Tuesday, July 10, 2012
A Change of Perspective
It has been a long time, a very long time, since I have been excited about reading a history text outside my field of academic specialty, but a brief description of David Northrup's Africa's Discovery of Europe (2nd ed) was more than enough to arouse my interest. In this concise but engaging study, Northrup attempts to dissect the Afro-European encounter of the pre-colonial era from the perspective of the Africans. The approach doesn't seem all that novel on its face, until you really begin to consider just how euro-centric our perceptions of the "discovery" of Africa are. It doesn't take long before Northrup begins to turn standard wisdom on its head, forcing the reader to reconsider what idiosyncratic ideologies, politics, and historiographies have motivated the retelling of this history up to this point. The final result is a more fully rounded, realistic picture of Afro-European relations, one that is not dominated by the historiography of racial guilt but which privileges the historical recordings of actual Africans to European assumptions about what Africans must have been doing, feeling, and thinking.
The only real drawback in his exciting new approach is that Northrup has a frustrating habit of hedging his bets, an unfortunate necessity in an academic climate where the fear of political intrusion with its standard accusation of racism has taken on far too much weight. It is so obvious that it ought not need restating that the experience of Africans in the Americas was dominated for centuries by overwhelming racial prejudices. This fact notwithstanding, we ought to have the intellectual fortitude to let the evidence decide what the experience of Africans in Europe was or, for that matter, that of Africans in Africa encountering Europeans. The regular reminders by Northrup that his facts may be tainted, biased, skewed, or corrupted eventually begin to come across as defensive and indecisive, even if he follows these caveats with assurances that he is confident in his rendering. It is not for the historian to remind us that historical records are not scientific data which can be analyzed like so many particles under a microscope.
Nevertheless, Northrup's text is deeply challenging and, because of this, immensely satisfying. He takes direct aim at the popular notion of the African encounter as one between the exploitative light-skinned pillagers and the poor, dark, benighted villagers. He points out that war, plundering, and the slave trade all antedated the Africans first encounters with the European. Taking specific aim at the politicized notion of a European-induced cycle of selling slaves to get guns to capture more slaves, Northrup even cites explicit statements from African rulers that capturing slaves is a centuries old part of African culture (as it was in European culture) and that he never goes to war simply to take slaves. The guns, Northrup points out, that so fascinated the Africans, actually did very little to give any one combatant a decisive advantage in war, making such a cycle unlikely if not impossible. Northrup also debunks the notion that European trade somehow destroyed native craftsmanship. He combats blanket assumptions of racism, showing cases where Africans were encouraged to marry white Christian woman rather than black pagan ones and numerous cases in which Africans in Europe translated a lionizing of their skin color into educational, political, and social opportunities.
What remains then is a less stylized and more human picture of the Afro-European encounter. Contrary to prevailing notions, Africans and Europeans entered into mutually beneficial economic, social, and political relationships which made many on both sides extremely wealthy at the expense of the lower classes (an economic circumstance which has always dominated history). Africans and Europeans mingled and even intermarried at almost every level of society with restrictions of class and religion being infinitely more important than those of race. Of the many successful and long-lasting conversions to Christianity, those which were in any sense forced were the exception rather than the rule, and most accounts by actual Africans represent the choice of Christianity as a conviction of faith that they embraced rather than a decision of expediency. (Interestingly, Northrup points out as a historian what many theologians and ministers have been realizing for some time now, that the metaphysical world of tribal Africa is on many of its most important levels, compatible with Christianity.) Local artisans continued to create local crafts, local peoples continued to embrace local customs, and even "westernized" Africans remained acutely aware of their cultural heritage and those features of it which were non-negotiable just to suit their fascination with the technological and cultural advances of the West.
This is, of course, not to say that everything was rainbows and roses. Africans made war on Africans; Africans made war on Europeans; Europeans made war on Africans. Slaves were taken by Africans to be kept, to be sold to other Africans, or to be sold to Europeans (who would in turn typically resell them). Slaves ships, while probably not most accurately represented in the polemical accounts of the abolitionists, did have a one in eight mortality rate, with the cause of death ranging from disease, dehydration, capital punishment, and, all too often, suicide. However muted the inter-cultural animosity among Europeans and Africans was, it is an inescapable fact that many Africans ended up in the Americas where conditions were brutal and racism rampant, and, before long, European colonialism would irrevocably change the dynamic between the cultures.
Nevertheless, what Northrup offers is an account that steps away from using history in the ongoing blame-game and instead engages the accounts on their own terms. He admits that his credulity in reading some of the accounts will strike some historians as naive, but--and I cannot stress my agreement with him here too strongly--the alternative method of assuming a certain narrative and then discounting accounts which deviate from it is infinitely more suspect. What Northrup does instead is challenge the reader to take Africans at their word rather than assuming to speak for them, which seems to me to be a more pernicious form of racism anyway. The final product then is not only a great work of history covering a specific subject in a specific time period but also a convicting challenge to be wary of our inevitable and natural inclination to assume that history exists only in our default perspective of it.