African American Studies

By Jeanette R. Davidson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
Africana Studies and Oral History:
A Critical Assessment

Leslie M. Alexander

Ohio State University

and Curtis J. Austin

University of Southern Mississippi


ORAL TRADITION AND AFRICAN PEOPLES

In 1989, renowned historian Amadou Hampâté Bâ wrote, “Oral tradition is the only path that can lead us right into the history and spirit of the African peoples.” For Bâ, the oral tradition, the process by which people transmit testimony about the past from one person to another, is the only true way for the history of African people to be fully understood and appreciated.1 Such a contention would not seem surprising to most scholars of African and African American history, particularly those who examine pre-colonial Africa or African Americans during enslavement. Since these civilizations and communities were largely pre-literate, the transmission of culture and history within these societies was almost exclusively dependent upon a strong oral tradition. This chapter argues that oral history and the oral tradition are central to the fields of African American history and Africana Studies, regardless of the period or topic under examination. As Bâ suggests, the oral tradition not only has a long and revered history in African and African American society, but it is fundamental to understanding the essence of the African American experience. Indeed, we maintain that no exploration of African American life or political consciousness is complete without an analysis and discussion of oral culture and history, or without giving voice to the people themselves. Thus, this chapter seeks to provide a brief overview of the function of the oral tradition in African American culture and demonstrates, through an

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