Primer: Rewriting of Sub-Saharan African History
The history of Africa, and especially Sub-Saharan Africa, has often been presented from a Eurocentric point of view. This essay by scholar Mariana Gino traces the efforts by Black intellectuals around the globe to re-center Africans in the narrative of African history — an important primer for teachers of world history.
The movement to rewrite the history of Black Africa (sub-Saharan) was of singular importance, built by African intellectuals in the 1960s. The epistemological base of this intellectual and political renewal was developed by African-American intellectuals at the end of the nineteenth century. These intellectuals, such as Frantz Fanon, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Cheink Anta Diop, began to question fiercely the ways in which white European and American intellectuals appropriated the prerogative of writing the history of the whole rest of the world without giving voice to the histories and cultures of the ancient African and indigenous peoples. Such a prerogative began in the Enlightenment period when European intellectuals and scholars asserted that they were better qualified to construct and determine what is and is not history, while also assuming that Europe was the highest and best of all human cultures ever produced. The educational centers of the European continent and in the United States perpetrated this idea of cultural and historical superiority. It was in these educational centers that African-American and African intellectuals were trained as well. African intellectuals sought to break with historical interpretations that placed the history of sub-Saharan Africa as dependent on European history. African historians proposed a rewriting of the history of the African continent based on their regional and cultural experiences as historical subjects. Black Africa in many ways resembled Edward Said’s formulation of the "East" as “almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” This new stream of African historians Joseph Ki-Zerbo, Boubo Hama, Djibril Niani, Amadou Hampate Bâ, proposed a new approach that demystified and deconstructed harmful European inventions about the history of Black Africa. Termed the “Inverted Pyramid” by historian Carlos Lopes which describes the phenomenon of when an inferiorized group manages to modify its inferiorized situations. This focus on Africanism was further encouraged by the project of the General History of Africa Collection sponsored by UNESCO in the 1960s.
If we can propose a historical investigation on the African continent, by means of methods and paradigms focused on the particularities of the continent, it is because there was a strong Black intellectual mobilization. This mobilization proposed, in a very emphatic way, a revival of Afrocentric theoretical and methodological assumptions connected to but distinct from Eurocentric theoretical and methodological assumptions. Since the 1960s we have witnessed the emergence of Africanist analysis by Africans committed to a new internal vision where Africans become writers and protagonists of their own stories. These new historical perspectives seek to recover and preserve oral traditions as one of the fundamental bases for the construction of narratives and glimpse interpretations on the constitutive processes of social institutions and African identities. When we look at the contemporary movements of decolonization of postcolonial ideas and writings, we will see a strong political and ideological trait, especially in the works written and published by African-American and African intellectuals. These traits marked the entire generation of African researchers in the nineteenth century who tried to establish an epistemological distance between African Studies, which prioritize an epistemology focused on African values, and Eurocentric, which prioritize an epistemology focused on European values. Such distancing has become the basis for the promotion of specific academic courses and chairs within the higher education centers of the North American and European Academies.
In the early 1950s, tens of thousands of poor and landless Kikuyus revolted against the Kenyan colonial government and wealthy members of their own community who were allied with the British regime. Known as the "Mau Mau Emergency," this rebellion was one of the most serious threats to British rule in Africa. The widespread lawlessness of the Emergency inspired many young Africans to dress as scouts. The uniform gave them extra security because school officials and policemen assumed they were trustworthy, which helps to explain why the security forces captured and killed Kikuyu guerillas dressed as scouts.
This photograph shows a mixed-sex guerilla band led by a man wearing a scout-type shirt with scout badges running down his sleeves. Obviously staged, it was most likely taken well after the end of the Emergency in the early 1960s to remind Jomo Kenyatta’s incoming African nationalist government that it had to pay attention to the plight of impoverished young Kikuyu if it wanted to keep the peace. It is also possible, however, that Mau Mau units like these used scout uniform and decorations as symbols of authority within the rebel forces.
This source is a part of the African Scouting (20th c.) teaching module.
Mariana Gino is a PhD student in Comparative History from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro; General Secretary of the Joseph Ki-Zerbo International Center for Africa and the Diaspora; Researcher at the Center for Articulation of Marginalized Populations (CEAP).