Leonard M. Thompson
African History in the United States

African Studies Bulletin, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Apr., 1967), pp. 51-56

The growth of the study of the history of Africa south of the Sahara is an interesting example of contemporary intellectual developments. Until the mid-1950's African history was ignored

The growth of the study of the history of Africa south of the Sahara is an interesting example of contemporary intellectual developments. Until the mid-1950's African history was ignored by the historical profession in the United States even more completely than in Europe; and if an American historian had paused to consider why this was so, he would probably have anticipated Trevor-Roper's well-known verdict that the history of sub-Saharan Africa is undiscoverable (on the ground that it is not documented) and that, even if it were discoverable, it would be devoid of intellectual significance (on the ground that traditional African societies were barbarous and static). No professor with tenure at an American university was designated as a historian of sub-Saharan Africa; American publishers had produced very few books or articles dealing with African history, and Americans generally knew scarcely anything about it.

There were, however, several pioneer activities which were on the periphery of African history. At Howard University there were long-established courses on Negro history, inspired by W.E.B. DuBois and Carter Woodson, which included some West African material, but the American historical establishment paid little attention to this work. William L. Hansberry, who lectured on precolonial African history for some years, was never given tenure by the Howard authorities and was eventually excluded from the faculty. At Northwestern University, Melville Herskovits founded a program of African Studies in 1947. He invited historians to attend the seminars conducted under the program, and he himself published a book on the kingdom of Dahomey and was interested in questions of change as well as structure in African societies. Nevertheless, Herskovits was by training and status an anthropologist, and the history department at Northwestern did not provide lecture courses or seminars on African history before 1958.

"The Expansion of Europe, " or "The History of the British Empire, " was a recognized historical field at Northwestern and several other universities. The primary focus was almost invariably on the colonial policies of the European powers (especially Britain) and the growth of white settler communities (especially in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa). Paul Knaplund of Wisconsin was a leading figure in this field. Typically, he was strong on British colonial policy and British colonies of settlement but rather superficial in his handling of African and Asian societies. Elsewhere there were variations in the focus of the "Expansion of Europe" courses. C. W. deKiewiet, a former South African who taught at Iowa and Cornell before he became president of Rochester University, was most sensitive to the experiences of the African as well as of the white inhabitants of South Africa. Harry Rudin of Yale did research on German policy in the Cameroons and from the early 1950's he offered courses and seminars on African history. Franklin Scott at Northwestern participated in Herskovits's seminars and focused increasingly on the relations between Europe and Africa. But deKiewiet, Rudin, and Scott were all concerned with modern sectors of African economies and with policy-making by European and white settler governments. None of them in his teaching or research probed the histories of traditional African societies before they came under white influence and produced documents in European languages, which happened less than a hundred years ago in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Accordingly, before the late 1950's the Negro history of Howard University, the African anthropology and ethnohistory of the Herskovits school, and the colonial history of the Knaplund-deKiewiet-Rudin-Scott school were three almost distinct strands of intellectual activity. They catered for different students in different universities and departments, and there was very little crossfertilization among them. Some American Negroes explored the West African roots of their community, some anthropologists studied African societies, and some American historians dealt with European imperialism and white settlers in Africa; but there was virtually no coordination of these enterprises. In all the United States no historian taught courses on the history of man in Africa as a continuum from its origins to the present day, treating episodes like the Negro diaspora and European colonialism in their appropriate African perspective; Hansberry, who came closest to doing so, was rejected by his own academic community.

Before the 1950's there was a similar lack of means for systematic training in African history in the universities of Europe; while in tropical Africa there were only a few modern colleges. New and small, these colleges still catered exclusively for undergraduates, and their historical curricula were still those of their parent institutions in Europe. Nevertheless, among the large numbers of Europeans who had lived and worked in Africa were some who had at least an enthusiastic amateur interest in African languages and ethnology, while European anthropologists used Africa as their principal area for fieldwork, and Africa often figured prominently in European studies of the history of colonization. It was in the London metropolitan milieu of far-ranging contacts with Africa, distinguished schools of anthropology and archaeology, and long-term acceptance of a strong African ingredient in imperial history that the first major initiatives were taken toward a systematic investigation of the history of African societies. The London School of Oriental Studies became the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1938; the first historian of Africa was appointed in the School in 1948; the School convened the first conference on African History and Archaeology in 1953; and Roland Oliver and John Fage launched the Journal of African History from the School in 1960.

