Historical Society: The Place of African History





From the introduction to a Forum on the place of African history in world history sponsored by the Historical Society:

THANKFULLY, HISTORIANS HAVE COME A LONG WAY from the late Hugh Trevor-Roper’s dismissive barb made in 1963: “Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of Europe in Africa.” Despite an avalanche of scholarship over the last four decades, however, questions remain about how adequately the history of Africa is being handled by and integrated into the field of world history and—as these pages suggest —into the discipline of history at the epistemological level.

At the 2003 meeting of the African Studies Association, prominent Africanists along with a few invited world historians gathered to discuss the relationship of African and world historians. Opinions ranged from outright skepticism about the legitimacy of the enterprise of world history—suggesting that all too often world historians resort to clichés that homogenize and distort the rich diversity of the African past—to criticism of Africanists for failing to supply world historians with provisional generalizations gleaned from several decades of specialized scholarship. Beyond these concerns, however, lurked a more fundamental set of questions, articulated by Joseph C. Miller. Is it legitimate to interpret African history on the basis of modern, Western conceptual schemes and historiographical conventions? Moreover, how can we move toward more balanced trans-regional histories that interpret the Atlantic, Mediterranean, or Indian Ocean experiences as much from African premises as from familiar modern Western ones? Such questions contain assumptions and carry

implications that challenge us to revisit how we conceptualize historical inquiry itself. Our forum on Africa in World History explores these matters. Miller provides the springboard for our conversation with his “Beyond Blacks, Bondage, and Blame: Why a Multi-Centric World History Needs Africa” which develops themes presented in his 1999 American Historical Association presidential address. Eight scholars representing a variety of perspectives respond, after which Miller offers concluding comments.

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