Opinion: On the African History section of bookstores

Solvej Lee/The Occidental

Lacking. This is the overall quality and conclusion that many African-descended and African people can come to when visiting most bookstores in the United States. Often, this can seem strange in a country where uniqueness and identity are supposedly prized possessions. Perhaps even more curious is how much larger the Black studies or African American studies sections are compared to African history. From the average Barnes & Nobles to the corner used bookshop, we have enough theories, biographies, histories and speeches of the Civil Rights movement for the civilization after ours. Yet, whoever these inheritors of the Earth may be, they may find African history as distant a legend as we do with Troy.

The books in the African history section can be divided into two mutually reinforcing categories: colonial bloodletting and post-colonial disaster. Books of the former type include histories of colonization and genocide (“King Leopold’s Ghost”) or personal memoirs from white settlers (“Out of Africa”) — literature that only discusses Africa in relation to European imperialism. The latter type ranges from biographies of Africa’s numerous “postcolonial” tragedies: oppression from lunatic dictators (many supported by former colonizers), famine, waves of disease (AIDS chief among them) and generalized disorder. This genre is more familiar to contemporary readers than the previous one.

Colonial history — outside of the spaces that make up post-colonial studies in the humanities — is generally unknown and only marks its presence with colonizer-nations celebrating their colonizing history, whether explicitly (think of the bizarre nostalgia for empire in the UK) or not (France and its relationship with its former possessions in West Africa).

The African section of a typical U.S. bookstore provokes one massive question: to what extent does Africa exist, and can its history be represented as a single geographical body? American history can be represented by its adventures in the frontier and its relatively speedy rise as a global hegemon. Why is it that Africa is never given the same benefit?

Africans outside of Africa mostly are familiar with their history. History outside of the continent, whether it be the maroons such as Palmares in Brazil, the revolts and revolutions such as the Haitian Revolution that forced abolition and the numerous instrumental Black theoretical and mass movements, have forced the issue of systematic racism oppression and securing themselves. If we are to celebrate the many achievements of the diaspora, why is it that passivity defines the continent?

Despite the emancipatory legacy of Pan-Africanism, Africa, in contemporary media, is always represented as a unitary whole; however, the positive aspects of an African personality or shared heritage are turned against themselves by becoming the continent defined by metaphysical anarchy that can only be meditated by “generous” NGOs, pseudo-developmental schemes from the IMF and World Bank and the semi-annual pity — which rarely comes in the form of an apology — from former colonizers who continue to ruin the continent.

Even Enlightenment thinkers such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose philosophy of history would be instrumental in the development of Marxism which proved vital to numerous revolutionary movements on the continent, declared Africans were without history. This search for a celebration of “Africanness” is at the forefront of Black thought. Steve Biko, the famous martyr of the anti-Apartheid cause in South Africa, reflected in his article “We Blacks,” writing, “Africa was the dark continent. Religious practices and customs were referred to as superstition. The history of African Society was reduced to tribal battles and internecine wars.”

Biko’s statement isn’t simply a matter of opinion. During the colonial period, Imperial Europe produced not only economic underdevelopment of the continent but a cultural assault against Africanness. From the novels of Joseph Conrad, Jane Austen and Rudyard Kipling to the travel writings of explorers, Africa is exclusively depicted as a lawless continent without a heart or evidence of humanity. However, this image of Africa, is just that — an image rather than a fact.

Pre-colonial Africa was a complex and often extraordinary cosmopolitan place, especially parts of continents like the Mali Empire, the Swahili coast and Great Zimbabwe. Works such as “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” by Walter Rodney and “Fist Full of Shells” by Toby Green expose racist myths of Africa merely being “undeveloped” as African societies maintained complex economies interlinked to the global trading scheme of the pre-colonial era. Rodney and Green maintain that African societies were purposely “undeveloped” by the violence of colonial governance and the seeds of economic dependency caused by this violence. If we as a humanity are defined by anything, it is our remarkable complexity; Africa is no different. Rather, it is a champion of this. Writers such as Rodney and Green are excellent in providing a picture of the past, yet histography can only do so much.

There is another often misunderstood option: joy. This has been perhaps the most popular of celebrating Africanness, yet it has its own limits. Joy ought to be a political act rather than a matter of personal taste. In an article close to this subject, scholar Moradewun Adejunmobi warns us of the pitfalls of an uncritical understanding of how to think about joy.

“Pleasure,” writes Adejunmobi, “tends to enter into the record of African studies, then, mainly when it serves an acceptable social or political agenda. But we cannot claim to have a complete understanding of any society, no matter its failures if we ignore its experiences and rationales of pleasure.” Instead of falling for a romantic embrace of the past, an honest attempt to salvage African history from both racist myths and the past narrow “Africanist” ideology must be made in order to restore dignity to the continent.

Bookstores and readers must read Africa as home to endless mythology, culture and beauty. Not as an object of study, but as a core addition to the universal diversity of human beings. Biko reminds us, “Ground for a revolution is always fertile in the presence of absolute destitution.” From the destitution of understanding ourselves, let us be more than anything we choose to imagine.

Contact Matthew Vickers at mvickers@oxy.edu.