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20Historically Speaking · November/December 2004 The Borders of African and World History Jonathan T. Reynolds of such historical cases as ancient Egypt, Nubia, Ghana, Mali, Songhai, and ancient Zimbabwe. Miller further argues that to understand the African experience ofdie slave trade we mustembrace the realityofwitchcraft as the lens through which Africans witnessed the "corruption in the body politic" which resulted from "[mjaterial—as distinct from human—accumulation thus embodied (sic!) In his thoughtful essay,Joseph Miller provides a stinging critique ofhow the dominant paradigms ofworld history have marginalized and even misrepresented the history ofAfrica. In particular, he identifies world history's emphasis on civilizational units ofanalysis and its preoccupation with states as having done a disservice to Africa. Well- meaning historians, from the earliest pioneers of the field to recent scholars, argues Miller, have sought to "play by European rules" and legitimize African historybyfinding African equivalents to European states and empires. Miller states that this approach "trades on (by playing off) precisely the modern, often implicitly racial, distortions that exclude Africa from a history of the world the fundamental evil of (suspected) betrayal that might include Africans' own visions of and traffic with aliens, whether 'red' Eurostruggle and accomplishment."peans,visitingMuslims, orAfrican strangers." This is strongstuff. Milleris trying to go Thus, byexaminingdie slave tradeviaAfrican Can we use continents such as Africa as units ofanalysis in worldhistory? . . . I suspect that doing so can be misleading, unless it is done with great care. beyond the surface "what" ofworld history and counterpose an African "why" against what he sees as dominant European "why." In so doing, Miller wants historians to take note that there are many "whys" that must be considered when doing world history— hence the idea of being "multi-centric." To supporthis point, he drawsupon two keytopics : African political systems and African understandings oftheAtlantic slave trade. In the case ofAfrican political systems, Miller posits thatwhile these structures mayappear similar to the states ofEurope, theyare really very different critters, defined, in Miller's own words, by "... a dynamic process ofpersonal interaction rather than relationships stabieyes , historians can get beyond "bondage" (and perhaps also "blame"?) or "abstractions such as 'European demands for Africans as slave labor'" and appreciate thatforAfricans the trade was understood as a "moral crisis" in distinctlyAfrican terms. One of the key issues that all who dare to do world historymust struggle with is the question ofhuman similarity and difference. "Lumpers" argue thatall people are basically similar and can be understood using similar concepts and questions. "Splitters" see peoples in different times and places as basically incomparable. In arguing his point for understanding Africa,Joe Miller has placed himselffirmly in the splitter camp. Indeed, lized by 'hegemony' or 'legitimacy' or anyof despite the fact thathe expresses his disconthe other modern fictions necessary to explain 'structures' that work by abstraction rather than through continuous, real-time confrontation and collaboration." Further, he stresses that the misguided quest to find historical "states" in Africa has led to a historical overemphasis on and misrepresentation tent with the "civilizational" approach to world history, he nonetheless argues for the distinctiveness ofthings African. As he states in his second paragraph: "Africans . . . have had, and have, distinctive ways of thinking of themselves and their world(s), as well as about the greaterworld theyshare with us." On page three he returns to this theme, and identifies "Africa's communal ethos" wherein "... individuals 'existed' not because they could think, alone, for themselves . . . but rather because theyaffiliated themselveswith consummate flexibility with others around them . . . . " From this starting point Miller develops his perspectives onAfrican political forms ("states") and the African understanding ofthe slave trade. While I agree with much of what Miller has to say, I am nonetheless uncomfortable with the underlying characterization ofAfricans as "different ." Indeed, in trying to escape the European paradigm ofworld history, Miller has created a rather selective model of Africa that does not, to me, seemterriblyrepresentative ofAfrican diversity. Certainly there are plentyofcases where such issues as "legitimacy" were crucial both to African rulers and ruled. Are we reallywrong to call the likes of ancient Aksum or Benin states? Perhaps Miller is uncomfortable with the likes ofthese (orforthatmatter ancientEgypt or Songhai) because they don't fit his own model...


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