Cheikh Anta Diop, The African Origin of Civilization

Apologies in advance: I finished this book a couple weeks ago and have long since returned it to the library.  Hence, no quotes, which in this case I think will do the book a disservice.

Cheikh Anta Diop is most well-known in the United States as the man who demonstrated–his critics would say “argued”–that the ancient Egyptians were Black.  This is true, he did make that argument, and I gather that this book, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, is the work in English that made his reputation.  What is more important, though, about Diop’s work, is that he doesn’t simply demonstrate that the Egyptians were Black, he posits them as the cultural source of African civilization generally, as well as the source for many if not most of what are considered, in a standard Western Civ. course, ancient Greek innovations.

Depending on what company you’re in, you can just say the word, “Afrocentrism,” and get all kinds of reactions from white people that expose their unexamined racism.  When in that situation, it’s good to have a book or two of Diop’s under your belt, because he provides the science behind the argument that the Egyptians were Black.  It’s critical to remember that people still make a distinction between “white Africa” and “Black Africa,” even if they do it in the disguised form of “North Africa” and “Sub-Saharan Africa.”  Note the Wikipedia links that show up for those terms, automatically suggested to me as I write this by a Firefox plugin I use.  Anyone who dismisses how colonialist mainstream notions of Africa continue to be is kidding themselves.

Diop posits Africa as a whole, Black entity, which is one of his important points.  Again, apologies for not having direct quotes in this piece, because it would be important here.  I was pleased, reading the book, to see Diop use precisely the same language that I had on numerous occasions in the past.  Many times, when discussing this stuff with people, I have been confronted with the argument that the Egyptians did not have the same notions of race as those in the modern United States, and so calling them “Black” is ahistorical and therefore misleading.  I had often said to people that, yes, the Egyptians did not call themselves Negroes, but if you put them down in New York City, they’d live in Harlem.  Dammit, but Diop uses the same argument, verbatim, in The African Origin of Civilization.  I certainly felt a sense of gratification.

What is clear reading Diop is that all of this discussion is much more important for African people today, and by extension for the Black diaspora today, than it is for the Ancient Egyptians, who of course are long dead as physical beings.  He has an endearing quality to his writing, insofar as I get the sense of him as an obviously exceptional, accomplished individual, cheering on other Africans and Black people of less obvious accomplishments, saying, “see those pyramids?  That’s what you can do.”  At some level, that’s his point.  It shouldn’t need to be said, but with all the talk of “post-racial America” clearly needs to be, that that kind of discussion is still very, very important.  The cultural assault (not to mention economic and legal) that Black people endure on a daily basis in this country is profound.  Diop offers a way out.

Addendum, 1/18/11: great interview w/Diop on Youtube.  Dig it:


Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms

As one can tell given a prior post on one of his books, I’m on something of a Carlo Ginzburg kick, and this, The Cheese and the Worms, is the book that, when I mentioned a few years ago to some friends that I’d learned about this interesting historian, they each said, “ah, yes, The Cheese and the Worms!”  I had just started The Night Battles, and hadn’t heard of this one, which clearly was the one that got a lot of press in places like the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker.

Ginzburg wrote the Cheese and the Worms in an attempt to simultaneously satisfy the expectations of both “the general reader” or “literate public” and academic history.  That is to say, there are neither foot- nor endnotes proper, but rather appendices which detail source material for pages in question.  I have to think that Ginzburg made this choice because he’d stumbled across an undeniably fantastic subject, a sixteenth century miller, Italian, known as Menocchio, on whom more later.

Ginzburg’s claim to fame is that of “microhistorian” of popular religiosity: he takes very specific data, as far as I can tell most importantly from archives of the Italian Inquisition, and gives them a very close reading in order to read through, so to speak, the bias of the author–the Inquisitor bent on rooting out heresy as he imagines it–to get into, to a remarkably plausible extent, the mind of the accused heretic.  What Ginzburg finds is, not surprisingly, that the actual ideas of the heretic were, while still contrary to or different from High Church orthodoxy, very different from what Inquisitors assumed or imagined the heretics to believe.  Generally, where Inquisitors found heresy, Ginzburg finds popular, peasant religiosity.  Give the paucity of source material from peasants themselves on the subject, the historian relies on other sources.

