Pre-, Post-, Colonial – Periodising African History

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On Saturday 11 September 2021, we held a seminar to discuss the continued effect of colonisation on the periodisation of African history. Below is a summary of some of the key questions raised by our conversation. Many of these are worthy of further exploration and we welcome any suggestions for how we could take any of these conversations forward:

The Question of Ownership and History – who owns a historical narrative and should this affect how we engage with it, including periodising it?

This issue was raised by Dr Seraphin Kamdem following our discussion on historical revisionism in the African tradition coming out of the essay by Akinola (please see the seminar page for details). Dr Kamdem proposed that issues of the ownership of historical narratives are a priori considerations that must be resolved before one even begins considering matters of  historical narrative or truth. History as an academic discipline differentiates itself from the social phenomenon through its borrowing and use of the tools of scientific enquiry to explore the past. Empiricism wins out and establishing the absolute dates and absolute truths of historical narratives take precedence over  social utility. Dr Kamdem offered that we cannot disregard the social utility of history and the consequences of relegating this utility to the findings of scientific enquiry. All of this goes to the heart of issues in the philosophy of history.

Authenticity, Truth and History – how do such practices as periodisation touch on the authenticity and truth of historical narratives?

This issue was raised by Dr Kamdem in the same context as the above. What comes to mind is the idea that the tools must fit the task, that is to say surely “authentic” African historical narratives are those that are the production of people and processes steeped in the African philosophy of history i.e. African history is no more and no less than what the Africans who are the subject of it say it is. This idea touches on the ongoing battle of sorts between pathologies of western truth on the one hand, and the defence of epistemologies of the south on the other (SEE: Epistemologies of the South by Boaventura de Sousa Santos). Philosopher Olufemi Taiwo in his seminal “How Colonism Preempted Modernity in Africa” (2010) as well as in a number of papers since has actively called for greater philosophical consideration of African intellectual history. Thus, there is hope that the academy will soon produce more critical thought in this area.

Periodisation in the classroom – should we be encouraging students and their teachers to challenge periodisation in the classroom and in initiatives such as the Model United Nations?

This question comes out of one raised by Naomi Richards in the chat which asked about how everything we were discussing re: periodisation would manifest in the classroom when teaching African nation states. Something that could help here would be to extend existing teaching about nationalism – which I believe now focuses almost exclusively on western Europe at KS3/4/5 – to consider one or two African countries. The objective would be to ensure the teaching of African nationalism proper (with all of its domestic movements) and not the teaching merely of anti-colonial/independence campaigns. This is because not all anti-colonialists were nationalists proper, as some suggest may be seen in the internal debates about unitary vs. federal governments ahead of independence.

On the specific question raised, when did Nigeria “start” so the speak – using Nigeria as an example, the year of independence from the European power remains the safest bet I would say, so in this case it would be 1960. But to enhance the contributions students could make, asking them to also research key constitutional developments in the lead up to independence will allow them to give more accurate and nuanced presentations. So for example with Nigeria students could cover: the fall of Lagos 1851/61, the North/South amalgamation 1914, Anthony Enahoro’s independence motion 1953 and the (pre-dominantly northern) opposition to that motion. This will give students an understanding of the internal relations and how this could affect how Nigeria responds to international affairs. This sort of approach is what we teach on our Foundation Certification in African History – please let me know if you would like more information about this.

1884 and Historical causation – is it going too far to completely disregard1884 as a turning point in African history when we cannot dismiss the colonial period altogether in the same way?

The point was raised by Ajak Kuel that completely disregarding 1884 in African History may not be the best approach as that would be to ignore the possibility of delayed impact or the multi-causal nature of such complex eventualities like the colonisation of an entire continent. I think this is very important as with any kind of re-reading there is always the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. “Pre-, Post-, Colonial” periodisation may allow us to consider African history from very important perspectives. Whether or not the noted turning points of this periodisation were truly consequential on the continent, this periodisation has been used by many African scholars since and it forms a part of African identity, at the very least the idea that we are now in the post-colonial world (whatever that means!)

Africanist Readings of the British Empire – why can Africanist scholars/departments not teach the British Empire?

This was an important question (and perhaps challenge to the academy!) from Unifier Dyer that touched on the suggestion that an African Studies/History department that teaches the British Empire is inherently colonialist. This asks questions about the limits of liberation – surely true freedom is the right to study/teach anything, not the limited right to study/teach your history alone. Rather tangentially, this reminded me of a lecture I recently attended in which the author Colin Grant, recounted the story behind the title of his biography of Marcus Garvey, “Negro with a Hat“. He said the idea came to him when visiting a photography exhibition in which there were two photographs on a wall, both showing men seated and wearing hats. The first image of a white man was labelled, “man in hat”. The second image was labelled “negro in hat”. Ms Dyer’s question touches on an important point about othering, demarcations, and limitations in Black intellectualism – should Black scholars study history, or Black history, or has the time come to drop the “Black” qualifier across the board, in the naming photographs and thesis alike?

Apeike Umolu | Tuesday 21 September 2021