Africa's Pasts and Africa's Historians

Frederick Cooper
1999 African Sociological Review  
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more » ... enne des Études Africaines. There are many ways of approaching the past. What is called "history" in European, American, or African universities is only one of them. As V.Y. Mudimbe and Bogumil Jewsiewicki observe, "Africans tell, sing, produce (through dance, recitation, marionette puppets), sculpt, and paint their history" (1993, 3). One should not make the division between academic history and other varieties too sharp: the mission graduates of the 1920s or 1930s who wrote down "their" oral traditions were simultaneously mediating between genres, acting within local idioms that phrased political arguments in terms of collective memory, and redefining the source material for academic history. And scholars from Blyden to Cheikh Anta Diop were engaging western philosophical discourse, taking it seriously while refusing to accept basic premises; they confronted the idea of a history of "western civilization" with an "Africa" of mature civilizations and vital influence on other parts of the world.1 Mamadou Diouf's article, which is published in this issue, brings out the rejection of "history" by intellectuals like Ashis Nandy, Ousmanne Sembene, and Archie Mafeje, a rejection of a history that confines the zigzags of time into linear pathways, privileges states over all other forms of human connection, and tells a story of "progress" inevitably leaving Africans or Asians on the side, lacking some crucial characteristic necessary to attain what is otherwise "universal." My work on this article has been stimulated by collaboration with Mamadou Diouf on our companion pieces, and, indeed, by conversations we have had over the years. Earlier versions were presented to a CODESRIA-sponsored conference in Johannesburg in September 1998 and to the African Studies Seminar at Columbia University in March 1999. I am grateful to participants at those occasions for their comments. 298 Cooper: Africa's Pasts and Africa's Historians 299 Such critiques hit home, leaving unclear what to do next. Writing, talking, and performing the past in forms outside the canon of professional history have much that is valuable to add to debate in political arenas big and small. The boundaries of the canon, as much as its contents, deserve scrutiny. But if the endpoint of the critique is to dismiss rather than engage history, one risks reincarnating the old saw that Africans are people without history, adding to it that Africans are people who do not want to have one. If the only form of politics in today's world took place among self-contained blocks and bounded cultures, rejectionist arguments directed at forms of knowledge that call themselves "western" would have some utility. But Africans and people for whom Africa is a crucial point of reference are actors on a world scene, and have been so for a long time. Africa's engagement with the rest of the world has been painful and tragic, but the struggles of Africans for one or another form of liberation have, among other things, vitally affected what it means to be "free." Africans have not had an equal voice in determining what "universal" values are, but theirs has been a vital voice nonetheless. This article takes up some historiographical implications of such an observation. It brings out the possibilities and difficulties of writing histories that neither impose a singular model of progress nor posit a kaleidoscopic world of disparate and fragmentary communities, whether fluid or rigid. It takes seriously critiques of a universality that turns out to be western, or of a nationalism that replicates imperialist categories, but it argues that that engagement and struggle have shaped what citizenship, the nation-state, and human rights actually mean. This article does not seek to wall off an objective history from political argumentation; instead, it emphasizes the importance of historical analysis in countering other historical visions on which particular images of Africa are based. History can be invoked to project claims backward, as in evocations of a "rising" West, whose legacy to the present is democracy and progress, or evocations of an authentic ethnic past that leaders of a "community" can use to police the boundaries of the collectivity and maintain its solidarity. But historical arguments can also expose coercion and oppression and emphasize the limits of power. They can suggest that there are more possible futures and pasts 300 CJAS / RCEA 34:2 2000 than the master narrative lets on. The material means to do history are no more equal than the distribution of military or economic power around the world, but inequality does not mean impossibility. History and the West: The Universal, the Particular, and the Provincial A number of "postcolonial" theorists, such as Nandy (1995, 44-66) , argue that history is inseparable from its imperialist origins, that it necessarily imposes its understanding of people's past over their own. He has a pointhistory is no more innocent of its past than any other human endeavor, and it is a past of power and inequality, not a symmetrical past. But his argument is itself an historical one. Nandy must first reveal the power of imperialism in order to associate history with it. The record of academic history is indeed filled with an order imposed on unruly pasts. Scholars often tell the history of literate societies while leaving the non-literate to other disciplines; they write about the formation of nation-states and shunt aside other forms of political affiliation. But the imposition of order is not unique to academic historians; the griot tells his story in a particular, structured way. Only by aggregating all sorts of renderings of the past does one come up with the idea that non-academic history is more plural, more diverse than academic history. Moreover, academic history can be mobilized to counter the very biases that it generates. There are gatekeepers within the professionas with any otherwhose self-assigned task is policing precisely this, but they do not always get their way. Struggles will be waged over what kinds of histories should be allowed "in," and it would be a political, as well as an intellectual, mistake to surrender the battlefield. The power to shape debate is not distributed equally. But asymmetry is not dichotomy. Too neat a separation between African forms of representing an authentically African past and European modes of representing a subordinated African past makes it harder to get at the ways in which different representational strategies affect each other. The ways of approaching the past alluded to by Mudimbe and Jewsiewicki do not merely portray the virtues of an unsullied Africa; they have things to say about European rulers and their successors. And the "western" history that Nandy criticized
doi:10.4314/asr.v3i2.23163 fatcat:nar6twbasbdpjamrry4oubpaee