Joseph C. Miller
President of the Association, 1998
A paper read before the American Historical Association at its meeting in Washington, D.C., January 8, 1999. Published in the American Historical Review, Vol. 104, No. 1. (Feb., 1999), pp. 1-32.
History and Africa/Africa and History
Historical consciousness in Africa is—of course—quite literally as old as time, but in Europe and the Americas awareness of Africa’s past has dawned only more recently.1 In the United States, African Americans during the nineteenth century first attended to Africans’ pasts in the face of the racialized skepticism of the era. Writing more than a hundred years later as an Africanist historian here in the journal of the American Historical Association for colleagues in all fields, I want to suggest some of the intellectual pathways along which they and their successors have brought Africa within the practice of professional history at the end of the twentieth century and thus what learning to do history in a place as remote—affectively, culturally, geographically, and intellectually—as Africa was for the founders of the historical discipline may reveal about history itself as process and as epistemology. It will become clear that I write of history in a humanistic vein that has become meaningful to me as I have matured—or perhaps merely aged—in our profession, speaking personally with what seems to be an executive privilege that the American Historical Association accords to presidents on this occasion.2 I do so without intent, thereby, to excommunicate colleagues who may balance in other ways the complex combinations of personal insight, techniques of inquiry, research data, engagement with popular memory, and practical application through which historians discern and disseminate meanings in evidence from the past.
The story that follows begins against the familiar background of the birth of the modern discipline of history at the end of the nineteenth century, torn as it was then between theological-philosophical speculation and faith in empirical data as evidence that would satisfy lingering cravings for certainties about the past, confirmed scientifically; both tendencies specifically excluded most of Africa from the human progress that they celebrated. Those whose own lives confirmed that Africans belonged within universal history had to circumvent the exclusionary particularity of the discipline by adapting aspects of other more comprehensive—though also abstract, static, less humanistic—generalizing epistemologies to bring Africa within the realm of academic respectability. From such academically alien beginnings, they only slowly and haltingly restored the humanism, the sense for change, and the sensitivity to contexts of time and place that distinguish history’s way of credibility against knowing. But in relying, faute de mieux, on mythological oral traditions, reified languages, mute archaeological artifacts, and presentist ethnographic descriptions, they tested multiple limits of how they thought as historians. Looking back, their struggles highlight complex balances among several epistemological aspects of historians’ craft: between particularity and generality, theory and data, sequence and chronology, internal subjectivities and unavoidable (whether or not “real”) externalities, and empathetic similarity and curiosity-stimulating (or fear-provoking) differentiation in the relationship between historians and their subjects. I hope to suggest here how bringing Africans within the orbit of historical discipline may remind historians in any field of what is most historical about how we all have come to think.
Africans and African Americans adapted the progressive historiographies current at the end of the nineteenth century to write about Africa, while historians in Europe and the United States were laying out standards of the modern discipline.3 The problem they faced was that, following Hegel, the meta-narrative of the emerging discipline excluded Africa’s past as morally unedifying and methodologically unverifiable, leaving Africans outside its exultation in European superiority as “people without history.”4 The search for an African past sculpted in these progressive terms meant highly selective emphasis on monumental achievements comparable in antiquity, size, and military power to what Europeans then celebrated about their own past.5 They drew, first, on their contemporaries’ appreciation for ancient Egypt and the mysterious lands to the south, some of them biblical—Punt, Nubia, Kush, and Ethiopia or Abyssinia—and sought monumental ruins comparable to what they knew of the “glory that was Rome” and the Egyptian antiquities publicized in the wake of Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of the lower Nile.6 They limited research to written texts, which in Europe’s experience conveyed direct impressions from remote times in relatively unchanged, or reconstructible, forms that met the demanding standards of verifiability emergent in scientific history. But writing also testified to the intelligence of its authors, otherwise suspect as illiterate “natives” living out mindless lives of changeless, endless barbarity. They accepted durable archaeological evidence as also providing similarly irrefutable credibility against the currents of racist skepticism then flowing. In retrospect, the prestige that progressive historians accorded continuities from ancient origins seems a singularly contradictory way to validate the recent advances on which they prided themselves, while in Africa the same perpetuation of ancient custom explained only contemporary primitiveness. The implicit accent on continuity undermined the progressives’ insistence that devotion to change as a centrally revelatory element in human experience distinguished their discipline from theology and other competing epistemologies of their era. The roots of the paradox lay, of course, in the premises of biological racism on which its logic rested: priority in achievement demonstrated inherent racial superiority, and subsequent continuity in culture reassuringly paralleled transmission of the knack for civilization by genetic means.
The only possible source of evidence from the other side, turn-of-the-century anthropology, redoubled the challenge to those who would discover a meaningful past in Africa by validating its moral distance from the modern West. The first phases of anthropological investigation in Africa grew out of German idealism and received no small romantic impetus from European self-exiles disillusioned by the failing promise of industrialized capitalist society at the fin de siècle.7 Broadly inspired by Hegel’s “universal history” of the development of the human spirit, one historically oriented group of German ethnologists derived “advanced” cultural traits from primal centers of civilization in the ancient Middle East and explained apparently “civilized” achievements reported from other parts of the world as products of a quasi-historical dynamic of “diffusion” of their unique inspiration. Diffusionist theories linked what people had done indissolubly to who they were, and so they accounted for historical change only in terms of “migrating” groups, mysterious conquerors who had spread “civilized” culture into remote corners of the world, or by imitative natives “borrowing” from them.8 To construct a “history” for Africa meaningful by these high and ancient standards, but independent of presumed origins in southwestern Asia, meant positing an independent font of inspiration south of the Sahara, primary either because it was older than Egypt or because it possessed virtues more estimable than modern Europe’s mechanized military power.
The German ethnologist Leo Frobenius became an erratic champion of Africa in these errantly historical terms.9 Frobenius shared his contemporaries’ disdain for the “degenerate” colonial Africans of his own time, but he nonetheless found them fascinating “because he thought them to be living documents of an otherwise unrecoverable universal human past.”10 In the course of repeated research trips to Europe’s new African colonies around the turn of the century, he sensed traces of a creative, simple, and unspoiled local form of civilization higher than his embittered assessment of modern Europe. To account for the anomaly, he hypothesized an ancient, since-vanished civilization in West Africa known to its Mediterranean contemporaries, the Etruscans, hence anterior to Rome, and remembered later in the European myth of a lost Atlantis.11
Frobenius’s “African Atlantis” reversed the diffusionist “Hamitic hypothesis” dominant in progressive history’s vision of Africa.12 This pseudo-historical Hamitic theory reconciled older faith in the Christian Bible with newer, scientifically styled studies of language, physical type, and political economy to account for what Europeans could recognize in Africa as vestiges of “civilization” understood in modern terms. From the moment that self-styled European “explorers” and colonial armies had set foot in Africa, they encountered formidable opponents, leaving the would-be “civilizers” with considerable and perplexed respect for African military power, political leadership, and even monumental architecture, the litmus tests of progress. All of these contradicted the low rankings that the racial classification schemes of the time accorded dark-skinned people. Only a “white” residue in Africans’ cultures could explain so unanticipated a suggestion of competence among “Negroes.” By the convenient logic of diffusionist inference, such “Caucasian” influence could have reached sub-Saharan Africa through historical contact with emigrant “whites” of Mediterranean origin, long enough ago to match the presumed antiquity of authentic originators and to leave time for their salutary influence to have degenerated to the faint traces still evident in the otherwise universal genetic and cultural gloom.” In the United States, where God-fearing Southerners justified the violent racism of the “Jim Crow” era on their faith “that God had shaped the Negro’s physical and emotional makeup at the beginning of existence and rendered him forever inferior to whites,”13 these biblical, evolutionary, environmental, and racial determinisms hung heavily in the immediate background to nineteenth-century thinking about the past in Africa.
