A saying goes that if lions wrote about the hunt, they would always come out as the true heroes. The writing of history is never either straightforward or objective. Every history has its own slant. Indeed, some might even argue that history MUST have a slant to be of any use and that such a slant must be explicitly declared. For what is history but an education in templates for action carefully taken out of the past and dusted off for current usage?
In 1992, a well known Indian historian called Gyan Prakash had to answer serious criticism from fellow historians on remarks he had made about the status of historical documents in the writing of history. In the view of his opponents, historical documentary sources in and of themselves represent 'just noise' which it is the historian's task to turn into a sense of coherent voices through which 'the past may give the present intelligible answers.' To this, Prakash responds: "Let us attend to the noise first." Is it the case that the past comes to us through empirical sources with no inherent themes, as noise? Evoked here is a primeval scene, an original encounter before history when the historian faces fragmentary and fractured empirical sources and seeks to give it voice. This staging of interpretation as the first encounter between the all-powerful interpreter and the lifeless evidence is blind to the history of its own enactment: Hidden from its view are the stories told in the very presence of particular sources and in the processes by which the historian gets placed as a sovereign interpreter who turns noise into voice. Gone are the traces of the history of archives, the monumentalization of history in documents, and erased are the marks of the historian's conditioning in the dramatization of interpretation as the first discovery.In other words, at issue here are two different interpretations on the task of the historian. To some, the historian is like a god of small things, somehow breathing life into fragmentary documents which of themselves have nothing spectacular to offer. But to others such as Prakash, the documents have already been placed within a framework before their discovery by the historian. And this framework has to be understood as ideological in itself. One thinks here for example of the fact that since the British colonial administration tended to only recognise ethnic groups that had identifiable chiefs, only such groups would have their claims to land codified in colonial documents. Thus there was a bias built into the archive against nomadic groups that had no chiefs and so had no opportunities of entering their claims into the colonial archive. In this way, the seeds for later post-Independence struggles over claims to land among certain tribes were sown across the continent.
And yet the matter is not so simple. Most educated Africans will recall the determined way in which the history books suggested that all real history had already taken place in the West. The history books were full of the tales of kings and queens, of Popes and Archbishops, of the contest within aristocratic families that then had ramifications across the relevant realms, and of the bitter wars that were fought to establish the rights of one group as opposed to another. In all this, the history was the history of the governing elites. What was not recognised, however, is that the manner in which the history of these elites was written was such as to suggest that they were the only ones that mattered and that the people that they ruled were appendages of their wishes and desires. Furthermore, and this was a clever device of the really good history books, the words that were reported to have come out of the mouths of these elites seemed full of wisdom.
Their turn of phrase was masterful and the idiom of their language so colourful. They seemed not merely to embody history but also to speak it exactly as how history might be thought to be if it could be expressed through the mouth of a human being.
When Africans got to writing their own histories, they correctly tried to show that history was not the preserve of the West. We also had our Chakas and Yaa Asantewas. Brave and wise men and women who understood the invading threat and rose up in defence of their own age old traditions and cultures. But were these African histories not mirror images of the same tendencies in the Western accounts? In other words, were these not also the history of the elites? Admittedly, these local African elites had a different location within their societies. Their distance from ordinary people was quite different from the distance of the European aristocracies and their subjects. But the point is that different though these new African histories were, they were still not a history of the lower classes or the peasants but of their ruling elites.
It is out of this tendency that the Afrocentric emphasis on Ancient Egypt exposes its central flaw. For the Egyptian Pharaohs were nothing if not themselves of a highly aristocratic order. Afrocentrism does not give us enough about the very stark social contradictions that were present in such a society, making it appear as though it was organic and therefore benign to all its peoples. And it mustn't be forgotten also that it was a culture that depended heavily on slave labour. Thus Ancient Egypt has to be recognised for what it really was: a remarkable cultural achievement with a grand architectural capacity and a highly sophisticated sense of the relationship between man and his natural and cosmic surroundings. Clearly, one of the most significant achievements in all of human history. But for all that, it is still human and still riddled with human contradictions.
But does this all mean that it is impossible to write a history that would not be open to accusations of bias? That we will be defeated in the attempt at writing even before we begin? And if so, that the effort to give our children race pride will only be a means of investing them with ideals invoked from a suitably anaesthetised past? There are no easy answers to any of these questions, but the first thing to accept is that history is taught for a purpose, especially in schools, and that, that purpose has to be open to examination from time to time. This is important for our own local schools but absolutely critical for the Western schools in which our diasporic children find themselves. The point to be noted is not that some people are absent or present from the past but that the historical consciousness is not solely the preserve of the historian. We are all collectively responsible for how history is written, read and interpreted. History is already with us
by Ato Quayson
Copyright Ghanaian Chronicle. Distributed by All Africa Global Media(AllAfrica.com)
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"The Life & Times of K. Mcfante: Home And Abroad." Africa News Service 15 Mar. 2005. InfoTrac Diversity Studies eCollection. Web. 26 Nov. 2009.
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