Memories of Colonization: Commemoration, Preservation, and Erasure in an African Archive
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In June 1995 the National Archives of Senegal organized the “Colloquium Commemorating the Centenary of French West Africa” in Dakar. On the face of it, this was a peculiar event: a proudly independent African nation celebrating the anniversary of its own colonization . The event itself was unlike any other colloquium most of its academic participants had ever attended: we were guarded by men with automatic ribes, driven between sessions and social events in a caravan of buses and Mercedes, and escorted by policemen on motorcycles . We were addressed by the president of Senegal and the minister of cooperation of France, by the arst lady of Mali and the ambassador of France, as well as by a former governor-general of French West Africa (AOF). History was being invoked and marked in public speech and ceremony, even as the contents of that history— questions of colonialism, regional integration, and social history—were being discussed by scholars. The conjuncture of topic and style made this public colloquium into a strange and disturbing moment in the uneasy relationship of Africa to its colonial history. This essay is a rebection on that event, partly from the perspective of a participant and eyewitness, partly from the perspective of a historian who has worked in colonial archives, including those of Senegal.1 The peculiarity of the commemoration highlights an issue that is basic to the preservation of historical information in former colonies. The past of the new African nation is recorded in the old colonial archive. The difaculty this poses is not so much that these archives rebect a “colonial point of view”— that is obvious—but that the categories and units of analysis that shape the colonial archive also shape other forms of historical preservation and memory. African historians , since the 1960s, have trumpeted that oral tradition is the antidote to the Eurocentrism of the written record—popular memory set against elite documents. But the transmission process by which historical memory arrives at the ear of the researcher is not innocent of the effects of colonization. The “community” that authenticates individual recollection and that provides a linguistic and social basis for collective self-identiacation may itself have been preserved because colonial authorities recognized it, reinforced the power of the “chiefs” who became its spokesmen, recognized or created courts and councils where elders discussed among themselves what constituted tradition, and sometimes wrote down histories whose texts altered back into orally transmitted memory. When historians from different African countries wrote in the 1960s and 1970s histories of “the Luo” or “the Yoruba,” they were taking as givens ethnic units whose singularity was the product of the units of territorial administration in colonies as well as the product of longer-term processes of linguistic and cultural differentiation and amalgamation. These units of understanding cannot of course be reduced to colonial inventions, but the most thoroughgoing efforts to see beyond colonial categories require a close examination of the categorization process. Even some of the tensions within African communities for which careful oral research—when asking more sensitive questions than what “the Kikuyu” think of “their” history—rebect a jockeying for position vis-à-vis colonial institutions.2 And the history of the 257 ⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮ Memories of Colonization Commemoration, Preservation, and Erasure in an African Archive Frederick Cooper ⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯ colonial era, far from being divided into “ofacial transcripts ” and “hidden transcripts” (in the misleading phraseology of James Scott), rebects multidimensional engagements, as different political actors tried to use whatever connections and resources were available to them.3 As Ranajit Guha and others have recognized, the colonial lexicon can itself be analyzed, its categories speciaed, and its blind spots noted.4 This does not mean that one can decode a colonial document and arrive at a “true” picture of a certain event or of the social structure of an indigenous community at a certain time; rather, such historically attuned readings of colonial documents are themselves necessary to decode other kinds of lexicons, to specify other kinds of categories, to note other kinds of blind spots. Fortunately, colonial ofacials in, say, 1930 did not know what was to befall their successors in 1960. They had no reason to hide their racism or their cultural chauvinism and had every reason—as bureaucracies inevitably carried out debates and jockeyed for position within themselves—to make themselves understood within terms that were persuasive within the colonial power structure at any given time. As Luise White has observed , archives record struggles over the vocabulary through which power was to...