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African and African-American intellectuals long sought to counter primitivizing ideologies of their times by pointing to narratives of African state building. The real breakthrough in writing African history occurred as colonial rule was crumbling and the quest for a usable past – notably a usable national past – attracted young scholars in Africa and beyond. If the 1960s witnessed an emphasis on the particularity of African societies, disillusionment with Africa’s present brought about a wider consideration of its past, especially the ways the slave trade and colonization constrained the continent’s possibilities. Scholars attempt to document varied forms of imagination and communication, of networks and institutions, in different temporal and spatial frameworks.
- Africa and the World
- A New Past for a New Future
- Reconnecting Africa and the World
- The Peculiarities of Disciplinary Divisions of Labor
- Multiple Perspectives on a Varied Continent
The first task African historians had to accomplish was to show that African history actually existed. Scholars in Europe and North America had long treated Africa as the embodiment of the primitive and the traditional. In the early twentieth century, a more sophisticated version of anthropology began to treat Africa as a laboratory of social specificity, where forms of social organization could be compared as if each were bounded and timeless. As Africa’s subordination to European powers came under increasing attack in the late 1940s, intellectuals inside and outside Africa began to argue that rethinking Africa’s past was a necessary part of its future.
The idea of a usable past – specifically a usable national past – was African history’s strength and its weakness in the 1960s. Asserting that history could be studied scientifically was part of a new politics of intellectual inquiry. Pioneering studies stressed the dynamism of precolonial societies; resistance to conquest was a harbinger of nationalist movements. But by the 1970s, a more complicated present was leading to a more complicated past, above all to new ways of thinking about Africa’s relationship to the rest of the world and the implications of this relationship for historical writing. Yet the time frame for considering the emergence of African history needs to be pushed back even further, and its spatial dimension – the definition of Africa, the relationship of its constituent social and political units, and the significance of the continent to Africans in the Americas – need examination as well. The period after independence is just beginning to be the focus of historical inquiry.
Africa and the World
Africa was in part an invention of its diaspora, a unit that became of world-historical significance because slave traders – from the sixteenth century – defined it as a place where one could legitimately develop commerce in human beings. Over time, enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas began to appreciate the commonality of their fate and many looked to ‘Africa’ as an almost mythic symbol of their being something more than chattel. Certain nineteenth century African-American religious leaders looked toward ‘Africa’ and ‘Ethiopia’ (although few slaves came from that kingdom), and through such language asserted Africans’ important place in a universal history – in the unfolding of Christian civilization. As some people of African descent returned to the continent in the nineteenth century – repatriated ex-slaves to the British colony of Sierra Leone, Brazilian traders in the Bight of Benin or Angola – some saw themselves as part of broad, transatlantic ‘nations’, sharing ancestry and culture but needing Christianity to link a torn-apart past to a reintegrated future (Matory, 1999; Hawthorne, 2010; Peel, 2003; Ferreira, 2012).
By the late nineteenth century, Africans from coastal societies – Christian, Western educated, but integrated into regional social organizations – began to write about their own regions in terms that linked different historical sensibilities. Africanus Horton (1868), Edward Wilmot Blyden (1887), and J. E. Casely-Hayford (1903) countered the primitivizing ideologies of the eras of the slave trade and colonization by describing African societies as complex entities whose traditions of origin defined commonality, whose ideas about kingship and social hierarchy defined political order, and whose interest in commerce with the outside world, in Christianity and Islam, and in Western education marked an open, adaptable attitude to interaction. Africans, they thought, had much to learn from Muslims and Christians, but they brought their own ideas of statecraft and of economic organization to the encounter as well.
The period of escalating European exploration and eventual conquest (from the 1870s to 1910s) brought to African contradictory regards. Some explorers encountered powerful kingdoms whose power they had to respect; others recognized in the impressive mosques of the West African desert edge or the East African coast a history of a long encounter of Africans with the outside world; but many chose to see an unchanging landscape of different peoples ensconced in their particular cultures. The culturally mixed inhabitants of West Africa coastal region were marginalized by colonization; the worldwide connections of African Muslims were played down in favor of their ‘tribal’ characteristics.
