- Unreasonable Histories: Nativism, Multiracial Lives, and the Genealogical Imagination in British Africa by Christopher J. Lee
Who, or what, is unreasonable in this new book by Christopher Lee?
Unfortunately it took me more than a few days of reading to figure out the answer since I skipped the dense introduction where the answer was hiding. What I discovered in the later chapters is a provocative book about the lives of multiracial Africans in British Eastern and Southern Africa from the early to the mid twentieth century. ‘‘Multiracial’’ includes communities self-described as Anglo-African, Coloured, Luso-African, Indo-African, [End Page 408] and Cape Afrikander (just to name a few). The focus is on people who Lee says ‘‘lost — politically, socially, and culturally — with the end of colonialism, whose histories have since been marginalized by the politics of African nationalism during the postcolonial period’’ (3). The chapters recount how racial thought informed issues as varied as town planning, the legal status of multiracial people, colonial anti-poverty programs, and the norms of sexual behavior. Lee draws upon interviews with survivors, and archival records including newspapers, government reports and documents, as well as materials from multiracial groups such as the Euro-African Patriotic Society in Rhodesia, the Anglo-African Association of Nyasaland, and the Coloured Community Service League — just to name a few.
The book is carefully researched and at its simplest the chapters ‘‘argue for the importance of racial minorities and their layered histories under colonial rule’’ (5). In a more dense formation of that goal, the author describes the book as being about the ‘‘genealogical imagination — its origins, its diverse morphologies and instrumental uses, and its historical demise’’ (4). The book is challenging since many of the main themes, such as the ‘‘genealogical imagination’’ and ‘‘nativism,’’ may feel foreign and unwieldy to undergraduates or the lay public. All of the terms are carefully defined, but it is this elaborate theoretical framing that makes jumping into the book a challenge.
Few would disagree when he states that ‘‘histories of the kind observed here have been habitually marginalized,’’ (8) although it is harder to explain why. Lee argues it is because scholars have absorbed colonial assumptions that the study of Africa must focus solely or primarily on black communities. He asserts this willful neglect is due to a ‘‘lack of historical imagination’’ (12) and challenges historians to be vigilant in questioning ‘‘the accepted parameters of academic inquiry and the choice of legitimate subject matter’’ (9).
The book is organized into three different parts that correspond with the author’s argument about what makes these multiracial histories unreasonable. Part I: ‘‘Histories Without Groups’’ highlights the methodologically unreasonable, the ‘‘modes of evidence and the difficulty involved in restoring these subaltern histories’’ (19). Part II: ‘‘Non-Native Questions’’ illustrates the categorically unreasonable in how these communities asked questions about racial descent and privilege. Part III: ‘‘Colonial Kinships’’ presents the socio-politically unreasonable by focusing on how these multiracial people created ‘‘communities of sentiment’’ (a phrase Lee borrows from Max Weber) that sought political connection and entitlement, and justified it through racism (143).
The chapters where Lee works carefully with his primary sources are the richest and most moving. The fully replicated source in chapter two, [End Page 409] ‘‘Adaima’s Story,’’ was a reminder of how challenging and full of humanity (and contradictions) a single written source can be. The chapter also presents a teaching opportunity — a way to assign undergraduates a primary source to consider and then to give them an example of how an historian analyzes a source, while also fully acknowledging persistent ambiguities. I intend to assign the chapter to a freshman seminar to see how it works. In chapters six (‘‘Racism as a Weapon of the Weak’’) and seven (‘‘Loyalty and Disregard’’), I found Lee’s discussion of the internal debates within these multiracial communities fascinating, especially how carefully he pieces together the Eurafricans in Southern Rhodesia’s not-so-subtle racism and unsettling pledges of...