Exploring the Culture and Arts of Africa: A Survey of the Literature

This guide is intended to provide you with an introduction and high-level overview of some of the key resources for study of the arts and humanities in Africa.

Africa at Boston University:

The African Studies Center, a teaching and research institute at Boston University, was established in 1953 in response to increased interest on campus and nationwide in the emerging independent nations of Africa. It is now a federally funded national resource center for the study of Africa. The interests of its students and faculty have traditionally been strongest in the social sciences, particularly history, anthropology, political science and economics, although the humanities have by no means been neglected.

The African Studies Library was originally a departmental library, founded the same year as the Center. From the beginning there was close cooperation with the BU library system, and when the Mugar library building was constructed, the African Studies Library moved into new, expanded space. Now a collection of over 160,000 volumes covering the entire continent and all subject areas, the African Studies Library serves the curriculum and research needs of the Boston area, and supports research on Africa nationally and internationally. The strengths of the collection reflect the interests of the students and faculty of the African Studies Center, with considerable supplemental strength in the humanities to support the occasional courses and projects in the literature, art, music and other humane subjects, as well as the research of those outside the BU community.

Setting the Stage: Essential Background Information

Any study of the arts and humanities in Africa should include at least a basic understanding of the geography, history and current status of the country or countries involved. Africa is a continent with over 50 sovereign states, each with a variety of language and ethnic groups, each with a history and culture which includes, but long predates, colonization by European powers. The literature, art, and music of the continent reflect these national contexts.

ASL staff usually recommend that researchers begin with the “Research Triad”:

Africa South of the Sahara (AFR ST DT351 .F71) , an annual reference book published by Europa in London. For each African nation in Sub-Saharan Africa, this work contains brief essays on the geography, recent history and contemporary economy, a compendium of general statistics and a directory of government and private sector organizations, as well as a short bibliography. The North African nations are covered in a companion volume, The Middle East and North Africa (Mugar DS43 F49).

The Atlas of Africa (AFR ST G2445 .J4M) was published in Paris by Jeune Afrique in 1973. Although now considerably out of date, this remains the best atlas of the continent of Africa available. A more recent edition, smaller, with text in French, and maps of inferior quality, is far from a satisfactory replacement. Particularly useful are the continent-wide maps illustrating historical events as well as physical, social, and economic geographical features.

The African Historical Dictionary Series, and the World Bibliographical Series supplement this “triad”. They can be found by doing a title search on “Historical Dictionary of [country name], or “World Bibliographical Series”, then limiting to the name of the country as Word in Title.

Indexes to published information about Africa are far from satisfactory. Increasingly Africana is made available through various databases and digital collections. Our own library catalog serves as an index of sorts, but seeking out print bibliographies can be helpful as well:

The annual Africa Bibliography (AFR ST Z3501 .A32) indexes over 700 journals for articles dealing with Africa.

The quarterly International African Bibliography ( Z3503 .F71) most recent in ASL, earlier volumes in the stacks, indexes books and conference proceedings as well as journals.

A Current Bibliography on African Affairs (AFR ST Z3501 .F625) , has considerably less breadth of coverage than the two British publications, but includes useful bibliographic essays and some book reviews.

For many years, Yvette Scheven, formerly Africana bibliographer at the University of Illinois, compiled the thorough and extremely useful Bibliographies for African Studies, which have various publishers and call numbers, cover the years from 1970 to 1993. Reference Guide to Africa : a Bibliography of Sources (AFR ST Z3501 .K15 1999) by Al Kagan and Yvette Scheven, update her earlier works.

Quarterly Index to Periodical Literature, Eastern and Southern Africa published by the Nairobi Field Office of the Library of Congress, offers the only full scale, reliable indexing of African journals. Other national or regional efforts have been sporadic and short-lived. The elecronic version is based in Nairobi, and is sometimes difficult to access. The Library also receives the print version (Z3503.Q38), latest in ASL, earlier volumes in the stacks.

ASL has produced several guides to Web and other electronic resources for the study of Africa; The broadest is Guide to using Web Resources for the Study of Africa. Others include Women’s Issues in Africa, and Archives and Primary Resources for the Study of Africa: Research Strategies and Web Resources.

Despite these Web resources, anyone doing research on Africa will be missing a great deal of vital information if they ignore the books and print journals in the library’s collection.

