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  • Unreasonable Histories: Nativism, Multiracial Lives, and the Genealogical Imagination in British Africa by Christopher J. Lee
  • Kwaku Nti
Lee, Christopher J. Unreasonable Histories: Nativism, Multiracial Lives, and the Genealogical Imagination in British Africa. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.

Christopher Lee’s Unreasonable Histories: Nativism, Multiracial Lives, and the Genealogical Imagination in British Africa is a welcome addition to the growing number of books that seek to redeem African [End Page 212] History and, by extension, African Studies from the rigidly defined structure and scope shaped largely by the colonial experience. It seeks to challenge the pervasive ideological and teleological structure of post-independence African history; that is national liberation and nation-state as the universal end to colonialism with a commonly accepted historical meaning reflecting a rationalization that has shaped the intellectual framework for understanding Africa. This inherited colonial epistemology has largely privileged claims of black autochthony over all others. Lee, therefore, proffers the issue of racial minorities in Africa, particularly British Africa, as an important part of the post-national research agenda on subalterns. In essence he calls for a rethinking of the histories of race and racism beyond accustomed places and across time periods while drawing attention to the racial diversity of colonial African societies.

With its primary setting in the Nyasaland Protectorate and surrounding regions, this book facilitates the expansion of the geographical scope of current research in its account of the politics of racialization in British Central Africa. Lee argues that decolonizing enduring or entrenched epistemologies is a complex process that requires not only theoretical innovations but also a concurrent empirical expansion involving the reconsideration of how certain historical experiences can undo assumptions and enlarge expectations of what African history has been and could be. Post-colonial nativism as an intellectual project helped to promote indigenous language and cultures as a critical response to colonialism and provided a means of authenticating and stabilizing manifold national identities. However, this approach to writing national experiences was often exclusive and even repressive of other unofficial histories. [End Page 213]

Lee opines that “alter-native” subjectivities provide a more nuanced and heterogeneous view of colonialism and thus enable a more expansive or holistic interpretation of Africa’s past from the diverse demographic, political, and cultural vantage points, especially as he asserts that colonialism was as much a project in socio-cultural management as it was an economic venture that made Africa undergo fundamental demographic changes (p. 10). In this sense, multi-racial people occupied the shifting middle ground between European African colonies and local societies as the outcome of interpersonal relationships between foreigners and indigenous individuals.

This book taps from several previous studies in the bid to offer timely crucial interventions placing emphasis on the empiricism of small scale events or histories, incidental occasions and the obscure cultural elements to illuminate everyday mentalities as well as the conditions of the broader social transformation. Using the concept of unreasonable histories as methodological, categorical, and sociopolitical tools, the book is divided into three parts with a total of eight chapters qualitatively different and yet interrelated. Together these help expose the limits of a colonial “reason” centered on racial difference expressed through the paradigm of nativism and non-nativism. Upholding the term multiracial commonly employed by sociologists and other scholars, Lee, among other issues, argues that dated and overused terms such as mulattoes, mixed, mixed race, half caste, or colored are analytically unhelpful and potentially tend to obscure both personal and social histories of subaltern communities that in spite of their small numbers “engaged in the [End Page 214] production of racial knowledge, identity formation, and even empire building in often surprising ways” (p. 18).

Lee uses the evidence stories, speeches, articles, and petitions of multiracial peoples to convey sensibilities of kinship and identity that reflect defiance toward conventional colonial categories of racial differences. These people embraced a sense of identity that paraphrased prosaically amounted to something like, “Who-I-Am-Is Who-I-Am-Related-To,” regardless of social categorization (p. 27). Thus colonialism for multiracial people was an experience that bordered on the familial; providing stories of origin, an integral part of their personal histories with genealogical connections...


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pp. 212-216
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