Working with Histories that Haunt Us

tags: archives, African history, primary sources, Togo, Postcolonial history

Marius Kothor is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of history at Yale University. She has broad research interests in 20th century African history, gender, and Black internationalism. Her dissertation project has been award fellowships from the Fulbright (IIE) program, the Social Science Research Council (IDRF), and the Fulbright-Hays (DDRA) Program. She has published essays in a number of venues including: The New York Times, The History News Network, and The Professor Is In blog. You can follow her on Twitter @MariusKothor

When I first began to conceptualize my dissertation project, I knew I wanted to write about an iconic group of textile traders in Togo called the Nana Benz. These women are the stuff of legends in my native country and although many think of their wealth and political influence as a contemporary phenomenon, I sought to historicize their political activism in Togo by highlighting the instrumental role they played in the nation’s anti-colonial struggle. While I didn’t know the exact contours of this history, I knew I was going to end the dissertation in 1963. That year, a group of disaffected soldiers who fought in France’s colonial army assassinated Togo’s anti-colonial nationalist leader and first president, Sylvanus Olympio. A few days later, one of the soldiers, Etienne Eyadema, confessed to firing the shots that killed Olympio. Exactly three decades later, Eyadema forced my family into exile.

In the early 1990s, the people of Togo staged a series of demonstrations pressuring Eyadema to institute democratic reforms. Eyadema—who had at that point ruled Togo for over 25 years under a single party system—refused and instead began campaign terror that left tens of thousands of people dead and forced at estimated 300,000 into exile. The conflict forced my family into refugee camps in Benin were we lived with other displaced Togolese families for seven years.

In a recent essay for The New Republic historian James Robins asks: can historians be traumatized by history? Robins offered a number of heartbreaking examples to highlight the devastating toll research on historical atrocities can have on scholars. Yet, Robins doesn’t take into account the fact that a scholar’s response to their work is as much a product of who they are as it is about the topics they study. As a Togolese refugee, the depths of my mourning for what Togo could have been if Eyadema had not come to power in 1963 is so deep that, for a long time, I feared I would lose myself in the abyss if I looked at the history of Eyadema’s rise to power too squarely in the face.

Thus, the year 1963 was my Pandora’s Box and I designed my dissertation so that I would never have to open it. Not only would this allow me to conform to disciplinary fantasies of “objectivity,” I thought, it would protect me from the emotional toll of writing about a history that haunts me. The Covid-19 pandemic and the disruptions it brought to my research schedule forced me to rethink this approach.

Like much of the world, my plans for the latter half of 2020 were upended by the pandemic. Unable to travel to Togo for research, I began to look towards the limited sources on Togolese history in my university’s archives. In the fall, when the libraries were briefly opened, I requested a few boxes containing pamphlets, brochures and speeches from Togo, looking for anything that could inform my dissertation writing. In the archival reading room, I worked through the folders jotting down notes and taking pictures of the documents. When I reached the last folder, however, I was jolted out of this rhythm. There, in bright red colors, was a front page newspaper article documenting the violence that would eventually force my family to flee Togo.

Read entire article at Black Perspectives

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