The People and Their Languages

Depending on how one defines the boundaries between one language or ethnic group and another, there are some 2,000 languages spoken in Africa, each the mother tongue of a distinct ethnic group. (Please note the terminology. People in Africa cannot be described as being members of “tribes” or speaking “dialects” any more than I can be correctly described as a member of the Pennsylvania Dutch “tribe”, speaking the English “dialect”. “Ethnic conflict” in the former Yugoslavia, “religious strife” in Northern Ireland and “tribal warfare” in Rwanda all mean the same thing: people of different ethnicities, languages, religions or beliefs killing each other for reasons no outsider can understand.)

Identifying, classifying, and describing African languages can be difficult. The phonetics themselves are difficult for most speakers of European languages. Sometimes the same language seems to have several different names. This is often the result of the differing ways Europeans have heard the language name, as well as language or ethnic names for one group supplied by a neighbor. Often the name used by a neighbor (friend or foe) can be pejorative, but nevertheless enters the ethnographic or linguistic literature and is hard to correct. To compound these inherent difficulties, there are theoretical differences among scholars of African linguistics. Library of Congress subject headings, and our own ongoing authority work attempt to bring the researcher and the published information together, no matter how the literature or the researcher refers to a language or ethnic group.

There are several standard reference works on languages and ethnic groups:

George P. Murdock’s Africa: Its Peoples and Their Culture History (AFR ST DT20 F59). A professor of Anthropology at Yale and founder of the Human Relations Area Files, Murdock compiled this handbook from existing published sources because he could find no other satisfactory outline of the peoples of Africa.

The Ethnographic Survey of Africa, published in London by the International African Institute in the mid-1950s, is an enormous multi-volume work which brings together ethnographic studies of African peoples. Parts of it have recently been reprinted. This extensive work can be browsed at GN 643 F50, on the fourth floor.

Greenberg’s The Languages of Africa (PL 8005 F63) hypothesizes five major “families” of African languages, and is considered the classic work on the classification of African languages.

Derek Fivaz and Patricia Scott’s African Languages: A Genetic and Decimilised Classification for Bibliographic and General Reference (AFR ST Z 697 A33 F58) attempts to reconcile Greenberg, H. E. Bliss, Dewey, Library of Congress and the Universal Decimal System.

Michael Mann and David Dalby’s A Thesaurus of African Languages: A Classified and Annotated Inventory of the Spoken Languages of Africa, with an Appendix on their Written Representation (AFR ST PL 8005 M36 1987) is a departure from traditional classification, attempting to show relationships between languages based on the perceptions of their speakers. The orthographic devices, font style and peculiar convention of putting the entire text in lower case detracts from the utility of this major work.

Ethnologue: Languages of the World (AFT ST P 371 E83) lists languages geographically, by continent and country, with statistics of speakers. This is also available on the Web.

The African Studies Library has always collected extensively in works in and about African languages, even before the African Studies Center undertook the teaching of African languages in 1978. Dictionaries, grammars, linguistic studies and readers and general works in the languages are collected. A sampling of the collection is on display for this class. Browsing the shelves of the African languages and literature section (PL 8000 – PL 8800; Arabic: PJ 6000-8499; Ethiopian languages: PJ 8991-9290; and Somalian languages: PJ 2531-2551) reveals some of the extent of the collection. Works on African languages can be found in the catalog under the subject heading “African Languages”, or the name of the individual language. African languages may be referred to by different names. For instance, “Fulani” is a name frequently used to indicate a language spoken in Nigeria and several other countries of West Africa, but the name used by native speakers, and as a library subject heading, is “Fula”. A subject search in the catalog nder “Fulani Language” will lead you to “Fula Language”. African Language Materials in the Boston University Libraries (AFR ST Z 7106 A55 1988) is a guide to this library’s holdings.

ASL does not collect much in the way of archival resources – letters, papers, etc., but we do occasionally purchase such collections that are preserved on microfilm. One such acquisition is the Yoruba collection of William and Berta Bascom, two anthropologists and folklorists who did extensive work among the Yoruba people of West Africa, principally Nigeria. The guide to this collection is: The Yoruba Collection of William and Berta Bascom from the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Guide to the Microfiche Edition. (AFR ST DT 515.45 Y67 Y65) The microfiche set is in the Microfroms Library in the basement of Mugar Library.

Many African nations have chosen to keep the former colonial language (English, French or Portuguese) as a national language or language of commerce and government.

