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16 Historically Speaking November/December 2004 Comment on Miller William H. McNeill (??3 eyond Blacks, Bondage, and Blame" JD skillfullyskewers longstandingcaricatures ofAfrica's part in world history and offers some arresting new thoughts about howinvolvementwith the largerworld provoked new social and political responses amongAfricans. But I am not convinced that Joseph Miller is justified in writing about "Africans" in general and across indefinite periods oftime exhibitingthe same responses. When did Africa enter world history, for example? Not, as he seems to say, in the 8th century. For Africa, as the cradle of humankind, once embraced all the human history there was. And when human groups began to occupy new environments in Asia, Europe, and beyond, Africans retained slender butuninterrupted connections with adjacent peoples as part of a worldwide human web. Later on, when contacts with Asians and Europeans became more pervasive and disruptive , which is what Miller is thinking of, surely it made a difference whether local Africans were foragers, pastoralists, or farmers . Itmade a difference, too, howfirmlylocal communities were connected with those around them, i.e., what local webs of exchange and patterns ofsocial differentiation had arisen and what sorts of local and individual skills had emerged. By the time Asian and European influences became apparent and disruptive to older styles offife, mostAfricans were farmers , living in villages, and that was where a mounting stream of novelties impinged on theirlives, some comingfrom afar, some generated nearbyorwithin thevillage itself. That implies an infinite, or effectivelyinfinite, local variety of experiences, seldom or never recorded. How, then, can historians hope to know what really happened among Africans in general and common folk in particular? This is no trivial question and applieswith equal force to European, Asian, and Amerindian history. The great majority of humankind in the deeperpastleftnowritten records behind and still does not. And travelers ' reports and the like are liable to gross misunderstanding, thanks to linguistic and conceptual barriers between observer and observed. Even, ifMiller is to be believed, the supposedly sensitized and sympathetic anthropologists ofthe last hundred years or so interpreted what they saw and heard to suit themselves and according to ideas they broughtwith them. Yet human minds, using words, find (invent? impose?) patterns amid the confusing variety of actual sensory experience and act as though these are real. This indeed is the secretofour extraordinarybiological and technological success: gettingresults we like by acting in concert in the light of agreedupon meanings. Cooperation was sometimes conscious andvoluntary, but often itwas the opposite—a more or less desperate effort to protect old ways against betrayers within and againststrangers from outside the local community . The processMillerdiscusseswhereby Muslim and European influences infiltrated Africa after the 8th century was part ofthat process, affectingthe lives ofall parties to the encounter in ways seldom recorded and only dimh/understood atthe time orsubsequently. So how can we know? In all probability, the best effort of historians and other observers today to comprehend what happened will seem as inadequate to future generations as Miller tells us the views ofolder generations ofAfrican historians are to him—and to me. Yetno one is satisfied by confessing ignorance . Better a caricature ofreality to believe in than a blank; and that is whatMiller's bold strokes and sweeping generalizations offer us. Mindyou, he really deals onlywith West Africa and the centuries when the transatlantic slave trade was in spate. He thus perpetuates some ofthe narrowness he ridicules in his first pages: for he, too, focuses on African responses to Europeans, as well as on slavery, with all the distaste for that form of human exploitation that we take for granted. Being of much the same professional background asMiller, I find his general ideas attractive, in particular his account ofAfrican socio-political patterns and his interpretation ofwitchcraft. His dismissal oftribe as a meaningful term and counter suggestion that Africans sought power "by controlling the efforts ofpeople around them, through multiple distinctions ofage, gender, rank, among other differentiations—increasingly after 1700 orso, includingslavery" seems convincingto me evenwhen recognizinghowimpossible it is for him or anyone else really to know how millions ofactual persons felt and thought and acted. Parallel challenges to older forms ofsociety and community solidarity had arisen among other peoples exposed to contactwith...


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