The scholarly W. E. B. Du Bois led several African-American colleagues at the beginning of this century in creating a professional history for Africa against the backdrop of American racism. As an undergraduate at Fisk University, where the “natural inferiority [of people of African descent was] strenuously denied,” it had been Bismarck who struck Du Bois as a model of the “strength and determination under trained leadership” that would “foreshadow ... the kind of thing that American Negroes must do” for themselves. But as Du Bois entered Harvard’s graduate history program in 1888, he found “Africa ... left without culture and without history.”14 With no alternative, Du Bois concentrated his studies on American history and politics but oriented his thesis research toward Africa by taking up the “suppression of the African slave-trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870.” He read his first academic paper on the subject to the annual meeting of this Association in 1891, in Washington, D.C.15 Realizing “what in my education had been suppressed concerning Asiatic and African culture,” Du Bois followed the German pilgrimage of the time among historians in America for two years’ study at the University of Berlin (1892–94).16 There, he must have heard metropolitan echoes of Germany’s wars of colonial conquest, seen the published reports of nineteenth-century German scientific expeditions in Africa, and drawn on contact with German ethnology to frame the first continental-scale history of Africa in his sweeping, racially unified history, The Negro.17
In The Negro, Du Bois described ancient African kingdoms comparable to Europe in civilization. But the glories of such earlier accomplishment cast an unavoidable dark shadow over a contemporary Africa recently subjugated to European colonial rule. Du Bois found an explanation for this painful realization in a description of historical reasoning: he attributed contemporary Africans’ apparent degradation to damage done by subsequent European and Muslim slaving, a theme prominent in the writings of eighteenth-century opponents of the slave trade that he must have encountered in researching his doctoral dissertation. Du Bois’ horror at the loss of “100,000,000 souls,18 the rape of a continent to an extent never paralleled in ancient or modern times,” led to his tragic concession, by the standards of progressive historiography, “of the stagnation of culture in that land since 1600!”19 Without personal experience on the continent, not even Du Bois could escape the European and American judgment of contemporary Africans’ backwardness by contemporary standards. But asserting a retrogressive narrative of damage and decline by historical agents, albeit external ones, at least allowed him to avoid the eternal burden of inferiority by reason of race.
“Progressive” history early in this century thus confined even this brilliant defender of the “Negro” to a salvage operation, a search for racial respect by interpreting specifics from ancient Africa to support modern, European valuation of the national state, military power, and monument building. The result corresponded to historical thinking at the end of the twentieth century only in its contemplation of times past. It lacked African contexts of time and place independent of presentist projections, or inversions, of European racial presumption. Du Bois could attribute recent initiative only to outsiders, European (and Muslim) slavers, and thus left Africans in roles perilously close to passive victims, without agency of their own. Du Bois’, and Frobenius’s, concessions of the recent stagnation of Africa’s cultures—or of a singularized “African culture,” as the rubric of racism usually homogenized them—all but excluded current ethnographic description of Africans since their fall into backwardness as a source of insight into the earlier but vanished glories. Without human, African context to stimulate motive and action, even Du Bois’ prodigious reading in published writings left his story of triumphal political leadership in Ghana, Mali, and Songhai—the empires of Africa’s medieval Sudan, cut down at the threshold of modernity—a fable not of tragedy but rather of failure.
African teachers and scholars, and the Europeans and Americans who worked in Africa with them after World War II, gradually distinguished modern African history from the liberalizing intellectual currents that swept Europe and the United States during the waning years of colonial rule. They did so by adding empirical evidence focused on issues arising from circumstances particular to Africa.20 This postwar generation of academics, intent on preparing colonies in Africa for political independence and African youth for future civic responsibility, lived amid intense preoccupation with politics. African politicians, several of them trained in the United States in Du Bois’vision of African history under Leo Hansberry, who had introduced the first academic courses in African history at Howard University in the early 1920s, capitalized on its nationalist spirit to justify Africans’ political accountability.21 These pioneering historians of Africa overwhelmed the regional historical traditions of the colonial era and adapted basic progressive assumptions to African purposes, demonstrating political centralization and expansion in political scale in Africa of European proportions.22
The academic institutions in the colonial metropoles in Europe, which held authority to validate these teachers’ efforts as professional “history,” expressed fewer reservations than previously about Africans’ inherent eligibility for history, but they showed strong hesitation about the lack of evidence from Africa that seemed to meet the historical discipline’s positivist standards.23 As in all history, only disciplined recourse to voices independent of the present, to primary evidence understood in terms of its originators in the past, could convey Africans’ agency and the contexts to which they reacted. Research strategies that might historicize Africa’s past had to start in Africa, draw on African sources, and array the new information around historical hypotheses focused on concerns of Africans. Objections on such technical grounds presented challenges that the first Africa-based generation of professional historians welcomed with enthusiastic inventiveness.
They regarded the prized documentary sources of the progressives as highly suspect for these purposes in Africa. Europeans had written about Africans since they had arrived in the fifteenth century, but documents became sufficiently comprehensive to bear the weight of historical interpretation alone only much later, since about the 1880s, with the advent of government records accompanying the establishment of colonial authority. However, these writings of modern Europeans were alien and self-interested, as well as tainted by the use made of them in colonial and imperial history to lionize Europe’s civilizing political mission around the globe. Nationalist historiography rejected them as very nearly polar opposites of the Africans’ history that they sought.
What little research drew on colonial government files, even though it reached monumental proportions in isolated instances, was administrative and sociological, not historical.24 Narratives of the colonial governments’ economic “development” programs, or, alternatively, the success of nationalist politicians at mobilizing popular opposition to them, since the nineteenth century, were “case studies” in a social-science mode, with primarily comparative and theoretical implications. They tended to extract “variables” relevant to the “models” and theories they tested from their full historical contexts. The enabling generation of post–World War II historians had little choice but to appropriate these other disciplines for their own historical purposes, even—as was repeatedly the case—when their sociological accents tempted them to phrase arguments in terms of aggregated behavior and abstractions.
Social-science “models” tempted historians also because they offered the alluring logical coherence of theory to paper over the initial lack of enough empirical evidence from the African past to make sense on its own terms, and to distract from the dubious standing, by conventional historical standards, of what there was. Still more seductive of historical epistemology were the equilibrium assumptions of much mid-twentieth-century sociology, with its stable institutions and equilibrium models. In terms of change, these amounted to social-scientific analogs of the timeless “primitive” African cultures that they sought to replace. Structural logic thus diverted historians’ attention from their own discipline’s reliance on change as a primary mode of explaining, observing transience as a fundamental aspect of human existence.
Yet, out of this initial reliance on methods, conceptualization, and narratives distinctly ahistorical in logic and alien to Africa, historians gradually added context, change, and African agency, the three epistemological elements that together distinguish history from other disciplines, to create a more historicized African past.25 Driven back in time by the unacceptability of colonial-era documents and by progressive history’s respect for ancient origins, aspirant historians of Africa had to confront the technical challenges of making responsible use of unwritten sources. As historians, they sought to identify properties in these novel forms of evidence familiar from documentary records. Their need to justify themselves by disciplinary standards alien to Africa distracted them from these sources’ distinctively African characteristics, and thus from their historicity.