Lacking the African contacts of a colonial power, the United States had greater difficulty in developing African studies. With support from the Ford Foundation and from the federal government under the NDEA Act of 1958, decisive steps were taken in the late 1950's. By 1960 African Studies Centers had been founded at Boston, Howard, Indiana, Michigan State, and Northwestern universities and at UCLA; and some other universities, including Columbia, Harvard, Wisconsin, and Yale, had also developed an interest in African history but with different institutional arrangements.

At first it was not easy to find scholars who were competent to inaugurate African history as a field of teaching and research in the United States. This problem was met in some cases by appointing Americans who had come under the influence of the African-oriented wing of the "Expansion of Europe" school, in others by importing foreigners who had worked in universities in Europe or South Africa or in research institutes in tropical Africa. Most of these first appointees had more or less radically to retool themselves on the job if they were successfully to deal with African history as defined above. Exceptions were Daniel McCall, an anthropologist with some historical training, who started a seminar in African history at Boston University in 1957; and Jan Vansina, who had been trained in anthropology as well as medieval history, who had worked in a research institute in the Belgian Congo, and who had written a dissertation for a Belgian university on the use of African oral traditions for historical purposes before he came to Wisconsin in 1960.

At the same time American students were encouraged to study African history with grants from the federal government and from foundations. In this respect the Ford-supported Foreign Area Fellowship Program has performed a seminal role. Its first grants for the study of sub-Saharan Africa were made as early as 1954, when the Gold Coast was still moving toward independence. In the next four years only seven awards were made to historians, but after that the allocations were increased and by 1966 41 Americans and Canadians had been awarded Foreign Area Fellowships for historical study in sub-Saharan Africa (out of a total of 243 fellowships in all disciplines). As the first of these historians have returned from their research in Africa they have readily found employment in the burgeoning programs in universities with African Studies Centers and in other universities and colleges, and many of them have been remarkably successful in attracting students to their courses.

The results are already impressive. According to a list published in February, 1966, 84 members of the African Studies Association are historians; and from the summary published in the April, 1966, number of this Bulletin it appears that at least 15 universities offer doctoral training in African history, many others offering M. A or undergraduate courses. In California, for example, by the fall of 1966 doctoral training was available at Berkeley, Stanford, and U.C. Santa Barbara, as well as at UCLA, while there were undergraduate courses at San Fernando Valley, San Jose, and Long Beach state colleges, Occidental College, Redlands College, and El Camino Junior College (and perhaps elsewhere); and an informal faculty seminar of Californian historians of Africa had fifteen members. The number of students taking courses in African history is large, and among these students are some of outstanding scholarly potential.

With this proliferation of the number of American universities committed to teaching and research in African history there has come a wide variety of emphases. Universities differ in their thematic and regional specializations. At Chicago the focus is on the history of Christianity in Africa; at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies it is on the very recent period. Syracuse concentrates on East Africa. Several universities confine their attention to tropical Africa. In the preliminary Ph.D. examination at Wisconsin, African history is part of a comparative study of the history of tropical societies in Asia, Africa, and America. UCLA has now appointed specialists in each of North, West, East, and South Africa, and Northwestern University has expanded along similar lines.

The growth of African history as a field of study in the United States is shown not only by the appointment of professors, the creation of courses, and the enrollment of students. At several recent meetings of the American Historical Association there have been sessions on African history. American publishers have become eager to handle manuscripts on African history, and their products are now reviewed in the American Historical Review and other journals. Thus African historians are joining the establishment and becoming numerous enough to constitute an interest group within it.

Nevertheless, recognition is by no means universal or unqualified. Many orthodox historians still consider African historians to be imposters who have been foisted upon the profession in consequence of political considerations. At the AHA meeting in San Francisco in December, 1965, a panelist reiterated at length and with deadly seriousness the Trevor-Roper view that African history, as distinct from the history of European colonization in Africa, is a chimera.

Such skepticism is not surprising. For all the talk of the reconstruction of the histories of traditional African societies through the systematic collection of oral traditions and their synthesis with evidence from archaeology, ethnology,  linguistics, serology, and so on, the fact remains that for the period preceding the time when the documentation becomes plentiful, the chronology of most parts of Africa is tentative, the methodology experimental, the analytical concepts hypothetical, and the yield meager. We still cannot point to anything approaching definitive analyses of the processes of change in African societies over a long time span, nor can we point to specific works on African history which have the intellectual and literary hallmarks of great historical writing.

