Who Writes History?

Tiffany Wheatland

This was a question posed to students in my Origins of Contemporary Africa course, a course which explores issues around African economic and social development. This course examines dominant themes in Africa’s post-colonial history, focusing on the opportunities and challenges facing contemporary Africa.

“The winners,” responds one student. “Europeans,” responded another. “Those in power,” was a common refrain echoed by several voices in the room. History is written by those in power, I agreed, acknowledging the validity of the various responses offered.

If we are to accept this view, that history is indeed written by those in power, then we must also accept that history, is necessarily a construct, reflecting the realities and the fantasies of those possessing the ability to etch their truths and untruths eternally into the psyche of human memory.

History is experienced, observed, encountered from a particular perspective; seen through a certain lens. What becomes history, is invariably interpreted from dominant/mainstream, elitist perspectives. Eurocentrism, Afrocentrism, Asiancentrism and various other ethnocentric tendencies have all, in some way or other, informed human history to the detriment of one another. While the tendency to view one’s own culture as dominant and therefore superior, may be an inherently human tendency, they have also become a natural human flaw, deleterious to the whole narrative of human history. Such tendencies have served to perpetuate an account of history which promotes a narrow and self-centered view of past events to the exclusion of a wider world view.

I take great pride in teaching about the history of Africa partly because it is such rich history, but more importantly, because teaching “Africa” poses an opportunity to correct the narrative of our collective past.

Among the greatest crimes against humanity has been the systematic attempts to erase and destroy evidence of African history, particularly, the origins of African civilization. This destruction of history has had innumerable, harmful effects on Africa, its diaspora populations and the larger global community.  Of course, Africans are certainly not the only victims of such a distortion of history. The destruction of culture and the erasure of human narratives has been experienced by indigenous groups, the world over. The suppression and outright annihilation of a true African narrative, facilitated by consistent efforts to assimilate the Black race, is born unsurprisingly of the development of an ideology of white supremacy.

Eurocentrism, a termed coined in the 1980s has its historical roots in the European Renaissance, an age preceding even the slave trade of the 15th century.  The concept of race as based on biological human differences was developed by Europeans during the period of European imperialism, as an arbitrary social construct, used as the basis for colonial subjugation of non-White peoples. Slavery itself, as tool of imperialism has historically, been justified by an ideology which rejects the humanity of the Black person by objectifying their bodies and renouncing their spirits. Even following the abolishment of slavery, Eurocentric bigotry served to shape European perceptions of the African as inherently inferior.

Deliberate attempts to render an entire “race” of people irrelevant were systematized and incorporated into the very laws upon which many modern societies were based. Historical examples include, the colonial destruction of indigenous cultures and forced assimilation of Blacks. The legacy of Jim Crow and state-sponsored disenfranchisement, specifically mass incarceration and state wanton disregard for Black life, serve as more contemporary examples.  These policies, among others, have made it  imperative to put forward a corrective interpretation which focuses on the African narrative as human history because it too represents the wider world view. We must recalibrate our understanding of the history of Africans as the center of human history, not its periphery.

To achieve this, what is needed is a world-centric interpretation of history.  One which represents the views of the whole, not the narrow view of those who wield the power to tell it. We must develop a corrective which interrogates the mainstream understanding of the roots of civilization and contemporary human development and acknowledges that we are a collective  and as such, our history must be told not from one perspective, but from many.

Tiffany Wheatland is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  Follow her on Twitter: @twheatland. Blog: africanorientation.wordpress.com

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