By Audra A. Diptee.
In the early 1950s, the United States was in the midst of heated debate about the Jim Crow laws that legalized racial segregation in the South. No doubt inspired by the ongoing national debate, the historian C. Vann Woodward began researching the history of segregation. As he saw it, the contemporary debate on segregation was grounded in “faulty or inadequate historical information” and sociological theories “based upon erroneous history.” As an American citizen, he felt compelled to use his expertise as a historian to bring insights to the events that were unfolding around him; he wanted to inform debates that were taking place about very real issues that affected the daily lives of his fellow citizens; he hoped to disrupt the mythologized narratives that had become part of the popular discourse. In other words, his historical questions were shaped by national events that were part of his lived reality.
Unfortunately, for much of the Global South, the trends in historical production are often driven by forces that are far removed from the lived realities of people living in the developing world. The consequence of this circumstance is something I have been contemplating for some time. In an insightful piece written in the New York Times, Adaobi T. Nwaubani makes it clear that novelists in Africa face similar challenges. In words of congratulations for the publication of her book with a US-based press, Nwaubani’s friend pointed out that she had learnt “what the white people wanted to read and given it to them.” There is a parallel to be made with the situation among historians (and I imagine academics operating in other disciplines …).
The historiographies of much of the Global South are driven by the intellectual curiosities of historians based in North America and Europe. These are individuals whose lived realities are far removed from the places they are studying. To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with “outsiders” offering historical interpretations about societies in which they do not live. In fact, there is no question that they may have valuable insights to share. There is something very wrong, however, when Western intellectual curiosities are privileged and dominate the trends in history writing for other parts of the world. It reflects “the continuation of the oppressive and exploitative legacies of a colonial patriarchal order that excludes … large swathes of the world’s intellectuals …” (Amina Mama, 2007).
In the same way that Vann Woodward’s historical pursuit about segregation was inspired by contemporary events in the United States, it seems reasonable to assume that historians in places such as India and Ghana, for example, might also be driven to write histories that are inspired by their lived realities. They too might hope to disrupt popular mythologies that inform contemporary discussions and to write histories that are actually meaningful to the societies in which they live. Their ground level perspective – not to mention the fact that they are invested in these societies by virtue of living in them – necessarily means that they are better positioned to put their finger on the pulse of these societies. For these historians, the Global South is much more than an intellectual playground and a place to pursue history for the sake of history; it is more than a place to study at a distance and to test theories for the sake of testing theories; and, it is certainly much more than an opportunity to write books that will guarantee tenure, promotion, and pay raises.
And for those academics who are inclined to resurrect the tiresome argument that historians have a responsibility to pursue their research in a disinterested fashion, my response is quite simply this: history is always political. If you are in doubt of this, then ask yourself why one of the first things a dictator does when he gets into power is to ensure that history textbooks are rewritten to serve the desired agenda. And if my words have no currency with you, then please (please!) read Howard Zinn’s very impressive book The Politics of History (1970). He more or less damned historians who advocated that the profession had a responsibility to be “disinterested, neutral, scientific, and objective.” Historians have an obligation, of course, to stay faithful to the methods of the discipline, and to maintain academic integrity – but their interpretations are political whether they choose to admit it or not. Scholars in the Global South who choose to study the postcolonial world they inherited, do not have the luxury of denying the politics inherent in historical production.
Of course one could point out that there is an increasing number of scholars from the Global South who have found employment in North America and Europe. As one of them, I can attest to the conflicted space in which many of us live. On the one hand, there is a desire to write books that engage with historiographies produced in the Global South; there is also the temptation to publish with presses that take distribution in the Global South seriously, and sells books at prices that might be affordable to scholars outside of North America and Europe. On the other hand, expat-scholars are all familiar with, and vulnerable to, the Western snobberies that assume scholarship published in presses in the Global South are necessarily sub-standard. The assumption being, of course, that if one could publish with Cambridge University press or an equivalent press, then one would. Little – if any – priority is given to producing work that is accessible to scholars in the Global South and engages with discourses produced in the very societies being studied. In fact, I would argue that few Western academics truly understand – or even contemplate – the ways in which they are complicit in the “failure to decolonize intellectual life” (Amina Mama, 2007).
Mama, Amina, “Is it Ethical to Study Africa? Preliminary thoughts on Scholarship and Freedom.” African Studies Review, Vol. 50 (1), 2007, 1-26.
Nwaubani, Adaobi Tricia. “African Books for Western Eyes.” The New York Times. November 28, 2014. See http://nyti.ms/1rEufh5
Vann Woodward, Comer. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Oxford University Press, 1955.
Zinn, Howard. The Politics of History. Beacon Press, 1970.