Oral Tradition in African History

Barbara M. Cooper’s article, “Oral Sources and the Challenge of African History,” examines the complicated sources of African history. One passage that stood out to me in the beginning, was:

African history, perhaps more than other domains of history, has had to be inventive in its use of sources and eclectic in its approach to evidence. Africans draw upon linguistic, archaeological, ethnographic, genealogical, oral-performative, and oral-interview evidence in addition to the documentary sources more conventionally understood as primary sources within the discipline.

Due the complex past within Africa, there are many reasons why there aren’t as many physical, primary, original documents that record Africa’s history. As a result, historians of Africa have had to borrow techniques from other disciplines in order to find methods to record events of history. Within many African nations and tribes, oral history has been a tradition passed down from generation to generation. With this came debates and concerns about “true” African history.

An early debate was whether or not Africa’s history could be recovered. Jan Vansina and his students tried to develop an approach to utilize oral tradition to recover the history of Africa’s “nonliterate peoples.”  Ongoing debates about ways to investigate Africa’s history and to identify if Africa’s history could be recovered, shaped the oral tradition as a potentially vital source that could be utilized by historians of Africa. However, these debates didn’t go without success. As Cooper acknowledges, these debates led to “fruitful borrowing and rapprochement. Historians of Africa were forced to borrow from other disciplines:

African social and cultural history, for example, is today very close to historical anthropology in its concerns, approaches, and sources of evidence. This makes for very lively intellectual communities and sustained explorations of related issues from more than one vantage point.

As new historical movements came forth, disciplines were able to borrow and collaborate with other disciplines. This led to further development in the approachable methods to gaining access into Africa’s history. While debates and movements have led to the examining oral tradition as a source of African history, historians themselves, were forced to re-evaluate their previous understandings of history. Unlike other histories, African history is unique, complex, and complicated. With the lack of readily available records, historians of Africa were put to the test with trying to configure a way to understand Africa’s history.

While historians within the debate of African history have faced challenges, these challenges can be considered both “healthy and “exciting.” I think that was gets misconstrued is that the methodology is what is most important in trying to capture the past and understand it.

Unfortunately the reality is that the methodological and conceptual challenges produced by African history have rendered it largely unintelligible to academic historians in general. It is becoming urgent that scholars of African history frame questions and enter into conversations in such a way that our colleagues outside African Studies can learn from us and we from them.

As of late, Cooper notices the importance of reframing of the critical approach. There is a necessity in capturing the oral histories from people within Africa in order to preserve the past. Cooper’s article appears to outline past attempts, approaches, and conflicts within African history as it relates to oral tradition.

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