Africa from an African Perspective
(Continued from Research page)
I approach the writing of history from an African perspective.
Scholars employing an African perspective are relatively few and underfunded, but they have deepened public understanding and appreciation of African history. They have highlighted some people and events that were wrongly overlooked. Like David battling Goliath, they have helped produce a more accurate record based more on evidence than speculation.
For people who are trained to write about the past, history is more than just “stories;” it is “organized knowledge.” In order to organize knowledge of the past, historians must draw evidence from a variety of sources.
For one of my upcoming books, I used many, many documents that were first published in Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish and French. In addition to documents, I draw evidence from oral traditions, archaeological digs, historical linguistics, studies of cultural patterns embedded in masks and other forms of material culture, regional and continental histories that provide essential context, and even biological anthropology.
Asking Critical Questions
Organizing knowledge involves more than assembling multiple sources. Historians must ask critical questions about each one: Is it authentic? Is it original? Is it reliable? Is it typical? Who created it? When and where and why was it created? Their goal is to “choose reliable sources, to read them reliably, and to put them together in ways that provide reliable narrates about the past.”
This means historians cannot simply assume that sources are telling the truth.
In our battle against racism in scholarship, Africa-centered historians can neither ignore nor bend counter evidence. Doing so deceives our readers, dishonors our ancestors, and diminishes our own reputations. Instead, our writing must involve a constant conversation between the perspective and the evidence.
Just as West African farmers burn a field to clear it of weeds, fell trees and bush, anyone writing African history must first tackle the long, poisoned legacy of racism in Western scholarship.
Burning the Poisonous Weeds
Racism is evident in Liberian studies in the continued classification of the Gola and Kru-speaking people as “hunters and gathers.” That label implies placement at the lower rung of an evolutionary chain with a corresponding lack of “civilization.” But, many transnational corporations today are dependent on “hunting and gathering” timber and seafood from around the world. Why, then, are they considered more civilized that the Gola who trafficked in kola from the forest and the Kru who harvested fish from the ocean?
Despite evidence of local agriculture, pottery and iron smelting, the presence of hunting is used by racist scholars to suggest that some people living in the area of Liberia before 1820 were stuck at a “primitive” stage. However, it is clear that hunting persisted in many parts of West Africa because wild game was plentiful and the presence of the tsetse fly inhibited the keeping of livestock. What is more, the devastating impact of slave-trading actively fueled underdevelopment.
The use of words like “fetish,” “witch,” “country devil” and countless others keep African culture trapped in a language web that portrays it as “strange,” “weird,” even “evil.” Instead of challenging this negative discourse, some Western-educated Africans argue for the continued use of those demeaning words because they are widely used by uneducated Africans. In truth, uneducated Africans copied those pejorative words from their educated brethren of an earlier era who copied them from Western missionaries and “scholars.” Instead of “blaming the victims,” we, educated Africans, must accept responsibility for fixing the problem, since we helped to legitimize this language of racial inferiority.
Escaping Our Unfounded “Shame”
While a lack of evidence has slowed research on Liberians before 1820, so too has a sense of “shame” about our history. Our unfounded “embarrassment” stems mainly from the way our history has been portrayed by Arab Muslims and European Christians. The result is an estrangement from our history, an alienation often accepted as the price for being true Muslims or Christians. If Arabs and white Christians lived by that standard, they would reject pagan traditions that have been incorporated into their contemporary religious practices. Instead, they celebrate the pre-Christian cultures of Arabia, Greece and Rome.
To break out of a patronizing Eurocentric discourse, we must deliberately use more neutral words to describe African culture, such as ethnic group (not “tribe”) and energy or power (not “spirit”).
Rebutting Divisive Scholarship
At a deeper level, my historical works are a rebuttal to the negative, neo-colonial and divisive narrative that dominates Liberian scholarship. That approach has proven politically beneficial to the intellectuals who promote it, but it has devastated our country.
Click below to access some of my research:
- John Brown Russwurm, co-founder of America’s first black newspaper and first black governor of Maryland in Africa
- Functionalism and Cultural Studies, a literature review
- A Southern ideology in early Liberia
- Between the Kola Forest and the Salty Sea: A History of the Liberian People before 1820 (forthcoming)
- Black Christian Republicanism: The Writings of Hilary Teage, Founder of Liberia (forthcoming)
Here are some resources you can use. Find stories to share with the children in your life. Or check the Acts for people, places and organizations in the past:
Monkey work, baboon draw