Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Approaching African History

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Approaching African History

Article excerpt

Approaching African History. By Michael Brett. Rochester, NY: James Curry, 2013. Pp. xi, 356; bibliography, index. $90.00.

African history has come a long way in a short time. At the beginning of the twentieth century the very notion of African history was almost universally dismissed, and it wasn't until the latter half of the century that mainstream historians even began to entertain the idea that African history either could or should be studied. Yet by the beginning of the twenty-first century African history had become an established part of the area studies pantheon, with a host of books and articles being produced every year examining diverse aspects of the history of the continent and its peoples.

Until the publication of this intriguing volume by Michael Brett, however, no scholar has taken the time to look back and examine exactly how this transformation in the study and meaning of African history took place. Certainly such an undertaking is overdue. But Brett does not simply provide a historiography of African history. Such would be a useful undertaking, but it would also likely be rather cumbersome and of interest only to those with an already established grounding in the continent's history. Rather, Brett weaves together three distinct yet mutually supporting strands. First is a summary narrative of African history from roughly 10,000 years ago to the present-based largely upon the work of African historians over the past six decades. In the process, he examines both the growth of the concept of Africa as a unit of study and the manner in which scholars have argued for the understanding and significance of African history itself.

The balancing act of presenting both a narrative of African history and of the construction of that narrative is a daunting one, and Brett is to be congratulated for the poise and style with which he achieves his goals. His periodization of the narrative into overlapping methodological and chronological units, focusing on the role played by archaeology, ethnography (including oral sources), and written documents is deftly presented. Also crucial to the attainment of his many goals is his choice to eschew footnotes and build the contributions of individual scholars and the dynamic tensions of their debates into the narrative itself. It is in so doing that Brett so successfully weaves together the longue durée of the African historical narrative with the very recent history of the birth of the field itself. …

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