The writing of African history underwent a revolution in the 1960s, culminating an outpouring of fresh interpretations of the African past which continue to exert a powerful influence today. The summation of the new scholarship on Africa, which was nourished by the wave of decolonization that reshaped the region, came in a 1971 coffee table book, published by the venerable American Heritage house, on the African past. The two volume, lavishly illustrated, hardback repudiated a century of popular racist and imperalistic notions. Writing in a lucid introduction to volume, Philip D. Curtin, one of the grand masters of the new African history, wrote in language that still rouses and inspires me:
“History has all too often been an ethnocentric subject written (often intentionally) to foster patriotism by emphasizing the deeds of ancestors. In Europe and North America this tendency has led historians to concentrate on national history, looking only secondly at the broader developments of Western civilization. Cultures beyond the West were either left out altogether or relegated to a minor place. The crucial and organizing question was “How do we come to be as we are?” – not “How did the modern world come to be as it is?” or “How do human societies change through time? African history fell under this blight, as did the histories of pre-Colombian America and of Asia.”
Curtin, who died in 2009, provides a reminder that the past is prologue and that no analyst of Africa’s present can ignore the past. Yesterday is closer than we usually imagine.