Moreover, although there has been a spate of books on Africa from American presses, most of them have no pretensions to scholarship. The majority of those that do have such pretensions were written by anthropologists and political scientists; and nearly all of those written by American historians deal with the colonial period or its immediate precursor, owe little or nothing to the techniques of interdisciplinary synthesis, and are not so very different from the products of the "Expansion of Europe" school. Indeed, the specifically American contribution to the present state of knowledge of the history of traditional African societies is still minute, as any well-compiled select bibliography will demonstrate. Judged by the printed record, therefore, the orthodox historian is justified in remaining skeptical about the claims that are made for African history in general and African history in the United States in particular.

Fortunately the prospect is much brighter than the present printed record. It is not to be expected that a new field of historical scholarship, involving unusual methodological problems, should yield quick results. The advancement of knowledge of African history before the documentation of an area becomes plentiful involves two related processes. Data have to be acquired by several quite different techniques, each of which demands high skills and each of which is laborious and costly. There are oral traditions to be located and recorded, archaeological sites to be identified and examined, languages to be analyzed and compared. For many areas there are new documents to be sought out (notably in Arabic, Amharic, Hausa, Swahili, and Portuguese), and for all areas the accounts of the first literate travelers and the compilations of the first ethno - graphers require careful reassessment. Secondly, there is the process of coordinating the various categories of data in meaningful ways for historical purposes. To be able to do these things efficiently is not merely a matter of adding to the orthodox historian's training a mastery of exotic languages and a capacity to understand the findings presented by specialists in other disciplines. It is also a matter of seeing that scholars in other disciplines deal with problems that they might otherwise ignore. For example, although archaeologists have done seminal work on the Stone Age cultures of sub-Saharan Africa, they have paid very little attention to the sub-Saharan Iron Age, which is of crucial importance to the historian. Furthermore, most anthropologists who have worked in Africa have been primarily concerned with aspects of the structures of traditional African societies and prone to write their findings in the "anthropological present." Such an account is of limited value to the historian, who is concerned with events and personalities and who wishes to establish an absolute time scale, so that he can correlate the changes in different societies. Anthropologists like Melville Herskovits and M. G. Smith have been somewhat exceptional in focusing on processes of change in African societies.

For handling these problems (one cannot say for solving them, for there is no simple solution) American universities are perhaps better equipped than their British and continental European counterparts, where departments are apt to be more rigidly autonomous. It is a great advantage that American students are able to include courses in several different disciplines in their B.A. curricula and to offer a nonhistorical field in their preliminary oral examinations for the Ph.D. degree in history; and the Foreign Area Fellowship Program has shown great wisdom in insisting that its fellows become equipped to deal with related disciplines, as well as with relevant languages, before they do their research in Africa.

In the coming generation we may expect a gradual but cumulatively substantial increase in our knowledge of African history, before as well as during the colonial period. Africans themselves are likely to become the major contributors and the British and continental European contributions will continue; but the American contributions, based on the foundations which have now been laid, should also be considerable.

If this potential is to be realized, it is not only necessary that American historians of Africa should reach out into the realms of anthropology, archaeology, and other disciplines. They should also remain in close contact with their own discipline. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, if American historians in general (and chairmen of departments in particular) have no appreciation of the problems of African historiography, they will expect quicker results than are possible in the predocumentary period, and American historians of Africa will be driven to meet the requirements for tenure and promotion by opting exclusively for documentary research in the colonial period. Secondly, there are other types of historians (e.g., Latin American and medieval European) whose problems have many points of similarity with the problems of the African historian, and each group can profit from interaction with the other.

African history also has something to offer North American history. It is the custom for American historians to use a time span of only two and one-half centuries, for they start their courses with the European colonial settlements of the seventeenth century, leaving the earlier history of man in North America to the anthropologists and archaeologists. The historian of Africa will have succeeded within his profession when he has persuaded historians of America to extend these horizons. How long will it be until this goal is achieved?

Leonard M. Thompson
Department of History, University of California,
Los Angeles

I am grateful to Professor Robert O. Collins of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Professor Philip D. Curtin of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Professor Bryce Harris of Occidental College, Los Angeles, Professor Franklin D. Scott of Northwestern University, and Miss Dorothy Soderlund of the Foreign Area Fellowship Program for responding to my requests for information; and to Professors Robert Griffeth and Wesley Johnson and Mr. Martin Legassick for making shrewd constructive comments on the draft of this article.