March 3, 2003

Oral history and introversion

A Swarthmore alumnus planning to go to graduate school for a doctorate in history sent me an email last week asking for my thoughts on choosing African history as his field.

I had some encouraging things to say, but also some words of caution.

My reasoning for that advice is complex. Some of it has to do with my sense that the field as a whole is burdened by unnecessary parochialism and defensiveness, even though it is one of the most methodologically innovative fields of study within the discipline of history. Some of it has to do with my own drift towards the kind of personal feeling of Afro-pessimism voiced by Gavin Kitching in a recent issue of Mots Pluriels.

Some of my counsel also had to do with making sure my former student understood that African history is logistically difficult. I have colleagues who can fly off every summer to their archive of choice (or in the case of the Americanists, spring break and Christmas if they choose) but securing permission to work in an African archive often requires negotiating complex bureaucracies, some of which can take years to grant the necessary permissions, and then costs a bundle in airfare besides. Even under the best circumstances, fieldwork is difficult and the gaps in between research trips can be substantial.

More of it is personal, and I don’t know how fair it is to off-load a middle-aged man’s feelings onto a 22-year old. Some of my current middle-age angst is just the affliction of comfort. I listen to colleagues who are setting off to Vienna or Paris or Umbria to work in the archives, and I confess from a pure creature comfort standpoint that Durban or Harare or Accra don’t seem quite as enchanting as destinations. Some Africanists I know take genuine, enormous delight in living in places like Abeokuta or Maputo. I have always found Harare fascinating, enlightening, stimulating, but not especially fun. That’s part of the point, of course, but my bourgy-ness has been growing in tandem with my gut.

I was thinking about other reasons for my feeling, and came across, via Electrolite, this terrific essay by Jonathan Rauch in The Atlantic Monthly. (It’s official: Rauch is my favorite writer on politics and society, hands-down. Nobody else is as consistently interesting or crisply intelligent.)

Rauch talks about introverts, who contrary to the popular image are not misanthropists or shy. It’s just that they need time away from people to “recharge their batteries”, in contrast to extroverts, who are refreshed by the company of others, the more the merrier. Rauch writes,

“Do you know someone who needs hours alone every day? Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentation to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk? Who has to be dragged to parties and then needs the rest of the day to recuperate?”

That isn’t quite me but it’s pretty close. I have always thought the label “gregarious loner” fit me pretty well. Happy to be by myself, but very social and friendly if I happen to find myself in a group.

So what does this have to do with Africa? At this point, I think you simply cannot work on the history of modern African societies and not do at least some oral historical research. It is an important part of almost all projects for a variety of reasons, ranging from the simply empirical to the sweep of the field’s intellectual politics. I accept the obligation to do this kind of work myself, and regard it as philosophically intriguing and exciting to design and consider the collection of oral testimonies.

The problem is that I suck at it, largely because I’m the kind of person Rauch is talking about. I find it painful and unnerving even to call a stranger on the phone to make an appointment or conduct business, and that feeling is aggravated dramatically if I have a sense that I’m actually intruding upon someone else’s private space or asking them for a favor or service without any prior connection or obligations between them and myself. Actually doing oral historical research, particularly with the added aggravations of being a very foreign person in a very far-away place, is for me like voluntarily sticking my foot in a meat grinder. I know I have to do it, and intellectually I even want to do it. But thank god for the archives, so I have somewhere else to go most of the time.

I think if I had known myself well enough to know this about my own personality, I might have been wise enough to choose another field of specialization. But I didn’t, and so there you go. There is a kind of growth that comes through putting yourself in a situation where you have to go against the grain of your own instincts and force yourself to do something you would rather not. At some point, though, you get all the mileage out of that compulsion that you're going to achieve.