As I noted above, Ginzburg knew he was on to something good when he found Menocchio.  The book is, above all, a completely fascinating read, and Menocchio himself, doomed to be burned at the stake we know from the start, an intensely sympathetic and literally pathetic figure.  He seems not to have had a mean bone in his body, but rather what seems on the surface to have been a totally idiosyncratic approach to religion.  He developed a unique, but at the same time detailed, cosmology, borrowing freely from written sources as well as oral tradition.  He was literate, but did not, as a working man, have access to large libraries and so his readings were intense and focused, with ample room for his own embellishment of meaning.  Under questioning, Menocchio veered between a willingness to please his questioner and an inability to resist the original thinking which landed him in hot water.  I can’t imagine a person reading this book and not projecting onto Menocchio all or at least some of his or her own difficulties with authority that wanted to stifle one’s originality.

There are three kinds of historian.  A first produces scholarly articles and monographs for other historians and never makes a meaningful dime from writing.  These historians often imagine what it would be like to be widely read, and simultaneously envy and look down upon anyone with a broad, or even slightly broad, audience.  Most historians fall into this category.  A second spends most of a career in the first category and then at some point gets the idea to write something that will actually sell, in the hopes that one can have some residual income when one retires, in addition to one’s pension.   They write the book, usually but not always a textbook, and then finish off a last scholarly monograph or two before calling it a day.  A third category more or less abandons academic history even while she or he draws the largest paycheck in the department because of all the appearances on public or network television as a talking head.  Her books or his are published by Random House, or at minimum one of its subsidiaries, and can be found at Barnes and Noble or Borders, or at minimum ordered there through regular channels.  This third group is, in a word, popular.  Ginzburg is interesting.  He seems to simultaneously be in the first and second categories, by design.

Early in the book Ginzburg references Bakhtin‘s Rabelais and his World, in particular Bakhtin’s notion of a reciprocal relationship in the sixteenth century between popular and high culture, at least in some cases like that of Rabelais.  We have an inarticulate peasant culture–inarticulate as far as written source material goes–centuries old, that, in the cultural fluidity of the sixteenth century, percolated up so to speak through particular, individual writers who, despite their education, remained expressive of that peasant culture.  I have coincidentally read Bakhtin’s book, loved it, and then lost my copy in the course of a couple of moves.  Ginzburg sees in Menocchio a case-in-point of Bakhtin’s model.  This works for me, but for the life of me I think Ginzburg needed another fifty pages to prove it.  The main text of the book is a mere 128 pages, compared to, for example, Bakhtin’s close read of Rabelais which was nearly 500.

All too often, Ginzburg references popular belief generally, leaving the reader with the sense of a formless mass of ideas rather than something real.  One can bring prior knowledge of the subject to Ginzburg’s account, which I did and which is why, I think, I bought his basic idea from the start, because I could fill in the blanks.  I got the impression at times that Ginzburg projected onto this mass of ideas what he wanted rather than what was there.  Peasants felt the world order, with entrenched elites, unjust, and felt that labor created the world.  Anyone who roots for the underdog would want peasants to believe this, and it’s not very profound that they did.  To take a contrary example, Bakhtin’s lengthy discussion about ideas of the body in Rabelais and his World struck me as deeply profound, not entirely expected (to me, anyway), and amply documented.

His general exposition of peasant belief as reflected in Menocchio makes perfect sense to me, but Ginzburg leaves me with a sense that he hasn’t really shown it.  The tension between his niche in academic history, that of microhistorian, focusing on very specific cases-in-point, and his broader ambitions to illuminate a broader culture is nearly too tense to sustain itself.  Interestingly, in the bit I read of The Night Battles a few years ago (I am going reread and complete the book within the year) I never felt that Ginzburg’s pronouncements about peasant belief were under-documented.  Having said that, The Cheese and the Worms is worth the read, both for what it documents about Menocchio, an interesting case if ever there was one, and for what it suggests about broader peasant religiosity.  That, and because Ginzburg, seeking to engage a broader audience, certainly wrote to be read.

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Joseph Dahmus, A History of the Middle Ages

In the last post on Carlo Ginzburg, I said, truthfully, that I prefer academic history to those intended for a wider readership.  On vacation, in a friend’s house, I ran out of books to read, so I picked up Joseph DahmusA History of the Middle Ages off their shelf.  It was the first textbook I’d read in easily 20 years.

There two types of history textbooks: those written by committee and those written by individuals.  Neither is entirely satisfactory, but the second is generally more valuable.  The textbook written by an individual is likely to be a better read, which matters when one is reading a textbook, something one would prefer to avoid.  Dahmus has some sort of authorial voice in his prose.  A second and probably more important point is that an individual author is more likely to make some sort of argument or, rather, to do so more or less transparently.  All textbooks, of course, make arguments.  The problem with those written by a group with the sole purpose of tapping into the lucrative textbook market is that they hide their arguments behind a veil of objectivity.  The arguments are made in the selection and omission of facts.  Dahmus, to his credit, will make statements like “so-and-so argues this about that, but is wrong for this reason and this other.”  We know when an argument is being made.

