March 3, 2003
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 dont know how fair it is to off-load a middle-aged mans 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 dont 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. Thats 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. (Its 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.
Its 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?
quite me but its 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 fields 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 Im 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 Im actually intruding upon someone elses
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 didnt, 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.