Confronting Europe’s Past

Hello! My name is Kat and I have been writing for the DIS blog for just over a month now. So far, I have written extensively about my introduction to the city of Copenhagen and the first session course I took. This week, I am doing a breakdown of everything I have been working on during the past few weeks of my second session class. I have been taking Postcolonial Europe: Narratives, Nationalism, and Race, a course about how Denmark and other European countries look at and teach about their colonial past. We are studying how to approach what decolonization means and how Europe’s colonial power continues today. 

Like most second session courses, the class is taken over the course of three weeks with the second week including a study tour where you travel to another country to learn on-the-ground in a manner that expands beyond the borders of your home and host countries. My class just came back from Belgium and France, where we were taking tours and visiting colonial-era landmarks in Brussels and Marseille. Despite the heavy subject matter, I think the best part of the class is that it does challenge and expose students to the kind of histories that are not typically taught in schools. I had previously taken a Postcolonial Literature class at my university and I wanted to be able to continue researching postcolonial theory and how to become more aware of decolonial movements here.

‘Porte de Namur ! – Porte de l’Amour ?’ by Chéri Samba; the first contemporary African art installation in Brussels

I thought the study tour was absolutely magnificent, mostly because we were able to connect with so many people who have lineage from or memories of French or Belgium former colonies. That kind of geographically or ancestral connection is one of the keys in working on undoing Europe’s colonial hold. I especially loved Brussels where we got to tour The Royal Museum for Central Africa. A lot of the collection in the museum still holds a lot of nostalgia and honor for the rule of King Leopold, who created the Congo Free State in 1885 and is responsible for one of the worst cases of colonial rule in Europe’s history. The museum seemed to be family and child friendly, which is a huge step away from the actual horrors of Belgium’s rule in the Congo. It was my professor, Ditte-Marie Egebjerg, who had actually been to the museum multiple times and called ahead for the tour guide we had who was extremely upfront about his dissatisfaction with the museum’s narrative of alternative history that glossed over the dark history of Europe’s colonization of Africa.

Photo from the “mineral room” in the Central Africa museum. Most of the rocks, minerals, or jewels coming from Africa today continue to be taken due to exploitative measures by European countries.

That’s what I have really admired so far about the class: we can be sensitive about the material we are learning but it has been our effort to confront the past in honest ways that don’t ignore it or glamorize it. My experience in Marseille was also similar with a tour guide there who shared rich descriptions of Africa’s influences over architecture, food, art, etc., that had entered into French society through colonization and subsequent migration and hybridisation of those from former colonies (especially Algeria) who came to Marseille after the French-Algerian war and Algerian independence. He was making sure that we knew the true sources of where culture has originated in a country like France and how it got there. 

Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Marseille – architecture in the Byzantine style originating from near Egypt
Street art in Le Panier, a vibrant strip of neigborhood in Marseille.

It’s a lot different from my last class, where we spent most of our time in casual conversation about food and Denmark’s national identity. This Postcolonial Europe course requires a lot of respect for the material and a lot of responsibility from the student to make sure that you are putting forth our best effort. A lot of my classmates haven’t studied colonialism before which has been really nice because it is an approachable class where we are all coming together to try to be more socially and historically aware about Denmark and the countries in Europe who have played a role in colonialism. My professor has been so wonderful and sensitive with the material we are learning which has made it my best class so far and something I can absolutely see myself studying more in the future.

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