Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The View From a "Pointless Little Country"

One of the best posts I've read of late came from Cliopatria blogger Timothy Burke, a professor of African history at Swarthmore College. (In addition to Cliopatria, Burke keeps a somewhat more personal blog as well.) Flying home from the recent annual meeting of the American Historical Association, he overheard an exchange between two passengers. Clearly they had also been at the meeting. Evidently they were members of some departmental search committee who had conducted preliminary screening interviews of promising job candidates. That's a common practice at the AHA.

One of them said, “Well, at least I won’t have to think about African history any more.” Sympathetic murmur from her colleague. “Reading all those letters and dossiers! All those pointless little countries!”

I had to pinch myself to avoid saying something. I sometimes think every Africanist begins their career in a midnight ritual where they burn Hugh Trevor-Roper’s infamous declaration, “There is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness and darkness is not a subject of history,” into their memory. In some ways, the entire field of African history is imagined as a sustained answer to Trevor-Roper.
The rest of the post (and the nine comments it generated, most of them quite thoughtful) gets at one of the central problems with history as most of us have been taught to understand it. Abstractly we think of it as the story of humankind, but when we try to operationalize that, it turns out we really mean the story of the part of humankind that holds most of the political, social, cultural, and military power. We can be political or military historians and focus on the kings and generals. We can be social historians and focus on the middle class American consumer. It doesn't matter. Either way we're focusing on the wealthiest segment of the world's population.

They say there's three kinds of people: people who worry where their next meal is coming from, people who get enough to eat but nothing fancy; and people who worry because their diet is so rich it threatens their appearance if not their health. How did the world get divided that way? What keeps it thus divided? What's it like to be live one's entire life in poverty while others have so much? What's it like to have the suspicion--sometimes the dead certainty--that others have so much precisely because you have so little, and the game is rigged to keep it that way.

What's it like to grow up in one of those pointless little countries?

Writer Jamaica Kincaid provides an unforgettable portrayal of what it's like in A Small Place, a small gem of a book that is one of the best introductions to the mindset that undergirds much of the literature on postcolonialism. I read it last year while auditing a graduate readings course in colonialism, women, and sexuality. I discuss the book in two entries:

"Kiss me, Hardy, I'm a maritime criminal."

A small essay on A Small Place.

Check it out. Then check back here, post a comment, and tell me what you think.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Definitely a different perspective. I would say that it does mesh with my belief that human nature never changes. We just have better technology now to express (for better and worse) the same human nature as in ancient days.