Narrative oral traditions—recountings of events attributed to a past beyond the experience of living witnesses and presumed to have passed down to the present through multiple tellers and hearer26—seemed particularly authentic voices from Africans’ pasts. Their narrative form made them seem subject to critical methodologies developed for reconstructing primary versions of the similarly discursive written sources familiar to historians elsewhere.27 However, application of this documentary analogy to “traditional” narratives revealed that Africans told their tales so creatively, at least in the politically charged circumstances of talking to the powerful European outsiders who recorded them, that the scenes they portrayed amounted to outright fabrications.28 They structured their accounts by aesthetic, rhetorical, and interpretive strategies more than by chronological sequence, and they tended to account for change by radical, magical-appearing transformations rather than by detailing the incremental sequences plausible as change to historians.
Once historians recognized that they could not read oral narratives as histories or reconstitute them as wholes, they reexamined their elements to see how they might offer valid pointers to circumstances—if not the actors or events narrated—in the past. But historians prepared to extract evidence from traditions by dissecting them faced a cross-disciplinary challenge from anthropologists eager to claim the same oral representations for theoretical purposes of their own as social, conceptual, and performative entities.29 British structural-functional anthropologists, authors of much of the ethnography on which the first generation of historians drew in their search for African historical context, emphasized the presentist aspects of narratives constructed to legitimate privilege and power, often by deploying metaphors of antiquity to assert the inalterability of current inequalities.30 Structuralist anthropologists influenced by French symbolic anthropology joined the cause against traditions’ historicity by interpreting the logic and language of the same materials as cosmological speculation, even as expressing fundamental structures of mind untouched by any specific experience or conscious reflection, present or past.31 Historians responded that narratives need not directly describe times gone by to contain elements bearing marks of origins in times past, even without the performers’ awareness of the antiquity on which they drew. Anthropologists exaggerated the presentist aspects of oral performances only by selectively emphasizing the tales’ narrative meanings and aesthetic strategies, or the political and intellectual reasons why performers might displace into former times narratives fabricated in—or even deliberately constructed as metaphors for—the present.
In the oblique and mutually stimulating way in which divergent disciplines interact, historians historicized their use of oral traditions by converting the anthropologists’ emphasis on compositional strategies to understand how Africans selected, preserved, and shared collectively important knowledge through time in mnemonic environments.32 Mnemonic techniques of preserving knowledge, for example, distributed vital information among several individuals, all responsible together for mutual verification of essential points, however made.33 Individual performers engaged existentially with their auditors around the immediate occasion, against backgrounds of current power, rank, and privilege, but arguments for the exclusively presentist idiosyncrasy of oral performances could be sustained only by isolating them from their distinctive communal context, by restricting analysis to a single performer along lines that presumed individual artistry comparable to performance in literate cultures.34 By analyzing the compositional strategies of oral performers as group processes, historians replaced abstracted oral traditions with intellectual history contextualized in African environments.35
The centrality of precise chronology to progressive methods of inferring (possible) cause and consequence from contemporaneity and sequence led the first generation of professional historians at work in Africa down obscure paths in search of proxies for calendrical dates that would bring African evidence up to accepted standards. Lists of kings common in the royal traditions of African political systems seemed convertible to calendrical years on the supposition that succession in royal lineages exhibited demographic regularities. Historians might then count the rulers named and multiply assumed average lengths of reigns back from recent monarchs of known date to estimate dates of earlier rulers.36 That African dynasties might have exhibited greater order, and hence more regular sequences, than unpredictable struggles over power elsewhere in the world proved a vain hope, nurtured in part by the illusion conveyed by colonial-era social anthropology of mechanistic, functionally integrated political institutions in Africa.37 But in following Africans’ ways of speaking about the past, historians gradually abandoned such artificial and abstracted chronologies in favor of contextualizing pastness as people in mnemonic cultures experienced it: as absence, as broad contrasts between what is proximate and what is remote, mixing space with time accordingly.38
Historians looked also to Africans’ 1,500 different languages for the aspects of linguistic change that might yield calendrical dates.39 The resulting chronologies were, of course, similarly mechanistic artifices and proved imprecise as historians’ needs grew more refined. They also riveted historians’ attention on classifications of abstracted Languages of Africa rather than on the people who created thern.40 But other historical aspects of Africans’ linguistic behavior—“language communities always in contact and constantly evolving”—spoke more directly about their experiences in the past.41 The marked contrasts among Africa’s five major language families gave sharp definition and multiple dimensions to the discrete, specific linguistic innovations that produced Africa’s diverse linguistic heritage. Phonetic shifts in the way that people pronounced old words, or mispronounced words they appropriated from neighbors, are key markers of historical experience, and changes for many areas of collective life can be reliably sequenced by reconstructing them. Sets of novel words that clustered in conceptual fields within this phonetic framework pointed to specific technology, political institutions, fashions in apparel, or moments of enduring human inventiveness in the past, including the kinds of people who might have changed the ways they talked and the reasons why their descendants preserved their linguistic habits down to the languages of the present.42 This historicizing transition from statistical analysis of abstracted vocabularies to historical inferences from reconstructed past linguistic behavior paralleled historians’ abandonment of the formal properties of oral narratives in favor of sensing how narrators drew on inherited memories to compose them.
The preoccupations and enthusiasms, circumstantial worries and collective accomplishments of ancient parents literally echo in the present through the speech habits they taught their children. Moreover, their accents express historical experience without conscious intent and hence, unlike the ideological distortions characteristic of oral narratives, are unfalsifiable. Historical inference from linguistic reconstruction is attaining degrees of detail, depths in time, and regional comprehensiveness that outline a coherent narrative—though with increasing selectivity as the focus lengthens to more remote eras—of who in Africa experienced what in times past as long as 20,000 years ago.43 Historical inferences from linguistic evidence thus approach the threshold of intentionality as a significant determinant of human experience, the dawn of dependence on communication for collective welfare, and reliance on self-conscious creativity through cultural consensus, all marking the beginnings of history understood as deliberate, effective agency. In another ironic interplay of disciplines, historians’ failure to extract chronologies from languages useful for history in the progressive style left them with powerful linguistic techniques for hearing about the past as Africans experienced it.
