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By Tess Barrett, Levi McAllister, and Daniella Pozo, IV Form
Visual Representations of the Relationship Between Oral and Written History in Atlantic World
Instructor’s Note from Ms. Killeen: Atlantic World, a history elective, recently explored the story of Sundiata. This epic of a Western African king from the 1200s was relayed orally for hundreds of years because Ancient Mali was a non-literate society. In the modern Western world, we tend to trust the written word more than traditional storytelling, but Mali’s griots (historians and storytellers) would argue that oral history, which is kept closer to the heart and is therefore connected to people, is more truthful. After reading Sundiata and some Western secondary sources, students were asked to create a visual display describing the history of Ancient Mali. With a few guiding questions—Can we know what really happened? Which parts of the story are true in detail, and which are true in spirit? Does the African story have a different emphasis than the Western ones? What is important to each culture and why?—and the requirement that the project be “visual,” each student was given the freedom to demonstrate their learning in their own way.
Tess, Daniella and Levi said that they liked having the freedom to express their ideas while they were challenged by the task of representing both sides fairly and equally. Ultimately, they came to recognize the value of oral history in its own right, and to question our predisposition to automatically trust the written word.