After some efforts toward remaking African societies in a European image – the ‘civilizing mission’ – colonial regimes began to hitch their legitimacy to the chiefs whose authority toward their subjects colonial rulers needed. With that, the idea of ‘tradition’ as the essential quality of African life acquired a new salience in colonial ideologies. Colonial regimes – and scholars and intellectuals of that era – were interested in ‘customary law’, in ‘folklore’, and in ‘primitive art’. The growth of African ethnography in the 1920s brought to the continent foreign scholars curious about the diversity of social forms and sympathetic to victims of colonial oppression, but their emphasis on the bounded integrity of each African ‘society’ was for the most part ahistorical (Conklin, 1997; Sibeud, 2002).
A New Past for a New Future
Even within the ethnic cages of colonial polities, consciousness of the past did not necessarily remain static. Some early mission converts used their literacy in French or English to record genealogies and traditions of ‘their’ people – using the legitimacy of ‘European’ writing to articulate indigenous views of the past and to emphasize the integrity of local society (Peterson, 2004). Such histories were sometimes invoked to make claims for collective representation in state-sanctioned councils. Activists linked to international political organizations – pan-Africanist, communist, or otherwise – saw Africa as a once-dynamic continent severely damaged by an oppression they shared with people of color throughout the world, a situation which required liberation movements on a global scale (DuBois, 1946).
The burst of interest in African history after World War II thus has a deeper context. The break, however, was fundamental. In the aftermath of a devastating war against Naziism, European states needed simultaneously to justify their rule over African peoples and to intensify their use of African resources. The challenges to colonial legitimacy and control – from within and outside African colonies – and the increased intrusiveness of regimes into African social and economic life has made this a fascinating period for historical investigation (Cooper, 1996). Even at the time, scholars and intellectuals wondered whether the conception of bounded and static units made sense of the Africa they were observing. Although a few anthropologists had seen in the 1930s that migration, for example, was redefining the nature of social connections, by the 1950s, population movement, cross-cultural interaction, and cultural adaptation demanded scholarly analysis. Meanwhile, the anthropologist Melville Herskovits (1944, 1958) was asking what Africans’ experience of governing indigenous kingdoms had to offer to Africa’s political future and he was pointing to the influence, via the long history of the slave trade, of African cultures on the New World.
That African polities could be a model for the future was not a possibility for most African political elites – and almost all social scientists – wanted to think about; the 1950s witnessed the escalation of claims from African social movements to be considered part of the ‘modern’ world and to enjoy the possibilities it entailed, irrespective of race or a past of colonization or enslavement. Social scientists took more interest in where history was supposed to end – ‘modernity’ – than where people had been. Even Georges Balandier’s (1951) insightful analysis of the ‘colonial situation’ had limited echoes in subsequent years.
Academic historians, the professional custodians of the past, were part of the postwar political and intellectual ferment. The first African PhD in history K.O. Dike of Nigeria was trained by historians of imperial expansion, but he told a different sort of story, one of the interactions among traders, rulers, and warriors, both African and European, in the Niger Delta, and of the adaptation of African social institutions to new forms of competition in the nineteenth century. Dike (1956, based on a 1949 dissertation) insisted that oral sources could be used alongside written ones, although most of his own work was archival. At one level, his work staked itself on using the canonical methods of European history to a different end; at another, his insistence that the locus of history could be found in Africa itself – that interaction was more important than transmission – was a charter for nationalist history.
The next generation of European-trained African historians went further in this direction, and many stressed explicitly that the preconquest past was a precedent for the postindependence future, showing how Africans had brought diverse populations into larger political units, how African initiative in agriculture and commerce had linked ecologically distinct regions with each other and with the outside world, how indigenous religious leaders had built networks that transcended ethnic frontiers, and how Africans had adapted Islam to particular political and cultural purposes (Ranger, 1968).