Chronology-dependent historians also embraced archaeology in significant part because it produced datable stratigraphy and artifacts. In Africa’s predominantly rural areas, that hope rested on the physical dating of radioactive isotopes of carbonized organic materials, such as wood charcoal, and then inferring likely relationships of these material remains to human issues of interest to historians.44 Beyond the imprecision of the dates calculable from these radiocarbon techniques, the uncertain associations of materials thus dated to specific human activities left their conclusions far from historical in style.45 The search for hard evidence to civilize Africans by European standards also turned historians of Africa to archaeology for traces of early metallurgy, a technology of undeniable accomplishment by modern industrial standards. This line of investigation gained momentum when iron smelting turned up in Africa earlier than anticipated, five centuries or more before the Common Era in several regions. Africans had thus smelted iron—as was nearly always emphasized in the lingering competitive spirit of the quest—before much of western Europe replaced bronze with ferrous metals. African smelting techniques also arguably derived from local inspiration, and iron workers there primarily fabricated agricultural implements. This last purposive nuance rescued Africa—it was hinted—from the retardation implied by the still more ancient dating of iron in Anatolia, but there for less reputable use as weapons. Subsequently, study of the African contexts of iron production, with emphasis on culture and environment, has replaced “early enthusiasms” about iron artifacts in Africa with historicized comprehension of African metal workers and their metal-working strategies.46
The progressive impulse to unearth African evidence of antique monuments respectable in European terms showed little promise south of the Nile corridor and Ethiopia, with the exception of massive thirteenth- and fourteenth-century stone walling in southern Africa centered at “Great Zimbabwe,”47 in towns that dotted Africa’s Indian Ocean coastline since at least the eighth century, and such famed thirteenth- to sixteenth-century West African cities as Timbuktu, along the southern fringes of the Sahara Desert. These town centers had attracted attention as sub-Saharan prototypes of modern, Western-style urbanity since Du Bois’ initial attempt at African historiography. However, the classic archaeological research at these sites focused on the imported wares found in their ruins, on Muslim building in Arab and Persian styles, and on other evidence of datable foreign contacts. Because archaeologists then contemplated their findings in terms of abstract typological contrasts rather than as historical products of human creativity, few remarked on the faint aroma of the discredited “Hamitic hypothesis” that emanated from attempting to give Africans credit only for taking up the good ideas of immigrants from southwest Asia.48
Archaeologists, like linguists, have learned to interpret their findings according to the mental maps of the Africans who built these towns.49 The West African cities, once treated as isolated outposts of North African Muslim traders in search of sub-Saharan gold valuable in Mediterranean markets, have been revealed as late elaborations on African patterns of urbanization that arose from desiccation and local exchanges across the region’s increasingly sharp environmental gradients two millennia before they attracted foreign merchants.50 All these centers expressed distinctively African communal strategies of production, distribution, and provisioning necessary to support dense settlement.51
In the beginning, historians had turned to ethnography for data distinguishable as “African” among the prevailing written Europeans’ impressions of Africa. They accepted the theorized social structures, mental worlds, and cultures in which anthropologists phrased these descriptions as enduring determinants of African behavior rather than as modern, Western constructs about them. Moreover, the urgency of their search for evidence from the past predisposed them to overlook the contemporaneity of the mid-twentieth-century circumstances that ethnography in fact described. Ethnographers’ assertions that they abstracted aspects of Africans’ lives as they had existed before European modernity intruded gave an illusion of pastness—however static—that dulled the sense of change critical to history. In particular, the hoary colonial fallacy that Africans could usefully be understood as belonging to enduring, homogeneous ethnic aggregates—the “tribes” still current in popular discourse—further distracted historians from positioning ethnographic evidence firmly in its historical present. Although historians rejected the connotations of backwardness conveyed by the colonial idea of “tribes,” the functional integrity of African “societies” rendered every element of the contexts in which people “must have” lived so essential to all others that reference in a conventional dated source to one of them seemed to allow historians to assume the connected presence of most, or surely some, of the rest in the otherwise undocumented past.52 Functional “tribal” integration of this sort allowed historians, further, simply to bundle the conclusions of all the other disciplines they had engaged, assuming that conclusions from one could verify inferences from others without considering the specific contexts that might have generated each.
This rationalization, however well-intended and cautiously applied, placed even the scattered direct evidence then available for earlier times squarely within the timeless vision of Africa’s past that historians meant to refute. The few options for accommodating change that such “tribes” offered were familiar from progressive history: like “civilizations” and “races,” they had “origins” locatable in time and space, subsequently acted primarily as groups by “migrating” to wherever their members currently lived, “conquered” anyone they encountered along the way, and reliably passed “traditional” behavior through the generations. African sources offered few ways out of this time trap of “tribal” logic, since traditions everywhere expressed the inviolable integrity of current groups as enduring ethnic antiquity. To historians working in the pressure cooker of trying to confirm scattered information by the rules of a doubting discipline, the documented presence of a few elements of a current ethnographic “society” or “culture” appealed seductively as the visible tip of a likely ethnic iceberg of associated (even if unremarked) behavior and institutions in the past.
Even now, in an era that emphasizes the contingent and constructed character of groups of any sort, anywhere in the world, a lingering reliance on “tribes,” though long rejected among Africanists,53 still sometimes substitutes for historicized context among nonspecialists drawn to consider Africa’s past. As appreciation of Africa’s relevance to history beyond its own shores has grown, historians of other world regions have necessarily approached so unfamiliar a subject through simplifying assumptions that they reject in areas they know better. “Tribes” now usually lie concealed behind polite euphemisms—“cultures,” “ethnic groups,” and neologistical “ethnicities,” even “communities”—but politesse does not eliminate the time-defying, history-denying static logic of the notion: stereotyped Africans confined within abiding structures, individuals submerged in depersonalized, abstracted aggregates, who act mostly by realizing social (or cultural) norms, that is, by preserving unchanged what colonial-era language reified as “tradition.”54
Definitive historicization of ethnography came not only from situating ethnographic descriptions in time and context55 but also from seeing the African strategies colonial ethnography had reified as institutions as Africans’ ways of achieving specific historical objectives.56 Africans compose “traditions,” for example, by adapting popular memories about the past to apply the ideological force of claimed antiquity and stability for discernible purposes of the moment.57 Historicization has transmogrified such ethnographic staples as African “kinship,” and its common expression as “lineages,” from functional frameworks within which Africans thought into collective entities that they created and adapted to secure valued resources in land, in political standing, or in people themselves. Anthropologists and historians together have sensed that “witchcraft” in Africa was a historical reaction against the danger that individuals grown wealthy, powerful, and independent posed not only to their relatives and neighbors but also to the ethos of collective responsibility itself; commercialized exchanges with the Atlantic economy since 1600 or so and the colonial-era introduction of a monetary economy raised public alarm about abuses of private accumulation to haunting intensity.58
African politicians and intellectuals created ethnicity itself by manipulating supple collective identities to meet historical circumstances.59 A capsule history of ethnicity in Africa would trace the oldest of the collective identities that colonial ethnographers froze in time as “tribes” to ancient adaptations of basic agricultural and other productive technologies to local environments, wherever these were so successful that whoever later lived in those areas carried on in terms of the community arrangements that the first settlers worked out. Others derive from a wave of political consolidation that swept through Africa from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, wherever people continued to rely on political solutions derived from the early states that had attracted Du Bois’ admiration. Still others date from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century conflicts and population movements, as people fled slave-raiding and reorganized their collective lives around the straitened circumstances it created. Others again formed as communities gathered around commercial, agricultural, and extractive enterprises of the nineteenth century. Colonial conquest once more challenged men and women in Africa to transform the group identities dominant at the opening of the twentieth century, to resurrect some that had drifted into latency, and to invent others out of momentary conjunctures to exploit cash economies and European political power. Where nominal continuity is evident,60 new personnel frequently (one suspects always!) adapted “tradition” to dramatically shifting circumstances, if only to preserve viable aspects of shared heritages and wrap themselves in the legitimacy of the ages. Even the stereotypically unchanged hunters in the Kalahari (so-called “Bushmen”) have survived by adapting,61 and Africa’s nomadic forest people turn out to have maintained their strategic flexibility only by innovating against heavy odds.62
In no small irony, the methodological distractions of using the blueprints of other disciplines,63 not yet historicized, to construct a past for Africa left historians vulnerable to haste in handling evidence in familiar written forms. The founding generation’s intense commitment to an autonomous African history—led by inexperienced research students, sometimes by faculty of necessity trained in other fields,64 nearly always institutionally isolated from their historical colleagues in area-studies programs—insulated them from the discipline in the rest of the world, and from the methodological caution that prevailed in departments of history.65 This liberal generation of aspirant historians acquired too easy a sense of having met their professional responsibility for source criticism by exposing the racist biases of European writings about Africa. Although fighting racism was an unavoidable component of constructing a history of Africa, even the passing racist ambiance of the time still distracted historians of Africa from the critical methods of their discipline.
