The Need for Africanist Oral History

By conventional definition, history is the study of written records.  Most often, these written records have been the archives of state institutions, which has privileged elite and bureaucratic perspectives over those of ordinary people.  Even more problematically, this Eurocentric bias has complicated the study of African history because, until the western conquest of Africa in the late nineteenth century, most Africans societies relied on memories, transmitted orally, to preserve and recollect their past.  Consequently, imperial conquerers portrayed Africans as a people without history, which in effect implied that their culture was static, tribalistic, and inherently primitive.  This allowed liberal democracies like France and Britain who sponsored the imperialists to legitimize their conquests by portraying Africans as simple tribesmen in need of a guiding hand to achieve “modernity.”  While historically black colleges in the United States had pushed back against these pernicious stereotypes for decades, most western history departments only acknowledged the existence of African history in the 1960s in response to the end of empire in Africa and the successes of the American civil rights movement.

Moving beyond conventional historical sources that reinforced the colonial view of Africa, a new generation of historians placed oral history and tradition on equal footing with conventional archival records.  In doing so they gave the lived experiences of ordinary people equal weight to “official” state, military, educational, and mission records.  Oral history both corrected the records of the colonial era and filled in the institutional gaps resulting from post-colonial African governments’s inability and unwillingness to continue the bureaucratic record keeping traditions of their predecessors.

Consequently, the recollections of ordinary African women and men are often the best, and often the only, historical sources for much of twentieth century African history.  Unfortunately, however, we are losing members of these past generations far too quickly.  The people with viable memories of the transfer of power in the 1960s are now, at minimum, over sixty and surviving members of the founding generation of African nationalists are far older.  It is therefore essential that we record and preserve the memories and life histories of these people while we still can.  Imagine what American historians could learn if they were able to interview the founding fathers (and mothers) of the United States a half century later in 1826?

The WU Oral History Project

Mindful of these possibilities, Washington University’s African and African American Studies Program is launching an African oral history project.  This collaboration between WU faculty, graduate students and undergraduates and the people who lived through these important historical eras will create a unique historical record that will offer new perspectives on African history while helping individual informants to better preserve their own life stories for themselves and their descendants.  In addition to this “service to the community” (both in St. Louis and in Africa), the project will give WU students training and firsthand experience in oral history methodologies, and the resulting data will serve as the basis for original scholarship including senior thesis, dissertations, and collaborative faculty publications.