We are all engaged in historical reconstruction. We use and invoke historical narratives to rationalize all kinds of things, but we may do it without critically questioning those narratives.
In my “War in Modern Africa” class, we talk about the way Americans associate genocide with Africa, often without really looking at the role the West has played. For example, how have Cold War politics shaped the political fortunes of African countries? When I ask that question, students often are silent. They worry about saying the wrong thing or having classmates misinterpret their comments. Some students expect me to blame the West for everything, but the point is to recognize how political and economic interests in the West and in Africa fuel distorted views of modern and historical Africa in the media and in higher education.
The biggest challenge is getting people to care enough to be uncomfortable, and then to recognize that productive discomfort can be transformative.
The biggest challenge is getting people to care enough to be uncomfortable, and then to recognize that productive discomfort can be transformative. Recognizing the ways in which we capitulate to power and adopt historical narratives around certain interests is uncomfortable. On any given issue, it might be men vs. women, gay vs. straight, privileged vs. marginalized classes, Northerners vs. Southerners. But in some way, we are all involved in amplifying some voices and silencing or marginalizing others.
We participate in the production of history when we affirm particular narratives — even if we do so without engaging them critically. Americans imagine Africa as backward and rural because people have circulated those images, instead of images of skyscrapers, IT infrastructure, or billionaire CEOs of mobile tech companies, which also exist in Africa. We then pass along these images of jungles, safaris, and traditional villages without trying to understand people’s actual lived experiences.
We have a responsibility to question the narratives we reproduce. What interests are being served through the circulation of the narrative? How are arguments being used and to what end?