Literature and Oral Traditions

Africa’s literary traditions are long and rich, whether one counts only written works or includes folklore, oral historical and literary epics, and praise poetry. There have been three African Nobel prizewinners for literature: Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka in 1986 (most of his works can be found at PR 9387.9 S6), Egypt’s Najiib Mahfuz in 1988 (most of his works can be found at PJ 7846 A46. Note the various spellings of his name), and South Africa’s Nadine Gordimer in 1991 (most of her works can be found at PR 9369 G6).

Our collection of African folklore is shelved mainly in the range GR 350 – GR 360 on the fourth floor. The collection includes the renditions of African folklore by members of the culture that produced it, works carefully collected and transcribed by scholars, “popularized” recastings of translations, and works intended to point out the “quaint” or “backward” beliefs of “natives”. It’s a mixed bag, and the uninitiated needs some guidance. Guides to folklore and oral traditions include:

Harold Scheub’s African Oral Narratives, Proverbs, Riddles, Poetry, and Song (AFR ST Z 5984 A35 S3 1977), a comprehensive and meticulous bibliography. This author has written extensively on African folkore.

A few useful studies of African folklore include:

Isidore Okpewho’s African Oral Literature : Backgrounds, Character, and Continuity (GR350 .O37 1992)

Ruth H. Finnegan’s Oral Literature in Africa (PL 8010 .F5 1976)

Forms of Folklore in Africa : Narrative, Poetic, Gnomic, Dramatic, edited by Bernth Lindfors. (GR 350 F67)

Checking the catalog under subject headings such as “Folklore, Africa”, and “Folk Literature, Africa” will yield more works, which may be classified in GR, PL, DT, or Z.

Modern African writing, either in African languages or in former colonial languages, is beginning to be recognized in international circles. Besides the Nobel Laureates mentioned above, African writers have received literary awards world wide, and some are now found on American bookshelves. Most readers, however, need guides to African literature, and there are many at hand to help them explore this field.

A standby for many years has been A New Reader’s Guide to African Literature, edited by Hans M. Zell, Carol Bundy and Virginia Coulon (AFT ST PN 849 A35 Z44 1983). This book gives capsule biographies of hundreds of African writers, along with lists of their published works and citations to reviews and criticism. The work has been updated in a different format by Douglas Killam and Ruth Rowe: The Companion to African Literatures (AFR ST PR9340 .C65 2000).

Another work, African Writers, edited by C. Brian Cox, has collected essays by leading scholars of African literature that combine biography, bibliography and critical review of 65 major African writers. (AFR ST PL 8010 A453 1997)

For several decades Bernth Lindfors has compiled extensive bibliographies of books and articles dealing with African literature. His series, Black African Literature in English (Z3508.L5 L564-) spans the 1970s through the 1990s.

John D. Erickson’s Nommo : African Fiction in French South of the Sahara (AFR ST PQ 3984 E27) is an English language guide to Francophone African literature.

Gerald M. Moser’s A New Bibliography of the Lusophone Literatures of Africa (AFR ST Z3874 L5 M595 1993) is a guide to African literature written in Portuguese.

The literature itself and more guides and critical works can be found using the subject headings “African Literature (English)”, “African Literature (French)”, and “African Literature (Portuguese)”, and by browsing the shelves in the classifications: PR 9340-9408 (English); PQ 3980-3989 (French); and PQ 9900-9950 (Portuguese)

African literary creativity is not limited to writing in the former colonial languages. Choice of language is, indeed an important issue. A useful study of this matter is

David Westley’s Choice of Language and African Literature : A Bibliographic Essay (P 119.32 A35 W47 1990).

Most vocal of the African writers in the debate over choice of language is Ngugi wa Thiongo, whose book, Decolonising the Mind : the Politics of Language in African Literature (PL 8010 N48 1986), makes a forceful argument for writing in African languages.

A guide to works in African languages is:

Albert S. Gerard’s African Language Literatures : an Introduction to the Literary History of Sub-Saharan Africa (PL 8010 G47 1981m)

Works in and about African language literatures can be found using the subject heading “African Literature”, and by browsing the shelves in the PL 8000 – PL 8800 range.

Among the many journals dealing with African literature in any language, the most respected is Research in African Literatures () RAL is also available online via .

