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Africa’s Riches and the Making of the Modern WorldMaster ClassIn-Person

Friday, Mar 17, 2023

9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.


For thousands of years, the African continent has been famed for its wealth. What these riches were, who produced them, who bought them, and where these goods went have changed over time. From gold and salt traded across the Sahara that sustained massive medieval West African empires, to human chattel in the era of European empires and the transatlantic slave trade, African goods and labor were critical engines of modernization. In more recent centuries, goods such as palm oil, minerals, and petroleum have fueled technological development in wealthy countries and developed ones such as China, all while the African continent has been labeled as impoverished and underdeveloped. We will examine these contradictions, as well as the ongoing race for African commodities, which has been dubbed the “new scramble for Africa” and includes surprising resources from fish to healthcare providers, revealing complex inequalities and imbalances in our modern times. We will also explore the history of commodities that have shaped African societies in connection with many world regions, including Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

Shobana Shankar

Shobana Shankar is a socio-cultural historian of West Africa and the Global South at Stony Brook University.  Before that, she worked in research and publishing at UNICEF and as a teacher in the New York City public school system. Her work crosses the fields of history, anthropology, religion, and public health. Her forthcoming book examines how Africans and Indians negotiated their complicated relationships in religion, science, and education in an effort to find postcolonial solidarity and autonomy from Euro-American power. She’s also written on the politics of public health and the history of eugenicist racial practices at the Mississippi State Penitentiary.