The quest for a usable past was a strength because it attracted a younger generation of Africans to believe that they could combine international scholarship with a sense of the past they had learned in their own communities and because it allowed Americans and Europeans to come to grips with the way in which the end of colonial empires had forced a reordering of intellectual categories. It was also a weakness because the political context privileged ‘state building’ over the diverse strategies of women and men, traders and religious figures to live their lives in different ways, and this both diminished a varied past and ratified an increasingly authoritarian present within the new African states. The only aspect of colonial history that fitted the bill was ‘resistance’; indeed, some African historians saw the ‘colonial episode’ as a short and not particularly important interval between an autonomous past and an independent future. A consequence of the new historiography, whatever its limitations, was a heightened interest in methodology, to solve the problem of how to reconstruct historical patterns with a paucity of written documentation, much of that from visitors and conquerors. Jan Vansina (1965) helped to develop rigorous criteria for analyzing oral texts with the same critical eye as employed on written ones, and other scholars explored the use of linguistic and archeological material to chart the movements of people, the evolution of material culture, and the spatial configuration of state building.
African historical scholarship was vibrant in the 1960s and 1970s, and the core of the action was in Africa. Every nation had to have a university, every university a history department. Associations and journals were founded; international congresses were held; and UNESCO brought together African authors to write a comprehensive history of the continent (UNESCO, 1981–93).
Reconnecting Africa and the World
Since the 1970s, African historians have become increasingly conscious of the different ways of rethinking the relationship of Africa and the rest of the world. They no longer had to prove that Africa had a history. The mounting evidence that decolonization did not free Africa from its problematic relationship to the world economy raised questions about pasts before and during colonization. Why African polities became caught up in the Atlantic slave trade, how the African presence in the Americas contributed to European wealth, and how African societies coped with unequal trade and unequal politics became topics of increasing interest (Rodney, 1972). French Marxist anthropologists (Meillassoux, 1975) argued that such institutions as kinship systems were not so much the product of a peculiarly African culture but of the logic of reproduction of agricultural societies, and they went from there to posit that the resulting modes of production interacted in particular ways with the expanding capitalist system. Other scholars saw that the question appeared differently if instead of asking how a ‘society’ responded to European traders or rulers one asked how ruling elites reacted. They showed that the strength of internal social groups made rulers look to the manipulation of external relations for power and wealth, and that this made African kingdoms and chiefdoms especially open to external relationships, most disastrously those of the slave trade and later of colonial economies (Peel, 1983). The most recent work on the slave trade emphasizes the intersection of different trading networks – those coming out of African polities seeking external resources with those coming out of Europe that developed to meet the voracious demand for slave labor in the plantations of the Americas from the sixteenth century onward (Green, 2012; Nwokeji, 2010; Heywood and Thornton, 2007).
Historical research allowed not just the use of ‘informants’ to gain information, but the juxtaposition of different kinds of historical sensibilities and the elucidation of how thinking about the past affects and is affected by political processes in the present (Cohen, 1994; White et al., 2001). Oral history revealed different lines of cleavage within African societies, including gender, age, and status. It described not the actions of fixed social groups against each other, but the flexibility of social arrangements, such as the tendency of people detached from kinship groups – through war or efforts to escape patriarchal authority – to form important but unstable groups of clients of ‘big men’. Both oral sources and more nuanced reading of documents reopened the colonial era to historical investigation, not as a history of what white people did for or to Africans but as a dynamic process, in which the limited power of colonizing regimes left numerous fissures where women tried to establish autonomy even as male elders tried to contain it, where labor migrants developed networks linking distant regions, where Christians built independent churches and cults, and where cash-crop producers used their incomes to enhance their kinship groups and chieftaincies. Such histories stand alongside those of expropriation of resources of segregation and discrimination against the most ‘Westernized’ of Africans, of arbitrary authority, and daily oppression under colonial regimes, in their late, ‘reformist’ phases as well as brutal early ones. South Africa’s path to a racialized form of capitalism – with most Africans deprived of access to land and forced to work part of their lives while being treated as members of ‘tribes’ – led to a quite distinct economic structure while carrying invidious distinction making (among Africans and between Africans and whites) to an extreme. South Africa’s deepening of its form of white domination after 1948, just as Britain and France were staking their legitimacy on development and partial acknowledgment of African political voice, marked a parting of the ways. In the end – but only slowly and painfully – the defense of white power in Portuguese, Africa, Rhodesia, and South Africa proved impossible as independent states offered models and sanctuaries for rebels and as global norms were transformed.