The limits of well-intended innocence as historical method appeared as soon as the initially high yields of plowing virgin documents for superficially accessible content about Africans’ interactions with their European authors began to decline. The second generation of Africanist historians—or, often, in fact, the first generation, wiser with experience—took up positions in departments of history where they encountered the questions of historical methodology that underlay their search for answers in Africa. With tenure and with the outline of an African past becoming clearer in their minds, more of them found time to follow through on doubts raised, but not resolved, by their uses of documentary sources in their early research.66 By the 1970s, their students had to reinterpret the same limited corpus of written sources more closely for their implications for new, more subtle questions that an increasingly complex history of Africa was raising. The increased awareness of African contexts at the same time enabled them to read the written sources—and not only “European” documents—against the grain of their authors’ ignorance for the shadows that Africans’ activities cast over what they reported.67 Unsurprisingly to historians of the ancient Mediterranean and medieval Europe,68 even the authorship and chronology of seemingly familiar publications of known dates have proved very uncertain without thorough explication du texte.69
As historians of Africa re-engaged their discipline’s text-based methodologies, they also incorporated the content of early modern and modern European (and American) history as context for Africa’s past.70 At the birth of modern history in Africa, when ignorance of what had happened there left historians little alternative, they cited the relative isolation of one continent from the other, intercommunicating regions of an Old World “ecumene” to explain Africa’s apparent failure to share in the advances under way elsewhere.71 Stimulating contact with ideas different from one’s own, as this liberal meta‑history of diversity ran, accounted for progress throughout Eurasia. Africa’s presumed historical isolation saved its inhabitants from the racist condemnation of “Hamitic” contact but only at the cost of once again conceding backwardness and exclusion from the world of progress. Further, by limiting stimulating interactions to Europe and its Asian partners, this history imposed a pan-African homogeneity, at least congruent with the racial stereotype it tried to avoid, that ignored intense, animating communication across many cultural borders within Africa.72 The assumption of isolation also underestimated Africans’ intercontinental contacts and missed the creativity with which they had appropriated from outsiders what made sense in the contexts in which they lived, not least their adaptations of Islam since the eighth century and of Judaism and Christianity in the millennium before then.73
History nonetheless emerged, even from research that had strained so hard against the distractions of alien disciplines during the 1960s to meet the standards of historical method that inspired it. Historians gradually discerned sufficiently probable patterns of past African actions that their successors could place imported artifacts, world religions, and international capital in historical contexts independent of modern values. A breakthrough of sorts came in the 1970s, when French neo-Marxist anthropology highlighted dysfunctional tensions within structural functionalists’ harmonious ethnographic families, distinguished the diverse actors formerly homogenized within “tribes”—communities with and without lands and performers of their own,74 elders and youth,75 slaves,76 richer and poorer,77 even ambitious and successful individuals78—and positioned them in dynamic, historicized tensions.79 Systematic neo-Marxist emphasis on material differentiation within Africa broke through the racialist homogenization lingering from earlier formulation of the subject as “the Negro” and moved beyond conflicts stereotyped as “tribal.” Differentiation by gender, after first missing its full potential by celebrating African women who excelled in normatively male power roles, focused on sex-specific inequalities of colonial rule and gradually explored the distinctive experiences of the larger half of the African population to add a pervasive, vivifying dialectical tension to the context of Africa’s recent past.80 With these frustrations and other motivations in view, Africans emerged as active historical agents, in ways recognizable to historians practiced in the politics and processes of European and American history, where struggles over sharply differentiated ambitions are axiomatic.
But Africans also acted on intellectual premises and constructed historical contexts with salient aspects very different from those of progressive Europeans and maximizing materialists: prominently among many such contrasts, behind and against all of the practical tensions, was an ethos of collective responsibility rather than modern individualistic autonomy.81 The community values of Africans’ histories constitute a kind of moral historiography82 that exhibits precisely the “ideological” qualities social anthropologists cited as evidence of ahistoricity in oral narratives. The sense in which historical “agency” may be attributed to Africans is prominently—though never exclusively—a collective one, especially during centuries before the nineteenth. Archaeological data are nearly always anonymous and interpreted generically, and words are by definition standardized products of recurrent collective practice.83 Africans recollect their experiences communally, and performers of oral traditions publicly address shared concerns. Although oral performers characteristically build their narratives around figures of dramatically distinctive character—culture heroes, monarchs, and others, these apparent personages are in fact stock figures who reflect subsequent consensus about them more than particular persons in the past, even the individuals who may in fact have inspired such commemoration. Beginning in the sixteenth century, documents mention individually some of the Africans who met Europeans or at least characterize the specific roles they assumed in approaching literate outsiders, and from the seventeenth century onward they allow increasingly nuanced interpretations of personality in African contexts.84 But the collective aspect of the people otherwise detectable in the more remote epochs of Africa’s past means that individual agency must often be understood in terms of its effects rather than its motivations, and that the effects remembered are public rather than private.
The anonymity of individuals in much of the evidence available thus becomes less a deficiency of the sources than a window opening onto Africans’ collective ways of thinking. Even though individuals pursued personal ambition in Africa no less than elsewhere, they did so by subtly evoking responses from those around them rather than by asserting their autonomy too obviously. Autonomous success invited suspicion of “witchcraft” rather than admiration. This African emphasis on collective responsibility also had its own history, with individualism becoming more effective and more acknowledged since about the eighth century, when a few Africans took advantage of outsiders—mostly Muslim and then later Christian merchants from commercial, literate backgrounds—who were prepared to deal with them on a personal basis. More than coincidentally, these foreign visitors also left the documentary records from which historians may now derive evidence of African agency as individual.
From recognizing Africans’ distinctive mental worlds, historians could also appreciate their experiences of change itself as more abrupt and discontinuous than their own notions of processual incrementalism, The smaller the alterations modern historians can note, the more individuated and specific the changes, and—as a logical complement—the greater the multiplicity of their aspects, the more plausible and historical they find the process thus defined. Perception of change in such nuanced form relies on dense and continuous runs of documentary records and, beyond them, on habits of writing that preserve momentary impressions of every step along the way.85 Mnemonic notions of change in Africa more resembled what nominally literate historians in Europe before the seventeenth century accepted as “miracles”; both elided progressive history’s processual stages of modification into sudden transitions between preceding and succeeding (but other than that timeless) states, sequenced but not otherwise connected.86 Both depersonalized the human-scale agency of processual change by displacing causation into extra-human realms, usually taken seriously in Europe as “religious” but in Africa for many years dismissed, with connotations of superstitious irrationality, as “magical.” Subsequent liberal revision of this pejorative characterization rationalized causation of this African sort as “cosmological” or as respectably “spiritual” but did not interpret its implications for historical thought.