Popular Culture, Film, and the Media

There is a subtle but pervasive assumption that African culture is “traditional”, connected to an exotic past, and thus somehow distinct from the modern (i.e. “Western”) world. Just as the study of African literature is not simply the study of folklore, the study of African music, art, and other cultural expressions is not the just study of ethnomusicology, primitive art, etc. Nor is popular culture in Africa simply the importation of Western entertainment along with Western technology. It’s important to look at popular culture in Africa as part of a survey of the literature of the humanities.

Two excellent introductions to Africa’s popular culture are:

Readings in African Popular Culture, edited by Karin Barber. (PL 8010 R43 1997)

Signs & Signals : Popular Culture in Africa, edited by Raoul Granqvist. (PR 9340 S58 1990)

Theatre is a widespread expression of popular culture. Two excellent introductions are:

David Kerr’s African Popular Theatre from Pre-Colonial Times to the Present Day. (PN 2969 K47 1995)

The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre. Volume 3: Africa. (AFT ST PN 1861 W67 1994 V. 3)

West Africa has a particularly rich heritage of theatre. A good study is:

West African Popular Theatre by Karin Barber, John Collins, and Alain Ricard (PN 2979 B37 1997)

South Africa’s theatrical scene is well presented in:

David B. Coplan’s In Township Tonight! : South Africa’s Black City Music and Theatre. (ML 350 C6 2008)

A bibliography of works on African theatre is:

John Gray’s Black Theatre and Performance: A Pan-African Bibliography. (AFR ST Z5784 B56 G7 1990)

Film has become an important medium for African creative expression. A good study is:

Manthia Diawara’s African Cinema : Politics & Culture. (PN 1993.5 A35 D5 1992)

A comprehensive bibliography is:

Nancy J. Schmidt’s Sub-Saharan African Films and Filmmakers, 1987-1992 : An Annotated Bibliography (AFR ST Z 5784 M9 S32 1994)

Two bibliographies to literature dealing with African media are:

Gretchen Walsh’s The Media in Africa and Africa in the Media : an Annotated Bibliography. (AFR ST Z 5634 A4 W35 1996)

Carol Lems-Dworkin’s Videos of African and African-Related Performance : an Annotated Bibliography (AFR ST CB 235 L46 1996)

Two major journals dealing with popular culture and media in Africa are: Africa Media Review (P 92 A35 A37) and Critical Arts (P 87 C77)

Works on popular culture in Africa are scattered through several classification areas. They can by found in the catalog by starting with the subject heading “Popular Culture Africa”. Works on African cinema can be found under “Motion Pictures Africa”, and on African theatre under “Theater Africa”. Substitute country names for “Africa” or browse through to find works which are geographically focused.


As mentioned earlier, African music spans “traditional” musical forms most often studies by ethnomusicologists through modern popular forms. Two excellent comprehensive introductions are:

The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Volume 1: Africa (AFR ST ML 100 G16 1998)

Ronnie Graham’s Stern’s Guide to Contemporary African Music. (AFR ST ML 3502.5 G7 1988) , updated by The World of African Music ( AFR ST ML 3502.5 .G73 1992)

Two bibliographies are:

John Gray’s African Music : A Bibliographical Guide to the Traditional, Popular, Art, and Liturgical Musics of Sub-Saharan Africa (Music Library Ref ML 120 A35 G7 1991)

Carol Lems-Dworkin’s African Music : a Pan-African Annotated Bibliography (AFR ST ML 120 A35 L4 1991)

Two introductions to popular music across Africa are:

Chris Stapleton’s African All-Stars : the Pop Music of a Continent (ML 3760 S73 1987)

Sean Barlow’s Afropop! : An Illustrated Guide to Contemporary African Music. (Ml 3502.9 B37 1995)

Works on African music and be found in the catalog under the heading “Music Africa” and “Musical Instruments Africa”, substituting country names for “Africa” as appropriate.


As with literature, music and popular culture, African art is often thought of as exotic: masks and traditional religious carvings, or design incorporated into everyday utensils, rather than in the Western concept of fine arts. This is not entirely the case, but accurate analysis of African art or not, this concept should not in anyway detract from the recognition of African art as a real and vibrant expression of ideas and aesthetics.

Two introductions to African art are:

Robert Brain’s Art and Society in Africa (DT 14 B7)

Frank Willett’s African Art : an Introduction (N 7380 W55 1993)

An excellent bibliography of African art is:

Janet Stanley’s The Arts of Africa : An Annotated Bibliography. (AFR ST Z 5961 A35 A78-)

Subject headings for African art are straightforward: “Art African” and “Arts African”.