Studying African history has offered the possibility of thinking about ‘world’ histories in a different way. Rather than seeing Africa as a peculiar place that somehow lacks what made other regions develop more rapidly, one can ask what is particular about each region of the world and what, in the process of interaction, produced inequalities of wealth and power. African historians have been in dialogue with historians of Latin America over economic history and with historians of India over the analysis of colonialism. World history can no longer be seen as a single narrative, but this recognition leaves in place the more difficult question of how is one then to analyze large-scale historical processes. The challenge is to chart the multiple pathways without losing sight of the development of highly unequal political and economic relations on a global scale. Recent work in economic history has cautioned against generalizing about African backwardness, instead emphasizing the unevenness of patterns of economic growth. Africa has experienced growth spurts and periods of retrogression – the 1980s prominent among the latter – and different parts of the continent have followed different trajectories (Jerven, 2010). Such a historical change requires analysis that does not reify ‘Africa’, or ‘Europe’, but focuses on complex relationships over 200 years.
The Peculiarities of Disciplinary Divisions of Labor
In the 1930s, Africa not only had no history; it held no interest for political scientists or sociologists either, and for economists only in the sense the colonial economies had spawned ‘modern’ sectors with certain measurable characteristics. Africa was the domain of anthropologists, the custodians of human particularity, while what was putatively ‘European’ was assimilated to the universal, and that was where social science found its glory. The dramatic challenges to European power in the 1940s and 1950s shook up this division of labor (Pletsch, 1981). The idea of modernization was espoused within colonial bureaucracies before ‘modernization theory’ – in the style of the Committee on Comparative Politics of the Social Science Research Council – came into vogue. It allowed officials to think that even if African colonies became independent, they would follow a road charted out to them by the early developers (Latham, 2000). However much modernization reinscribed global hierarchy, eurocentrism, and teleology, it offered African intellectuals and policy-makers a chance to position themselves as mediators between a perceived Euro– American modernity and diverse African particularities; it gave a language to leaders with which to ask industrial countries for the resources they needed to ‘develop’ and it allowed outsiders to see themselves as forging a world in which people of all races could advance.
American and European political scientists and sociologists flocked for a time to Africa – and their standards of empirical research deserve some of the credit for deflating modernization theory. But after that time, the interest of political scientists, sociologists, and economists in Africa has waned. Anthropologists remain the custodians of African particularity, but now this embraces the complexities of innovation and interaction more than unchanging specificities. Historians, from the 1950s, were the new element in the division of labor, and their work, despite temptations to the contrary, can offer a vision of Africa that stresses change – economic, political, social, and cultural – without confining it to a predetermined route.
Some historians have their version of the modernizing vision. The narrative of African state building from the empire of Sundiata to the empire of Shaka was indeed a selective reading that tied progress to the state. Even the ‘underdevelopment’ school of the 1970s is as a variant of modernizing themes, for its emphasis on how over the long-term European exploitation retarded growth and transformation in African economies presumes a global narrative of capitalist development which Africa is then held to fall under. That Europe’s oppression, not Africa’s backwardness, is held culpable does not negate the inattention to the myriad innovations, struggles, and changes that have occurred within parts of Africa, the importance of regional, not just overseas, mechanisms of exchange and communication, and the ways in which the actions of Africans limited the actions of Europeans, whatever the latters’ intentions (Cooper et al., 1993). Much recent social and economic history bounced off the arguments of the underdevelopment school to develop more varied and more interactive views of change in various periods of African history, including those when European power was seemingly at its height (Berry, 1993).