Within these frameworks of causation and historical agency, Africans’ strategies of action focused on ends rather than means, which they left mysterious though not beyond human access. Africans acted on the premise that humans did not themselves possess transformative power, but they might nonetheless convert existing states into desired ones by gaining personal access to a limitless pool of potentiality inherent in the world around them, a force personalized to varying degrees as “spirits.”87 Europeans, who restricted the idea of historical efficacy to human initiative, misconstrued individual action conducted in these terms as “sorcery.” But African action was in fact efficacious socially as intended, that is, to the often‑considerable extent that people feared the ability of individuals to tap the imagined pool of natural potency and acted on their apprehensions. Once historians accepted Africans’ strategies of acting, they recognized that the ways in which they applied reasoned inquiry, calculated experimentation, and close observation of effect to transform their situations paralleled—though within the limits of detection imposed by their reliance on only the human senses—the microscopic, chemical, and eventually nuclear and electronic techniques of observation that seventeenth-century Europeans elaborated as “science.”88
It would be misleading to overdraw these subtle distinctions in emphasis between European and African historical ways of thinking. Modern general theories of human behavior and abstracted processual models of causation are hardly less naturalizing and impersonal than Africans’ metaphors of change. They internalize the power Africans see inherent in nature as inalienable human “rights” and as “sociological” or “psychological” constants; they understand agency to include manipulating “human nature” by influencing consciousness and belief. Nor do Africans’ attributions of agency to collective culture heroes and founding kings in oral narratives differ in their implicit dynamics of causation from charismatic “great man” theories in Western philosophies of history. The collective solidarities that Africans represent as “ancestors,” or the kings they view as embodying entire polities, produced historical effects, just as people everywhere change their worlds by acting together in groups of similar proportions. Strict rationalist observers dismissed African behavior as timeless “ritual” or “religion,” hence unreflective, inexplicable, and pointless “traditional” failed attempts at agency. But contexualizing efficacy, change, and causation in these non-modern—and also postmodern, and only incidentally African—terms makes it plausible by historicizing it. The postmodern embrace of cultural history, social constructivism, memory, and collective consciousness throughout the historical profession has now brought these universal aspects of human existence clearly into view in other parts of the world.
The implications of Africa’s past for history as a discipline do not, of course, arise only from the earlier eras on which nearly all of the present discussion has concentrated. The bulk of historical research in Africa has in fact shifted during the last twenty years to modern times, roughly since the mid-nineteenth century, but early Africa exemplifies the process of historicizing its study more dramatically than does the colonial era.89 Its historiography reaches back more than a century, long enough to reveal the dynamics of the process, while modern Africa has been subject to historical study for barely more than two decades. Further, the formidable technical challenges of eliciting evidence from Africa’s more remote eras reveal more sharply the challenges of maintaining disciplinary integrity while drawing on other academic epistemologies than do the interviews, colonial documents, and other relatively familiar sources employed for the twentieth century. In addition, distinctively African historical processes visible only over spans of time reaching back to ancient eras frame all interpretations of recent periods.90 These processes decidedly do not constitute a static, “pre-colonial” past, defined only negatively by contrast to European political authority, but rather the centuries when Africans developed solutions to problems of their own times, some of which their descendants have struggled to adapt to contemporary challenges.91 Without early history to give African context to recent experience, Africans’ appropriation of current opportunities falls by default into projections of Europe’s dreams of “modernization,” or lapses into pessimistic resurrections of meta-histories of terminal decline—as predictions for the future!92—to explain their failure. Whatever the ethical and political overtones of distorting modern Africa to fit into these alien terms, they fail as history because they perpetuate the teleological and ahistorical premises of the racist progressivism and liberal structuralism from which they grew.
Frictions in Africa, however effective they may have been in generating historical dynamics in Africa’s past, exacted a considerable price by separating African from African-American history, making two fields from the one that Du Bois had presented generically and genetically as the history of the “Negro.” African history now appeals to other professionals in terms of the discipline and methodology that characterize the academy, more than it reflects the memories of its popular audience in the African-American community. Ambiguities arising from tensions in Africa, formerly concealed behind the American racial mask of “the Negro,” seem to expose disharmonies inappropriate for public discussion in Western societies still redolent of the intolerance that Du Bois wrote to refute, to compromise commitment, to reduce the vigilant solidarity necessary for community survival in an unwelcoming world. But since Africa looms integrally in the background of African-American history as a unified ancestry reflecting the racial sense of community forced by American prejudice on African Americans,93 for many professionalization of the subject leaves a distinct sense of loss.
History reinvented from African circumstances resonates throughout the profession, perhaps even revealingly because of the distinctive intensity with which Africa challenged the exclusionary premises of the classic, progressive form of the discipline at the end of World War II. The ahistoricity, even anti-historicity, of the social-science disciplines with which aspirant Africanist historians had to begin forced them to look deep into their own professional souls as well. Their experience of inventing a history for Africa, not by rejecting established standards but by embracing and extending them to integrate the unconventional forms in which the world’s “people without history” had remembered their pasts, exposed inner logics of historical reasoning.94 Inclusive liberalism brought “others” formerly segregated in the separate spheres of “ethnohistory” within a single, comprehensive, and seamless history of humanity. It also replaced the artificial barrier between “history” and “pre-history” set by limiting evidence to its documentary form with a processual threshold for history defined in terms germane to how historical inquiry proceeds, that is, in terms of human agency: historical method gradually becomes productive of understanding ancient women and men as calculation supplemented biological evolution, animal instinct, and random accident as a coherent, significant source of intended—and unintended—change in the affairs of those thereby rendered human.
Historical inquiry—and historians are, above all, questioners—requires the challenge of the unknown to spark the curious imagination. History derives its essential energy from explaining difference, from the tension of the distance that separates historian and subject. All knowledge gains clarity and coherence from the elementary binary mental function of discriminating like from unlike, of course, and history is distinctive primarily in focusing on distance across time, between then and now, between the historian’s and subjects’ eras. The centrality of difference to the wellspring of history’s epistemology underlies the reflexive appreciation, recently prominent in all historical fields, of the complexity of relations between historian-observer and observed subject, between selves and others. Progressive Europe’s and America’s praise of their own ways of doing things prevented historical inquiry from drawing fully on this core potential, by coding cultural behavior as biological absolutes, by limiting its subjects to the relatively familiar, by celebrating selves rather than exploring others.
Such exclusion distracts attention from the equally important, countervailing premise of historical inquiry: the shared humanity that links otherwise distanced, but not alienated, historians and their subjects. History is fundamentally humanistic in the sense that its way of knowing depends on an intuitive sense of commonality, of sheer comprehensibility, beyond the differentiation by which it defines in order to explain. This connective aspect of history’s method binds historians to their subjects in multiple ways. Affectively, it appears in the emotionally engaged fascination that attracts scholars—or the horror and dismay that repel them no less engagingly—to the parts of the past that they choose to investigate. Cognitively, it sustains their inquiring interest to the point of inspiring them to impose order on chaotic evidence. Historians convey this sense of understanding by presenting their subjects as people like themselves and their audience, by touching readers and hearers intuitively, evoking contradictions, paradoxes, and ironies of life that they understand because they share them. All history is thus ethnic, part of the creation of group identities by authors who claim affinity with the subjects about whom, and for whom, they write.95 The prominence of the past in the rhetorics of nationalism, racism, “culture wars,” and chauvinisms of every sort amply confirms the extent to which history is inherently about “us.”
