Summer Study Abroad: Exploring Racial Histories of the United States and South Africa

Racial discrimination and segregation have left indelible marks on the histories of both the United States and South Africa. These legacies have shaped societies and continue to influence contemporary conversations on equality, justice, and progress. Despite significant strides made over the past several decades, the importance of studying and understanding these complex histories cannot be overstated.

In May of this year, a group of seven students from Kent State University’s Center for African Studies embarked on a transformative journey to the University of Fort Hare's Centre for Transdisciplinary Studies in Alice, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Funded by a grant from the U.S. Embassy in South Africa, the Heritage Ubuntu Student Research Project provides opportunities for collaboration and knowledge exchange across borders. Students from both institutions met virtually throughout the Fall 2022 and Spring 2023 semesters.

Led by Felix Kumah-Abiwu, Ph.D., the founding director of the Center for African Studies and associate professor in the Department of Africana Studies at Kent State, the students delved into a 15-day cross-cultural exploration of racial histories and contemporary issues that have connected South Africa and the United States in profound ways. They were welcomed by Dr. Nomzamo Dube from the University of Fort Hare Centre of Transdisciplinary Studies and Dr. Hulani Mabasa, director of International Affairs and Partnership.

Kent State students in Soweto, South Africa

“Promoting engaged and critical discourse and understanding of democratic values and perspectives provides students from both countries the opportunity to appreciate and better understand the shared experiences of both countries, especially on their racial history and efforts at racial progress,” Kumah-Abiwu said. “It was a great trip with my students; indeed, a transformative experience for them.”

This transatlantic research program is not only about understanding the past but also about promoting democratic discourse, appreciation of diverse values, and relationship-building between Americans and South Africans. By advocating for the cross-pollination of ideas, experiences, and academic exchange, the program aims to foster global citizenship, inclusivity, and social cohesion.

During their stay, the students visited cultural heritage sites within the Eastern Cape Province, participated in local social and historical activities, and observed various cultural and social traditions. Beyond these informal interactions, they engaged in formal learning and teaching within the African university setting.

Attending classes and engaging in small group discussions with students from UFH’s Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities not only expanded their understanding of South Africa but also allowed for the exchange of experiences, cultures, and values.

One highlight of their visit was their participation in the University of Fort Hare's Africa Day celebrations on May 25. This celebration of African identity and unity provided a platform for the Kent State students to connect with the vibrant spirit of South African culture and witness the diversity of narratives that shape the nation.

“It was a day full of joy and laughter and memories that will last a lifetime,” Adara Mickels, an International Relations major (and African Studies minor) at Kent State said. “I learned how my South African counterparts value their education and how they want to make a difference in their communities. From listening and speaking to them they have become my family, because of the similar interests we all have and the similar values.”

A reciprocal program, the University of Fort Hare fellows are set to visit Kent State University in late November 2023, providing an opportunity for an equally enriching exchange of perspectives.

Insights from the Heritage Ubuntu Student Research Project
India Williams, a fashion design major who is also pursuing an African Studies minor at Kent State, underscored the social parallels between the histories of black South Africans and African Americans, especially the effects of colonialism and Nelson Mandela’s efforts to eliminate apartheid in the fight for freedom and equality and a strong feeling of community in both societies.

“The way we celebrate, with comparable dances and our communal natures, when South Africans celebrate there is a warmth of joy that fills in the room,” Williams said. “It reminds me of being in church in America and hearing gospel music and it fills the building with immense joy and freedom.  These discussions and tours have enhanced my respect for our common experiences and cultural linkages.”

Kent State Students at the Nelson Mandela Museum in South Africa

Visits to historical sites like the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg provided the students with profound insights into the complexities of South Africa's history.

“It impacted me to see how a system that was rooted in dehumanization and power can cause modern-day social conflict in South Africa,” Mickels said. “I got to see how the prison system was a way to make ethnicities and races who were not white and Afrikaans inferior by the disease that was created in the prison. Also, I was in shock to learn that Mahatma Gandhi was in the same prison and was imprisoned because he was leading a march against a racist policy.”

“What struck me the most was learning about South Africa’s very low rate of homelessness,” Williams said. “People in financial difficulty either seek shelter with family or friends or use government lands and resources to construct their own homes. This contrasts with the difficulties faced by homeless people in the United States, where the capitalist system makes it almost impossible for them to obtain necessary documents such as ID’s, birth certificates and Social Security cards, prolonging a cycle of poverty. It’s a continuous loop in the cycle of not having the required documents to better their situation.”

The project culminated in a colloquium where students presented their research proposals on topics that delved into racism in higher education and access to resources in different contexts.

Both Mickels and Williams highly recommend a study abroad course like this to other students.  

“It allows you to develop connections and gain new experiences with Kent State students,” Mickels said. “You might even get to meet people you’ll remember and know for a lifetime.”

“I gained invaluable perspective and had the opportunity to travel to South Africa, where I met fellow students from the country who were incredibly welcoming,” Williams said. “This experience allowed me to appreciate and learn about both their culture and my own, fostering personal growth and understanding of global diversity.”                             

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POSTED: Friday, August 25, 2023 07:03 PM
Updated: Friday, August 25, 2023 09:06 PM
Jim Maxwell