In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History and the Study of Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Africa in Premodern Works of History, Geography, and Culture
  • Africa in Enlightenment Era History and Science
  • Africa and Evolutionary Thought
  • Early Universal and World Histories
  • Early African and Africa-American Perspectives
  • Afrocentrism
  • Africa and the New World History

African Studies History and the Study of Africa
Jonathan Reynolds
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0095


The land mass known as Africa and its inhabitants have a long, dynamic, and often contentious relationship with the writing of history. Nonetheless, it is the fluid and often acrimonious relationship between Africa and the field of history that allows the subject to offer a valuable insight into the changing nature of the practice of history itself and into the scholars, observers, and agents who have produced that history. For much of antiquity, most of Africa existed on the periphery of the writing of history, a region defined often by speculation rather than by observation. Then a strange thing happened. As new maritime technologies led to increased connections with and greater awareness of things and people African, rather than being brought into greater historical focus, Africa increasingly was pushed out of history altogether. Indeed, during the Early Modern and Enlightenment periods, unintentional marginalization shifted to active exclusion. This reality is crucial to our understanding of history and the study of Africa because it was during this period that the very concept of history as a modern field of study was being created. By 1900, Africa had become perhaps the most common “primitive” foil to Europe’s ascribed status as the source of progress and history. Thus, even as European colonialism established economic and political dominance over much of Africa by the early 20th century, so did historians of European birth or descent assert dominance over the continent’s history. The denial of African history, however, was to be temporary. Even during the 19th century, Africans and those of African descent were beginning to challenge the notion of an ahistorical Africa. By the middle of the 20th century, these early historians of Africa were joined by a group of area studies specialists known as Africanists who sought to pioneer and use innovative forms of research and evidence to prove that a very real and dynamic African history could be revealed and written. This process accelerated as the 20th century progressed, especially as increasing numbers of African-born historians not only drew upon Western methods of history to challenge European constructions of Africa but also found careers in Western universities to reform the field of history from within. Indeed, the very tools used to establish the reality of Africa’s place as part and parcel of the historical world also, by the late 20th century, changed the practice of history itself, altering the way historians everywhere research and understand the past. See also the separate Oxford Bibliographies articles on Image of Africa and Historiography and Methods of African History.

General Overviews

Despite the fact that Africa’s relationship to history provides such an excellent measure of the transformations of the field over time, there are relatively few overviews that place Africa in clear historiographical context. Curtin 1964 examines and challenges the construction of a particular image of Africa among the British. Du Bois 1979, Herskovits 1990, and Mudimbe 1988 offer broader critiques of how Africa has been represented in history and philosophy. Miller 1999 is perhaps the most historiographically detailed examination of changing attitudes toward Africa by historians, while Reynolds 2007 is a broader examination of the changing relationship between African history and world history. Phillips 2005 is largely methodological but also consistently addresses changing perspectives on Africa in history.

  • Curtin, Philip. The Image of Africa: British Ideas and Actions, 1780–1850. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.

    A groundbreaking early study that examines the changing representation and meaning of Africa in British sources and policy during the latter 18th and early 19th centuries.

  • Du Bois, W. E. B. The World and Africa: Being an Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History. Rev. ed. New York: International Publishers, 1979.

    Originally published in 1947, this text presents the first text to specifically challenge Africa’s alleged isolation and irrelevance to understandings of world history. It builds upon and extends themes first presented by Du Bois in The Negro in 1915 (New York: Holt).

  • Herskovits, Melville. The Myth of the Negro Past. Boston: Beacon, 1990.

    Originally published in 1941, this work was one of the first Western anthropological studies to challenge the idea that Africans possessed no culturally significant history. Herskovits focuses on “spiritual” and linguistic developments, in particular, to argue for the complexity of African culture in the Americas and Africa alike.

  • Miller, Joseph C. “Presidential Address: History and Africa/Africa and History.” American Historical Review 104.1 (1999): 1–32.

    DOI: 10.2307/2650179

    A brief yet historiographically dense overview of the relationship between the modern field of history and the study of Africa.

  • Mudimbe, V. Y. The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

    An incisive intellectual history and assessment of the philosophical underpinnings of the creation of Western constructions of Africa and Africanness.

  • Phillips, John Edward, ed. Writing African History. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005.

    Written as an intentional follow up to McCall 1969 (cited under Methodologies), this edited volume examines the writing of African history from a number of disciplinary and methodological perspectives.

  • Reynolds, Jonathan T. “Africa and World History: From Antipathy to Synergy.” History Compass 5.6 (2007): 1998–2013.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1478-0542.2007.00475.x

    This article utilizes the changing status of Africa in world history scholarship to examine the transformation of our understanding of not only African history but also of the very nature of 20th century historical scholarship. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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