Africa's Hidden Histories: Everyday Literacy and Making the Self

By Straker, Jay | African Studies Review, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Africa's Hidden Histories: Everyday Literacy and Making the Self


Straker, Jay, African Studies Review


Karin Barber, ed. Africa's Hidden Histories: Everyday Literacy and Making the Self. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006. ix + 451 pp. Illustrations. Photographs. Notes. References. Index. $75.00. Cloth. $29.95. Paper.

Comprising an insightful introduction and fifteen richly textured essays, Africa's Hidden Histories is an important contribution to standing research on a range of topics in twentieth-century African studies. Literary scholars, educationists, and social, political, and intellectual historians will draw particular benefit and pleasure from the unhurried, penetrating studiesincorporating an abundance of engrossing illustrations and photographsthat mark the volume's status as a major archival and theoretical project.

The volume's three parts explore specific meanings and transformative capacities attributed to writing, reading, and die circulation and collection of texts by African individuals and groups negotiating an array of volatile ideological and material tensions in colonial Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa. As promised in Karin Barber's introduction, each section generates a distinct set of insights into "the complexity and contingency of social orientations and affiliations in colonial Africa" (6).

The seven essays of part 1 ("Diaries, Letters, and the Constitution of the Self") disclose a remarkable range of functions performed by seemingly commonplace forms of personal writing. Each of the essays examines individuals' attempts to deploy writing to clarify the nature and extent of myriad external factors shaping their lives. In some cases these factors emanate direcdy from the audioritarian nature of the colonial state. More often, however, the challenges documented and interrogated are shifting and overdetermined, mediated by a range of traditional and emergent pressures reconfiguring individual and collective understandings of ideal African personhood. Each of die contributors underscores the emotional poignancy of specific expressive moments in letters and diaries-moments constituting invaluable windows on die complex nature of self-fashioning and interpersonal relationships amidst unstable sociopolitical circumstances. At the same time, the contributors effectively depict the unique transformative capacities of writing as a tool for creating and exchanging novel understandings of local history, for illuminating patterns of change within African and European societies, and for imagining practices and institutions that could accelerate Africans' quest for spiritual enlightenment and political autonomy within and beyond the colonial yoke. …

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