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Radical History Review 84 (2002) 195-207

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"History Will One Day Have Its Say":
New Perspectives on Colonial and Postcolonial Congo

Yaël Simpson Fletcher

Ronan Bennett, The Catastrophist. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.
Ludo De Witte, The Assassination of Lumumba. Translated by Ann Wright and Renée Fenby. London: Verso, 2001.
Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
Johannes Fabian, Remembering the Present: Painting and Popular History in Zaire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
Pagan Kennedy, Black Livingstone: A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo. New York: Viking, 2002.
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.
Michela Wrong, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. [End Page 195]
Lumumba: Death of a Prophet, directed by Raoul Peck. San Francisco: California Newsreel, 1992.
Lumumba, directed by Raoul Peck. New York: Zeitgest Films, 2000.
Pièces d'identités, directed by Mweze Ngangura. San Francisco: California Newsreel, 1998.

From Belgian King Leopold II's brutal Congo Free State to the assassination of Patrice Lumumba on the morrow of Congolese independence, from Joseph-Désiré Mobutu's repressive Zaire to Laurent Kabila's war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, over a century of turmoil and tragedy has marked the modern history of Congo. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the ongoing African war in eastern Congo, and the latest disaster, the destruction of Goma by volcanic eruption, has attracted world attention to the region. When not blaming eternal ethnic hatreds, commentators have sought the roots of the horrific violence of the past decade in brutal colonial practices and deathly conflicts over resources—rubber then, diamonds today. 1 Although the government's hold on some parts of the country continues to be tenuous, the relatively peaceful accession to power of Laurent Kabila's son, Joseph, after his father's assassination on January 16, 2001, has given rise to cautious hopes about Congo's future.

In the 1960s, at the height of African decolonization and black liberation, Americans were very aware of events in Congo. Beginning in the 1970s, however, the United States focused its attention on the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and lost sight of the rest of the continent. Consequently, younger activists have little knowledge of the history, politics, and popular culture of Congo. In this context, the publication of a number of historical studies, novels, and films on Congo/Zaire over the course of the past few years proves particularly welcome. 2 From the time of Leopold II, this vast region located in the interior of the continent has been the subject of fascination for European and American writers. At least since the publication of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902), Congo has provided a fertile environment for the investigation of European psyches and traumas. 3 Most recently, Adam Hochschild, Sven Lindqvist, and other writers have argued that the Belgian annihilation of untold numbers of Congolese under Leopold II's suzerainty represented the extremes of colonial racist brutality, an African genocide whose ideology and practices prefigured and enabled the Holocaust in Europe. 4 But the many-sided story of Congo has an alternate scenario to that of Africa in torment. Independent Congo became part of the epic narrative of anticolonial resistance and national liberation with first prime minister Patrice Lumumba's denunciation of Belgian colonialism in 1960. His subsequent assassination, in which many saw the hand of the [End Page 196] CIA, immediately came to stand for neocolonial U.S. intervention worldwide. The name of Congo's new ruler, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, became synonymous with not only dictatorship and corruption, but also a rhetoric of Africanization. 5 For the Congolese themselves, making sense of their own historical experience has been a more complex and nuanced process of self-understanding than the mythologizing of the past by outsiders.

This essay examines recent work on Congo dealing with...


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