As we hinted at earlier this week, throughout the semester we’ll be featuring posts from students in our capstone course, HIS499 Senior Seminar. Posts are taken (with students’ permission) from the seminar journals in which students will weekly reflect on their research projects, or questions related to the philosophy and methodology of history. For their first journal entry, students took a first attempt at stating their research question or thesis, and then explained why they find the topic intriguing, exciting, challenging, etc.

Our inaugural post comes from Jon Steen (’12), whose choice of topic reflects his experience last fall studying in Ghana.

Kwame Nkrumah Stamp
1989 Soviet stamp featuring Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972)

RESEARCH QUESTION: What was the role and impact of Kwame Nkrumah in the Cold War as a non-aligned figure?

This topic is exciting to me for two reasons. First, the world is becoming more global every day, so it is becoming more and more necessary to actually look at history beyond what is immediately in front of us. I know that one’s own history is vital for one’s identity, but there is something to speak to about opening one’s boundaries and stepping out of one’s comfort zone and historical tradition. With the world being more connected, it is becoming more imperative to begin to incorporate other traditions, so that everyone can better understand one another. To the surprise of many Westerners, the world does not operate the Western way. It makes sense in Western nations, but when these ideas are taken out of its original context, they are unsuccessful and counterproductive. Instead of imagining our viewpoint everywhere, we should be more open to hearing and understanding how other cultures view the world. It will break the communication barrier and better humanity. I can only look to doing this with history, since that is what interests me the most.

There are problems to approaching this paper concerning Ghana and Kwame Nkrumah within a Western setting. The biggest one is the conception of history within both societies. The Western tradition looks to rebuild the past so that we can understand precisely what we did right and wrong to move into the future and not repeat our failures. Ghanaian culture does not even have a word that is the equivalent of the word “history.” Their tradition is not like the West, for they look to tell stories of the past to which they can better understand the world they currently are living in. It is not about historical accuracy, but about historical meaning. Since this paper is dealing with modern times and is taken within the Western context, I am alright with working through the Western concept of history, but I will certainly be making notes throughout my paper to better complement how a Ghanaian would view what I am writing.

JFK and Kwame Nkrumah, 1961
John F. Kennedy and Kwame Nkrumah, March 1961 - Kennedy Library

The second reason is to do something radically different than what other Bethel-ites have done in the past. The most common area of focus for Bethel history majors is something involving Minnesota history. It is good to look into this area to better understand ourselves, but honestly it seems that it has been covered so many times by other people that it sounds rather boring to me. I want to pave the way for future Bethel students to think beyond their immediate context and look into a world where other cultures are respected equally with their own.

As far as personal experience goes, I feel quite prepared to take on this task. I have had four months in Ghana to witness first-hand how they view the world and what their perception of history is. I have also heard and read a lot about Kwame Nkrumah, since he is Ghana’s biggest national hero, and there is plenty written about him. However, what will make this a challenge is getting primary source material. As far as this aspect of the paper goes, I am not fully prepared to take on such a task. I have to do some research and see if I can find anything online about his or his staff’s personal writings. But I do know that there have been numerous correspondences with key Cold War players and Nkrumah, such as Kennedy, Khrushchev, Tito, and Mao. Perhaps these may be available online as well. So I have an idea of what primary source material I can work with, but the actual material may be difficult to access from Minnesota. I am certainly not worried about secondary source material; there are plenty of resources that can play into my topic. But I am excited for the challenge and am prepared to put the necessary work into this paper!

– Jon Steen

Read the next entry in this series>>

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