Faculty Stories

Exploring Paris with Professor Osborn

Every other year students have the opportunity to participate in the African Civilizations Program at the UChicago Center in Paris. The program consists of three courses each running for three weeks, where students explore the relationships between Africa and France through the lenses of history, anthropology, and art. In this interview we sit down with Associate Professor of African History Emily Osborn, who taught African Civilizations I in Paris this year, to discuss the excursions that were a part of her course. 

What excursions did you plan? How did they fit in with the course?

Professor Osborn: We went to the Louvre, which is France's leading museum, to study ancient Egypt. One of the best collections of ancient Egypt in the world–the best one outside of Egypt is located there. So we did a section on ancient Egypt and then France's particular relationship to it, particularly through the Napoleonic invasion and the cultural legacies that invasion produced back in France, among other things. We went to the Louvre to investigate that, to see ancient Egypt, but also to learn about some more modern ways that Egypt has become a part of French culture and French life.

The second outing is one to Nantes, which was France's leading slave-trading port. We read a book about a slave trip that originated in a port very close to Nantes, and that book, [the Diligent] by Robert Harms, traces the maiden voyage of that ship, to west Africa and then to the Americas. We go to Nantes to study how slavery helped to shape and bring prosperity and wealth to Nantes, [as] it was in a sense built on the foundation of the slave trade. Nantes was a city that grew and prospered as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and so we go to Nantes to visit the museum, where they have evidence of this process, from the 18th century. We also go to visit the Memorial to Abolition so that we can study up close efforts by the French to grapple with slavery and its legacies.

The third outing [was] to Versailles...it [was] an experiment.

In our course we studied the global reverberations of the French Revolution -- the way that ideas about "liberte, egalite, fraternite" took root in France and then traveled to other parts of the world. This investigation in the classroom led us to study the exercise of citizenship in the Four Communes in Senegal, and specifically the way that both African men and Frenchmen constructed republican institutions and took part in electoral politics in that French West African colony. We then also studied a very different trajectory of the French Revolution in the way that principles of freedom and citizenship were taken up in the slave rebellions of the Haitian Revolution.

As a centerpiece of royal power, Versailles offered students an incredibly resplendent, opulent and monumental site from which to think about the genesis and circulation of ideas about equality, freedom, and citizenship. I hoped that visiting Versailles would, in effect, invite students to consider how claims of monarchical primacy -- and the great disparities of wealth and power that those claims both rest upon and mask -- could help to inspire radically different ideas and principles.

How are these excursions different from trips that you would take in Chicago? How do they enhance the course?

EO: I think there are some fundamental differences between teaching here and teaching in Chicago. One of them is the intensity of the course. We meet five days a week. And that changes both the kinds of readings and assignments that can be done. The context also matters in terms of the new opportunities that it presents. For example, in Chicago, I will take my African Civ class to the Oriental Institute, which has a wonderful collection on ancient Egypt, but you know the Louvre opens a whole new measure of opportunity in that regard.

I have students do readings on colonial legacies in Paris where students went around in teams to identify and critically analyze some of those legacies. That proved to be a quite fruitful undertaking. There's a way in which France does have strong ties to different parts of Africa and those ties have left a mark on different parts of the city. So that does open another angle and opportunity when it comes to teaching.

Finally, I would just say, and this relates back to the intensity of the experience, that students here live together, they travel together, they come to school together. They are together everyday in the classroom, so I see this class as building upon those bonds that have in a sense been put into place by the structure of the program. So there's a way in which this is a much more pedagogical experience both for the professor and for the [students] within the classroom and without.

Many people are critical of the fact that for a while the only African Civilizations program that the University offered took place in Paris. Why bring this course here?

The entrance to the Mémorial de L’Abolition de L’Esclavage (The Memorial of the Abolition of Slavery) in Nantes.The entrance to the Mémorial de L’Abolition de L’Esclavage (The Memorial of the Abolition of Slavery) in Nantes. Photo By: Jennifer Wang

EO: The class is structured to build the excursions back into the classroom, and we do spend a lot of time discussing what we learned, reflecting upon it, debating the value of what we have done and seen. And that too is something that is unique to this sort of study abroad experience, that I don't treat the excursions as an extracurricular activity that is sort of embroidery on what we do in the classroom, that I really try to make it integral to the learning experience. I understand the critics and the concerns about doing African Civ in Paris, but on the other hand there's wonderful pedagogical value to studying Africa and slavery [here]. And I will note that we add on a week in Senegal.

Part of the importance of going to Nantes is that that's one perspective on the trans-Atlantic slave trade—a very particular and in a sense peculiar perspective on it, that we will then balance with the trip to Gorée in Senegal, where we will get an African perspective on the slave trade. So putting those two together, for me, is very important. It's very important to getting a broader perspective on the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its intricacies. 

If you want to study African art, one of the best places to come to study is actually Paris. It's not in Africa. You can go to different countries and parts in Africa and study and learn about a particular art form, but if you want to be at a place where these different sorts of art forms and different legacies are put into conversation, Paris is a place to do that. And it's important to understand that historically and to understand that critically, and that’s what this class does.

We don't take it as a coincidence that a great collection of, for example, what used to be called "primitive art" is in Paris—it's because of colonialism. It's because of France's particular relationship [with] and ideas about other parts of the world, and it's because of the impulse to collect and to curate. And so, that is part of what this class tackles, we don't just uncritically look at France's connections to Africa, but we untangle the reasons behind those connections—the legacies of those relationships.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

EO: This group is a terrific group of students and they're engaged and thoughtful and independent minded and generous. And that I think they've learned from each other and I've learned from them, and it has been an immense privilege to be here and to be part of this process.