Multiple Perspectives on a Varied Continent
If Africa is neither a homogeneous space reduced into abject poverty by imperialism nor a series of autonomous societies with their own internal logics, getting a grip on units of analysis is not simple. Rather than take present-day ethnicity as a starting point, some scholars have used concepts of region, of network, and of patron–client relations to see how people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries constituted actual patterns of relationships, which only sometimes crystallized into groups that maintained boundaries (Ambler, 1988; Glassman, 1995; Barry, 1998). Others have emphasized the long-term interconnectedness of different parts of Africa and with other parts of the world: on trade routes and Islamic networks crossing the Sahara (Lydon, 2009), on further connections to Egypt and Arabia, on efforts to build Islamic states within sub-Saharan Africa, and on the ways in which Islamic networks both accommodated to and challenge colonial regimes after the conquest (Robinson, 2000; Hanretta, 2009). Others have examined how African- American missionaries from the 1890s influenced Christianity in South Africa, and how in the 1920s African ports became nodal points in the spread of Garveyite movements across the Atlantic to large parts of Africa (Campbell, 1995). We have learned not only how European states used various coercive means to push Africans – especially younger males – into periods of wage labor away from home, but how Africans themselves developed migratory networks and social institutions to make life in cities, mines, or distant farms more palatable (Manchuelle, 1997). That Africans educated at missions sometimes fought for more voice or control of churches or sought to forge their own social institutions and norms that reflected what they brought to the missionary encounter has become a focus of inquiry (McKittrick, 2003).
Having for some time now moved beyond the need to recuperate a singular African voice, historians have devoted attention to questions of gender, generation, and class – examining both tensions within African societies and connections across social cleavages. Some have argued that colonial rule enforced a view of male and female roles more rigid than had been the case before colonization, but in any case research has revealed struggles – before, during, and after the colonial period – over questions of the norms governing the roles of men and women, young and old (Thomas, 2003). And if slavery, pawnship, manumission, and emancipation have been themes of historical scholarship for some time, more attention is being paid to the ways in which unequal relationships are pushed and pulled from both above and below (Glassman, 1995).
If we circle back to where we began – how national independence shaped the quest for a usable past – we find some historians turning away from their supposed role as organic intellectuals of the nation to point to forms of political affinity that are both sub- and supranational. The politics of the 1940s and 1950s turns out to be more complicated than a quest for the nation in the face of an obdurate colonialism. If some Asante leaders made ‘national’ claims in the same term as the movement of Kwame Nkrumah, those claims were for a different nation – a region of Ghana. Almost all leaders of French Africa in the decade after World War II sought to make French citizenship into a meaningful category and to transform colonial empire into a federation or confederation of equal states, including France (Allman, 1993; Cooper, 2014). Nor were colonial regimes fixed targets. In fact, it was their attempt to regain legitimacy and efficiency that set the stage for an escalation of claim making by African political and social movements that colonial regimes, in the end, could not contain at an acceptable cost.
If the nation-state was not necessarily the aim of political movements in the 1950s, it was what they could get, and the new rulers of Africa largely erased the complexities of postwar political history in order to situate themselves as fathers of the nation. But the quest to complement ‘flag independence’ with projects of national economic development and forging a national culture ran into the problem that elites did not necessarily have the resources to make citizens see the rewards of political participation. Some citizens, particularly youth, were caught between their own desire to participate in a national culture and their interest in transnational cultural tendencies and radical politics that governing elites found threatening (Ivaska, 2011). Scholars are uncovering more diverse and richer forms of imagination and communication among different parts of African populations than opposition of colonizer and colonized, African and European, white and black would suggest (White, 2000).
The Senegalese novelist and filmmaker Ousmanne Sembene accused historians of being ‘chronophages’ – eaters of time. They impose, he insists, a one-dimensional, progressive view of time on the unruliness of people’s experience. Yet the idea that other notions of past give a more varied picture than professional history depends on aggregating different visions of the past – a quintessentially ‘academic’ operation. The griot or the lineage elder may also recount the past to serve narrow, presentist concerns. Historical scholarship has complicated unilinear narratives as well as imposed them.
The doing of history introduces a tension between a historian’s imagination rooted in the present and the fragments of the past that appear in all their elusive vigor, in interviews, letters, newspaper articles, and court records. The data of history are not created neutral or equal: archives preserve certain documents but not others, and the tellers of oral tradition remember some narratives and forget others.
African history has offered a glorious national past that points to a national future, and it has offered an ethnicized past projected backward in time. But history can also be read as process, choice, contingency, and explanation. Since World War II, historical scholarship has provided a sense of the possibilities which mobilization can open up – and an awareness of the constraints that have made and make it so difficult for African states and societies to make their way in the world.
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