But never exclusively so. Historical curiosity and understanding start together, from the tension of holding the opposing sensations of difference and similarity, distance and intimacy in the precarious, productive balance that makes inquiry conducted in this spirit productive. The delicate equilibrium of historical thinking makes its practice dependent on the training, poise, and control of professionals. But clarifying contrasts is so basic to human thought that carrying the same mental process to extremes allows nonprofessionals to imitate history by emphasizing either of the two tendencies of its dialectic, claiming its appeal while violating its dynamic epistemological equilibrium. Since both parts are always present and hence available to employ one-sidedly, imitators’ claims may be difficult to distinguish from those of historians balanced on the tightrope of professionalism. History’s humanism is so intuitive, and its legitimating intimacy so powerful, that it gives enormous popular appeal to versions of the past that draw only on commonalities, distorting the evidence in response to what the community, or the historian, wants to believe, ideologically proclaiming their obviousness as truth or more openly acknowledging them as entertaining fiction. When historians differentiate excessively by projecting onto “others” their own envy, fears, or hopes, they betray the integrity of the discipline no less than when they proclaim similarities beyond those that in fact exist. They then merely generate obscurantism, stereotyping “others” to stress difference, as Africans—who have lived with alienating histories—and African Americans—who have been excluded by racist association—know all too well.
Recent critical examination of this reflexivity—enriched by literary, hermeneutic, or psychoanalytic theories (but not by theory from the empirical social sciences)—offers productive ways to examine these inevitable, and essential, subjectivities. Taken alone, however, even informed self-awareness loses touch with the discipline’s equally essential focus on others, on people in the past understood as unlike themselves. The epistemological function of empirical data for historians is to draw them outside their own imaginations. No objective reality may lurk out there, awaiting “discovery,” but externalities inevitably intrude on consciousness sufficiently to differentiate and provoke curiosity. The subtle distinction that places history among the humanities rather than the sciences turns on its use of induction to test insight rather than its deploying intuition to interpret data.96 The empirical aspect of this subtle interplay may be similarly intensified to extremes, and in the positivist phase of the discipline documents attained a sanctity that had nightmarish consequences for Africa. Novelty and sheer abundance on the empirical side of historical scrutiny have repeatedly tempted the leaders of advances into new ranges of evidence, from the written documents of the founding “scientific” generation to the unwritten sources that beguiled historians of Africa. The social historians of the 1960s struggled to comprehend data in quantities incomprehensible to unaided human cognitive faculties, and some limited themselves to conclusions in the forms in which electronic technologies and statistical techniques—necessary to detect patterns hidden within these sources—delivered them. Quantitative methods framed critical aspects of historical context by describing aggregate tendencies in human behavior, but by themselves they seldom generated historical insight into the human experience.
History turns data into evidence not by pursuing the technical attributes of data but by substituting a distinctively intuitive, humanistic, holistic strategy for the experimental method of science. It assesses meaning by qualitatively contextualizing evidence in the complex, multivariant circumstances of the past in which people created it. History ultimately fails as “science,” since historians can assemble only random evidence from the debris of the past that reaches them through processes far beyond their control. They cannot replicate the closely regulated conditions of laboratories, in which their scientific counterparts precisely measure varying outcomes of exact, determining circumstances. Rather, they can compare only approximately, among the few aspects of past conditions known to them, of only general similarity, and seldom in instances numerous enough to establish levels of statistical probability beyond the plausibility inferable from intuition alone. Auras of ambiguity hover over all bits of evidence considered out of context, removed from the human creativity from which they come. Even the apparent precision of timing establishes only correlations based on chronologies, not cause or effect. History’s holistic methodology thus makes sense of the data at hand by setting all information available, considered simultaneously together, in the context of the human moment from which it originated. The more information at hand, the richer the context it creates and the greater its potential thus to explain. The more intuitive the historian, the more contradictions and paradoxes in the assemblage she or he is able to reconcile.
Contemplating history without calendrical chronologies in Africa generalizes the discipline’s sense of time beyond sequence according to numbered dates. History’s fundamental sense of change emphasizes not dates but rather the ephemerality of the human experience and the processual aspects of historical contexts, the becomingness, the remembered absences. No human being can escape the imposing imponderability of change itself: everyone orients himself or herself to the inaccessibly fleeting present in which they live by trying to apply perceptions of past experience, to prepare for an impending future foreseeable only as projections from the here and now, which events will render irrelevant before the limited “lessons of the past” can be applied. Sequential narrative modes of exposition render these settings coherent in the flow of time, but only by invoking irony, actions with consequences unintended, tragic fates for those who cling to efforts after they have failed, uncertainty and fear, and causes arising from circumstances far beyond human control replace ineluctable progress and all the comforting regularities of >theory: all very unlike the uncomplicated sense of progress that gave birth to the modern discipline.
History is thus neither empirical nor imaginative but rather a continual dialectical confrontation of insight with evidence, of intuition and empirical induction, of past and present, of mutually challenging awarenesses of the self and of the world. The meanings that historians seek are similarly multiple and distinct, simultaneously those of their subjects, those of their audience, and private ones, unconscious as well as conscious. Professional history must constantly, exhaustively, test its intuitive aspect against evidence and awareness external to both historians and their publics, in order to keep the actions of the others that it is held to reveal at safe, respected distances from their interpreters. Once historians acknowledged Africans’ human accessibility and plunged into the uncertain contexts of alien disciplines and of data in half-understood forms from unfamiliar cultures, they encountered contrasts, less absolute than race, that energized their inquiries. The cultural originality that challenged anthropologists to understand Africans as exotic “others” whom time—understood only as progress toward modernity—seemed to have forgotten became a source of revealing contrasts when historians recognized it as products of the creativity of people like themselves. Scholars with personal backgrounds in the cultures of Africa gained a parallel sense of understanding from their mastery of Western historical method and often led colleagues from Western backgrounds in understanding Africans’ histories that were their own.97
Historians achieved a similarly subtle, biased balance between history and its sister disciplines as they generated historical ways of contemplating Africa’s past out of anthropology, political science, archaeology, linguistics, and other ways of knowing characterized by the primacy of theory. In sharp contrast to history, theory achieves coherence largely by abstracting selected elements from their historical contexts, to expose the logical relationships among them. Because history’s core subject is the human experience, that of the historian as well as those of the historian’s subjects, because all human situations exhibit multiple facets, and because historical actors shift their attention selectively among them and act momentarily in relation to many different ones, historians therefore must appropriate theories and models in eclectic multiples, not to test any one of them on its own terms but rather to apply the relevant insights of all, pragmatically, to the compound ambiguity of past experience—in combinations that are historical because each is unique to its moment. Because the external rationality of any single theory may explain behavioral tendencies of large aggregates of people over long periods of time, the theorized disciplines—philosophical as well as social and psychological sciences—reveal the longue durée tendencies, cultural assumptions, and general human inclinations that are vital aspects of historical context.
