Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Borders African History Paradigm

Over the week-end, I went browsing through Blackwell’s Bookshop, looking for an OS Map.  Of course, I couldn’t pass the history section without taking a look, and a quick glance confirmed that what I call the Borders African History Paradigm spans the Atlantic. 
If you look at the U.S. history section in most bookshops in the United States, you’ll see that the Revolution, westward expansion, the Civil War, the Depression, the Second World War and the Vietnam War all come in for sustained treatment.  Turn to British history, and you’ll generally see some books about the Celts, several royal biographies (generally Queen Elizabeth I, Henry VIII or one of his wives, Queen Victoria), something on Churchill, Niall Ferguson’s latest act of neoliberal cheerleading, several books about Churchill, a title or two on the Empire (Hochschild’s Bury the Chains usually features), and possibly a Churchill book or two thrown in for good measure.
Turn to the Africa section (generally a sliver of a single shelf to cover a continent roughly 125 times the size of the United Kingdom), and you’ll find that history loses its conventional meaning.  As a rule, you’ll find a book on Nelson Mandela, at least one other title grappling with whether contemporary South Africa has lived up to expectations, something on Darfur, something on the Congo, John Reader’s biography of the continent, Meredith’s Fate of Africa, one older account by a European explorer, perhaps a more contemporary travelogue, one of Alexandra Fuller’s memoirs, two books on Robert Mugabe, and several books about Palestine/Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iraq that got misplaced by some geographically illiterate shelf-stocker.  It’s very much the same in Britain.
The paucity of historical material on Africa readily available is no accident.  When people think about Africa, they think of some modern-day catastrophe, not any tradition of history.  Thus ‘History’ becomes ‘Current Events’.  And because we are being steadily conditioned, through test-oriented curricula in school and through vacuous political conversations in the public-sphere, to repudiate cause-and-effect where our own history (and particularly our foreign policy) is concerned, it’s no wonder few people stop to wonder about the longer trajectory of African history.
It seems a cliché of teaching African history that on the first day you throw out quotations from Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, in which the worthy German philosopher has the following to say about the continent: “At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again.  For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit...What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature” (99).  If only Hegel could have been so concise elsewhere!  I’ve GSId for two African history surveys, and both have used the Hegel reading.  I’ve used it twice myself in teaching history courses, and I often use the quotation to get middle- and high-schoolers thinking about ownership of history.  It’s an easy tool to use to get students to show what we’re up against (sometimes I almost think it’s too easy).
But it is really necessary.  In my high school sophomore World History course (surprisingly progressive when most neighbouring schools were still teaching European history, and at a campus where, by mutual consent, the biology teachers left out the Theory of Evolution), my teacher got to the Africa chapter and said, “Oh, we’ll skip this.  Africa doesn’t have any history”.  This wasn’t in the 1960s when Oxford don Hugh Trevor-Roper echoed Hegel’s noxious sentiments, but in 2002! 
So if a student or parent or critical-minded community member, worried by such a flippant dismissal of a continent’s history (something I would guess is cringingly common in such courses), goes to their local Barnes & Noble, Borders (while it lasts) or Blackwell’s, they will be confronted by a real dearth of serious history.  Everything they could read will either confirm the public message of an absence of history prior to the late-twentieth century, or else offer a rose-tinted view of white apartheid-style regimes on the continent. 
In a way, this is all an explanatory note for a post I’m hoping to put up in the next couple of days about a Vanity Fair article titled Agony and Ivory, which is about elephant poaching and the ivory trade in Africa.
Goodness knows that a lot of good scholarly African history is written with all the style of an economics textbook, but there are some gems out there, and I offer a few of my favourites for consideration.
As far as textbook histories go, Kevin Shillington’s History of Africa is probably the best, although the abovementioned book by John Reader is written with more style.
For the continent’s rich pre-1800 history:
Kairn Klieman’s “The Pygmies were our Compass”: Bantu and Batwa in the History of West Central Africa, Early Times to c. 1900 C.E. 
Said Hamdun and Noel King’s edited Ibn Battuta in Black Africa.
John Thornton’s The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatrix Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706.
Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali
Laura Mitchell’s Belongings: Property, Family and Identity in Colonial South Africa, 1725-1830.
For the European colonial era:
Frederick Cooper’s Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa or his On the African waterfront: urban disorder and the transformation of work in colonial Mombasa.
Landeg White’s Magomero: Portrait of an African Village
Shula Marks’ Not Either an Experimental Doll: The Separate Worlds of Three South African Women
Michael Crowder’s The Flogging of Phineas McIntosh: A Tale of Colonial Folly and Injustice, Bechuanaland 1993.
Joe Lunn’s Memoirs of the Maelstrom: A Senegalese Oral History of the First World War
Lynn Thomas’ Politics of the Womb: Women, Reproduction, and the State in Kenya


  1. yes!! thank you!! i almost completely avoid bookstores because of stuff like this. it's just depressing.

    i'd also add luise white's "speaking with vampires" to the colonial list, because not only is it good history but, you know, vampires. the kids love vampires these days.

  2. Yeah, I periodically get the urge to confront bookshop staff and say, 'Excuse me, you've mis-categorised ALL of these books. This one can go under "travel", these ones under "current events", these under "fantasy and horror" and this one through the paper shredder.

    Ah, yes, I love that book (and THE COMFORTS OF HOME), although it also makes me laugh for some reason.