Academic journal article History In Africa

Experience as Evidence in Africanist Historiography

Academic journal article History In Africa

Experience as Evidence in Africanist Historiography

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper observes that historians of Africa often rely on experience for evidence, and it asks whether we do so with adequate rigor.

Résumé: Cet article observe que les historiens de l'Afrique ont souvent recours à l'expérience vécue comme source historique, et s'interroge sur la rigueur de cette démarche.


In much of Africanist historical writing, including the very best of it, a loose jumble of perception, narration, and preliminary analysis often works subtly as a supplement, a substitute, or even a corrective for other forms of historical evidence. This jumble, which I refer to here as "experience," operates as a discreet third form of evidence alongside that which we categorize very broadly as either "archival" or "oral." While historians of Africa often take experience as evidence, believing it lends authority to our work, we tend to do so reflexively rather than methodically. Is that adequate? Recent historiographical work would suggest that it is not, that a turn to experience - and all the suppositions regarding the fixity of the subject and self that may accompany it - represents an abdication of a deeper critical responsibility, and even of a critical sensibility.2 That may be so, but it need not be, and not only because theoretically informed work might also be empirically rich. Arguably the "eclecticism" of historians of Africa is both necessary and desirable. In a context in which prevalent theoretical orientations and social scientific models struggle to capture adequately African dynamics, experience might provide what Florence Bernault termed in the course of our roundtable "rocks in our shoes," irritants that press themselves upon us as fortuitous accidents, as niggling questions demanding explanation. If Africanist historians draw questions, rather than (only) answers, from informed and critical observation and engagement, then perhaps experience is critique.3 Is that enough?

In this paper, I think through the problem of experience-as-evidence in relation to three recent books - two of them, coincidentally, on the Atlantic world, and the third being my own - and I argue that if Africanist historiography is to remain especially reliant on this category of evidence and resource for writing, it merits greater critical attention.

Experience as Evidence: Witnessing, Reporting, Self-Reflection

Historians of Africa tend to use what I am calling experience in three linked ways. We do so first as witnessing, that is as a form of empirical evidence, usually but not exclusively speaking to minor points. Few arguments hang on experience alone, but many are informed by it. Second, we draw on experience to produce a kind of reportage, by which I mean a kind of first-person narration used for stylistic or rhetorical ends, often as a kind of leavening in what might otherwise be the heavy dough of our evidence. It is easy to underestimate how important this kind of reportage can be and how readily it can drift towards making rather than informing the over-arching argument. Third, we engage with experience as raw material for self-reflection; in such arguments the self, anchored in a distinct moment, is the true subject of the analysis (or at least one of the subjects).

Saidiya Hartman's Lose Your Mother, for instance, eloquently performs such work of self-reflection.4 However, in Hartman's book, history is in fact the minor partner in what the subtitle terms a Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route, an historically grounded exploration of the self and the diaspora. For Hartman, experience in Ghana tracing the trade routes is indeed a form of evidence - evidence for, among other things, the relationship between Africa and African-America and for the aftermath of enslavement, slavery, and the slave trade. In Lose Your Mother, historical passages serve as a kind of counterpoint to self-reflection; to a significant degree, the true subject of the book is Hartman herself, including reflections on the author's names, her childhood, and her youthful self that allow us to see her position vis-à-vis Africa and its diaspora as both unique and synechdochal. …

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