The disciplinary distractions of historians’ early efforts in Africa thus derived not from inherent limits of the social-science theory and structure they employed but rather from their having to substitute conclusions from them for evidence from the past. Historians simply lacked sufficient data independent of their own imaginations to hold generalizing disciplines in heuristically secondary positions, supportive of their primary project of particularizing moments. In pursuit of the illusion of “tribes,” they also attempted to blur distinctions among the distant epistemologies by treating them as if they focused on the same elements of past historical contexts. For example, historians hoped that momentous subjects consciously remembered in oral tradition might directly confirm evidence of the thoroughly unremarkable aspects of life retrieved through archaeological methods; or, historians and anthropologists—in efforts recurrent as both disciplinary camps confronted their need for the other—thought it possible to synthesize a “historical anthropology” or an “anthropological history.” But they learned that the dialectic of thinking interdisciplinarily does not resolve on the plane of method. Rather, Africanists of all academic persuasions maintained their academic composures separate from others and applied the insights of all simultaneously or, as they became relevant, to complex historical contexts. There, each contextualized and thereby rendered plausible conclusions reached independently through others. Engaged historically through intuitive application to human contexts, scrupulous respect for inherent differences among academic disciplines preserved the integrity of each and enriched the productivity of all. The balance among them paralleled history’s differentiated affect of scholar and subject and its mutual testing of intuition and induction.
Once historians learned enough about African local and regional dynamics to juxtapose them against Europe’s experience, they engaged perhaps the most dynamic differential contrast of all, Africans seen as living in coherent “worlds of their own,” fully integral but not isolated, stood in fertile tension with broader currents of world history. Africans had in fact lived in broader historical contexts long before colonial rule in the twentieth century, and before their contact with the Atlantic economy over the preceding three hundred years. They had interacted with the Islamic world in transformative degrees for nearly a millennium preceding the consolidation of classical Egyptian civilization there. The interpretation of these historical interactions as African borrowing “traits” abstracted from their historical contexts had generated no fruitful dynamic, nor had the effort to endow Africans with agency by isolating them within separated spheres of autonomy. Equally, single-sided “domination” by European colonialism, “modernization” by industrial civilization, or feminized “penetration” by world capitalism had left Africans passive, reactive subordinates. But balanced tension between regional and global rhythms of change in African contexts summoned up the proximate differences, distanced intimacies, of active historical inquiry.98
The differences exploited by contemplating Europeans’ experiences in Africa together with Africans’ experience of global historical processes99 suggest that change in the large, persisting “civilizations” favored by progressive history in fact originates on their fringes, not in their relatively stable centers. Just as the Kuhnian process in science operates at the margins of awareness and intelligibility and as the unknown stimulates historical curiosity, it is at the edges of what is familiar that people in history encounter others different enough from themselves to appear baffling, where strangers pose challenges they are not prepared to meet, and to which they may respond with innovation.100 The alternative reaction—hatred, denial, incomprehension—leads only to the loss of perspective from which unduly ethnic history—African as well as European—suffers. But history’s humanistic premise of commonality, of intelligibility, turns dread of the unknown into a quest for explanation. In the case of Africa, differences had exceptional power to challenge the historical discipline, since they assumed extreme forms, wrapped in the emotional garb of race that lurked at the core of progressive history, appeared to transgress its apotheosis of evidence in documentary form, confronted modernists with present practices like witchcraft presumed left behind by the advance of civilization in Europe, and—far beyond what Africans in fact were doing—represented fanciful projections of private subjectivities that progressive historians’ insistence on rational objectivity most obscured from themselves. Explanation of anomalies as multiple and sensitive as these that Africa seemed to present could not but deepen professional historical sensibilities and broaden historians’ skills.101
Finally, historians turn to the past to implement their tragic sensibility to transitoriness only in part because ephemerality and contingency appear there in demonstrable ways. The past matters equally to the epistemology of history because evidence rooted firmly and inalterably in times gone by remains inaccessibly impervious to the inquirer’s imagination in the present. Strict respect for the pastness of evidence renders it inaccessible and thus immunizes historians against the constant temptation to manipulate it in the service of concerns of their own, created by history’s contravening metaphors of continuity and contiguity. It thus preserves the distance that makes historians of those who engage the lives of others, back then. Time, or—as Africans see it—absence within communities of empathy, makes the difference from which the vitality of historical inquiry flows.
Africans thus historicized as people with pasts of their own, with autonomous contributions distinguishable from the passivity assigned them by slavery, and with identities no longer rendered invisible by its racial sequels, are poised to enter the world’s longer-established historical regions. More Africans than Europeans reached the Americas until sometime early in the nineteenth century, as we have known for long enough to think more carefully than most have done about the implications of the fact, and recent evidence confirms that 80 percent of the women and 90 percent of the children coming before 1800 to the New World from the Old traveled in the holds of slaving vessels.102 Historical insights are now passing in both directions between Africa and Europe and the Americas, no less than Europeans and Africans have long interacted across the Mediterranean and all around the Atlantic.103 The regional fields that once confined action within contexts distortingly narrow are becoming “globalized.” Once historians recognize Africans as people with stories of their own, they expand their vision of large parts of mainland North American colonies to take account of the Africans who helped, however involuntarily, to make those places what they became. The significant presence of their African-American descendants, whatever their nominal exclusion by reason of race, then follows ineluctably. With Africans brought in from the cold beyond the periphery, Atlantic history stands solidly on three legs,104 and Africans join others around the world as intelligible participants in themes central to European history,105 beyond their former bit parts as foils for European follies overseas. By the maxim of history’s enrichment by diverse and comprehensive context—“research locally, but think globally”—all need all the others, and to equal degrees.
I am not the first president of this Association to acknowledge—at least implicitly through my confidence that lessons learned from doing history in Africa matter to historians specialized in fields once considered remote—the opportunity that the American Historical Association presents, distinctively among our many other, more specialized professional societies, to deepen understanding by providing a forum for cultivating awareness of the full historical context in which all whom we study in fact lived.106 The AHA has taken fruitful steps in recent years to “globalize regional histories,” in the phrase of one recent initiative, in the pages of this Review, and in supporting development of sophisticated historical thinking on a world scale.107 The “Atlantic context” of North American history and the global aspects of modern European history, not to mention the position of Christian Europe for a millennium before on the periphery of the Islamic world, and the Indo-centric and Afro-Eur-Asian dynamics around the Mediterranean long before the age of Philip V of Spain, all thrive on the stimulus of balancing, without abandoning, perspectives inherent in each against pulses of change in the others. The subjectivity essential to history comes alive in this interplay; we realize ourselves most fully when we engage with others unlike ourselves. Historians have achieved productive diversity as the discipline has matured, but—as progressive history showed—stark differentiation without compensating engagement is sterile. As the inclusive arena in which historians can avoid disintegrating into isolated, inert fragments, the American Historical Association keeps newer styles of history from taking older ones for granted and exposes older ones to resonances of the new that animate what they have already accomplished. Africa offers historians a rich challenge as part of this process, a place not fundamentally opposed to “ourselves,” as progressive history once constructed it, but one stimulatingly distinct in modulated ways from which all historians gain by including, just as Africanists thrive on being included.
Joseph C. Miller is T. Cary Johnson, Jr. Professor of History at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1972. His research has concentrated on early Africa, particularly Angola. He has written two monographs, Kings and Kinsmen: Early Mbundu States in Angola (1976) and Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730–1830 (1988), and numerous shorter studies. Way of Death received the Herskovits Prize of the African Studies Association and a Special Citation from the American Historical Association’s Bolton Prize Committee in 1989. Miller has compiled a definitive bibliography of Slavery and Slaving in World History, 2 vols. (1999), with some 15,000 entries, and plans to write a historical survey of this ubiquitous form of human domination.