The Omnipresent Past. Historical Anthropology of Africa and African Diaspora
Contributors to this volume discuss a variety of ways the African past (African history) influences the present-day of Africans on the continent and in diaspora: cultural (historical) memory as a factor of public (mass) consciousness; the impact of the historical past on contemporary political, social, and cultural processes in Africa and African diaspora.
This volume is an output of a research project implemented as part of the Basic Research Program at the National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE).
The article highlights the results of field research conducted in Tanzania in August-September 2018, focused on historical memory about Arab slave trade in East Africa and Indian Ocean in the 19-th century and its influence on modern-day interethnic relations in the country.
The chapter by Dmitri Bondarenko, is on the role of historical memory in shaping the relations between African Americans – descendants of slaves forcibly brought from Africa to America centuries ago – and first-generation African immigrants in the USA. Basing on the first-hand evidence from the filed, the author argues that they do not form a single ‘black community’ and that among the reasons explaining this disunity, an important part is played by the different reflection of the past in their historical memory. Most African Americans and African migrants do not have an integral vision of history – of their own history and even more so of each other’s. Their historical consciousness is discrete: there is no history as a process in it, but there are several isolated bright topoi – the most important events. Although all these topoi are directly or indirectly related to the socio-political and spiritual resistance of black people to the whites’ exploitation in or outside Africa, they can be different or be of different importance to African Americans and Africans. There is no concept of ‘black history’ as common history of all the people whose roots are in Africa in the minds of most African Americans and African migrants, especially poorly educated. Bondarenko shows that the key events in African American and African history (namely, the pre-slave trade and pre-colonial period in Africa, transatlantic slave trade, slavery and its abolition in the USA, colonialism and anticolonial struggle in Africa, the civil rights movement in the USA, and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa) are reflected differently and occupy different places in the historical memory and collective consciousness of African Americans and contemporary African migrants to the USA. To some extent, visions of the past promote Africans and African Americans’ rapprochement as victims of long-lasting white domination. However, a deeper analysis shows how the collective historical memory of both groups works more in the direction of separating them by generating and supporting contradictory and even negative images of each other. In general, the relations between African Americans and recent African migrants are characterized by simultaneous mutual attraction and repulsion. Among all ethnoracial communities in the country, the two groups (and also African Caribbeans) consider themselves as the closest to each other; nevertheless, myriads of differences cause mutual repulsion.
The aim of this volume is to study various manifestations of how the past influences the present in contemporary African societies and diaspora communities (called so irrespective of the generation of migrants to which the people that form these communities now belong). The contributors look at the role of the past in shaping modern Africa and African diasporas in different contexts – cultural, social, political – and from different perspectives: ‘subjectivist’ (through the imprints and reflections of the past in human minds) and ‘objectivist’ (through the ways by which the social, political, and cultural events of the past direct the processes in the respective spheres nowadays).
In the following chapter, the author presents some of the findings of the research project conducted in South Africa from 2011–2013, which was aimed at rediscovering people’s memories of township struggles of the 1980s. The research analyzed life stories and memories of direct involvement in community structures and self-rule in townships. In this text, the author uses a series of in-depth interviews to analyze the notions of ‘people’s democracy’ and different understandings of peoples’ self-organization of the abovementioned period.