens of Childhood and Youth

Humanities4 MIN READ

Assistant Professor Sarah Duff could have used a textbook on childhood and youth in African history, so she wrote one

Assistant Professor of History Sarah Duff
Sarah Duff, an assistant professor in the History Department, has written the first textbook to be published in the field of childhood and youth in African history.
By Abigail Curtis Photography by Sophie Davidson
April 7, 2023

When Assistant Professor of History Sarah Duff was new at Colby, she taught a class specifically on her field of research: childhood and youth in African history. Students were engaged, but the professor, who originally is from South Africa, realized something was missing. There were no textbooks available, and no overview of how others have addressed the topic. 

There was a need, and Duff was delighted to meet it with her new book, Childhood and Youth in African History, the first textbook in the field. It’s an introduction to the scholarship produced by historians, anthropologists, and other academics and writers. 

The professor, who is in London right now on a prestigious New Directions Fellowship through the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, spoke about the book and why it matters. This interview has been edited. 

It seems meaningful to write the first textbook on this topic. Is it a newer research field, or perhaps one that previously had been overlooked by scholars? 

This is and is not a new research field. Historians have written about children and young people in African history for a very long time. This isn’t really surprising: young people were crucial to the success of anti-colonial movements and often experienced the sharpest edge of colonial rule. Also, the relationships between generations of people, broadly defined, was one of the most important systems for structuring African societies, in the precolonial period and after. Put another way, it’s really difficult to write African history without including children and young people. 

But it’s only comparatively recently that scholars have thought more carefully about how age categories themselves have been constructed. Who exactly do we mean by “youth,” for instance? And who might we be leaving out of our research if we think of “youth” in very specific terms? How were ideas about childhood important for justifying colonial rule? How were ideas about youth useful for postcolonial governments?

“This newer interest is driven, I think, by contemporary concerns about how we want children and young people to be raised and educated, and our concerns about the world, and future, they will inhabit.”

Sarah Duff, assistant professor of history

How do you think having a better, more complete understanding of the past can help to inform people today? 

At a very basic level, we look to the past to help us understand what’s going on in the present. But thinking historically is also important for showing us that the present was never inevitable: that there were and are alternative ways of addressing challenges, alternative choices, and alternative ways of understanding our societies. Understanding histories of childhood and youth in Africa helps people outside of the continent to address some of the more pernicious stereotypes about Africa and Africans, but perhaps more importantly, might help them see how age has been important for structuring and producing change not only elsewhere, but in the United States, too. 

Can you explain a little more about how age is an important category for analysis of African history? 

Age—like other categories of identity, like race and gender, for instance—is important for understanding how power works within societies. We tend to apportion more power to people who are older than those who are younger. Of course, age becomes especially powerful when it intersects with race, class, and gender: why do older white men hold so much power in many societies, for example? So when we incorporate age into our analysis of African history, it draws our attention to another vector of power. 

Who is the audience for the book, and what do you hope they will take away from it? 

I wrote this book in an imagined conversation with a classroom of students. I used the questions and comments that students have made in classes I’ve taught to guide many of my decisions—my choices of examples, the ways I explained ideas and terminology—in writing the book. So I hope students will find the book useful and interesting. I hope, too, that other scholars, as well as policymakers, activists, and interested members of the public will pick this book up when they want to know more about the extraordinarily diverse experiences of children and young people over a very long period of time on a very complex continent. 

I hope that readers for whom African history might be new come away with an understanding of the incredible complexity of the continent’s societies over a long sweep of time—of how hard it is, really, to generalize about the continent. I hope that readers interested in children and young people learn more about how contested categories of “childhood” and “youth” were, and especially during the colonial and postcolonial periods, when it was possible for a poor, Black, 10-year-old to be a child in some contexts and an adult in others (we might think of the U.S. here, too). 

How did being at Colby help you while you were working on the book? 

I am eternally grateful for my generous startup funds and the opportunity to have a year’s sabbatical, both of which made the work that went into this book possible. And teaching students at Colby informed my writing of this book. Without their questions and curiosity, I’m not sure I would have been able to write the book in this way.

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