Carlo Ginzburg, Clues, Myths, and Historical Method

I studied history in school because I liked it, and I can say that I like reading academic history more than histories intended for the general public, most of the time. I say this not to sound elitist, but because the best academic history operates on a much greater level of detail than popular histories, and I find that detail interesting. One of my big questions as a person is that of the relationship between general and specific.

A number of years ago a friend TA’d for a course in which the prof had assigned Carlo Ginzburg‘s The Night Battles: Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries, which on my friend’s recommendation I purchased. I began reading it, liked it, got distracted, and gave it away with the rest of my library when I moved to Senegal. In the intervening years, however, I’ve thought about it quite a bit, and for my birthday I asked my parents each to get me some Ginsburg books. This one, Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, I actually bought myself to round out the set, breaking my rule about not buying books any more. The library didn’t have it, I say in my defense.

The book is a series of articles, the contents of which I checked out before buying it, which seemed most interesting to me when they focus on what Ginsburg is justly famous for: documenting popular culture, witchcraft particularly, using sources hostile to the subject. One title explains the basic point: “The Inquisitor as Anthropologist.” We might actually as a general rule reverse the two and note the Anthropologist as Inquisitor, had not Vine Deloria already done so so beautifully. Ginzburg, however, is dealing with an extreme example of the basic methodological question in history, which is that of source material. Ginsburg uses inquisitorial records of heresy to examine popular religious belief. To do this, he needs to compensate for the inherent bias of the source material, in particular the tendency of inquisitors to understand statements of the accused as recitations of the Church’s notions of heresy–everything leads up to the Witches’ Sabbat–rather than as statements in and of themselves. Nor are the accused speaking freely. Everything the accused says is an attempt to on the one hand be credible to the inquisitor and at the same time innocent of capital crime.

This to me is a fascinating inquiry. As such, the most interesting–and without question, my primary concern to me in reading anything is whether or not I happen to find it interesting–articles in the book are the ones that deal with popular religion and methodology. Codification of eros in Titian is of abstract interest to me, but I’d rather have been told the point in conversation with someone over pints than have taken the time to read the article. I did so as a point of principle, having paid for the book.

Definitely not a starting point for Ginzburg’s work. The Night Battles or, I am told, The Worms and the Cheese are certainly worth anyone’s time. I have those both waiting near my bed to finish by summer’s end.

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C.L.R. James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution

Get to a good library, get this book, and read it.

I was at a friend’s house and by my habit was looking at his bookshelf. I grabbed Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution as well as a copy of Nkrumah’s autobiography, and he told me to take them home, on the condition that I report back to him on the quality of the books: he had bought them but not yet read them, as many bookworms will do. C.L.R. James passes the test. The book is out of print, unfortumately, so get right and get a library card, which is my new modus vivendi as I’ve noted before.

Very briefly, the edition I read was originally published in 1977, the bulk of which was published as a fairly lengthy pamphlet in (according to the copyright) 1962, while Nkrumah was still in power, with additions from the period as he was, in James’ analysis, losing his footing. James’ dedication of the text, to Nkrumah, whom he called Francis, is quite beautiful:


in never-to-be forgotten memory. Like Cromwell and Lenin, he initiated the destruction of a régime in decay — a tremendous achievement; but like them, he failed to create the new society.

James is among other things one of a tiny few of true stylists of 20th century English prose. He is most famous for The Black Jacobins for perfectly good reasons–i.e., you won’t read a better book–but, truly, should be required reading for anyone trying to get their prose in shape, myself included. He’s also one of those examples of the colonially educated who mastered the language of the oppressor to a greater extent than any of the oppressors themselves. I can’t imagine too many writers today, again including myself, who would bother using the correctly-accented “régime” rather than the lazy man’s “regime,” much less know that there is actually a difference. James, of course knows that both history and language matter, and thus could not but acknowledge the history of the word as he wrote it.

James writes against an entire literature that posits decolonization as something that Europeans did. Put so, it’s, I hope, obvious how idiotic an idea that is. I’d note, however, that there is an analogous trend in US historiography that sees the end of slavery as the work of white people (witness California History Standard 10.3.4, which places the end of the slave trade in the unit on the industrial revolution) or the Civil Rights Act as Johnson’s achievment (witness Hillary Clinton’s campaign). James begins his text with a discussion of “the Myth,” capitalized. That is, the notion that there’s no way that Black people could actually make history for themselves. His book, in addition to an analysis of revolutionary process and a very convincing defense from a Marxist perspective of non-violence, is an illustration of the truth that Black people and indeed all people make their own history, even if as Marx famously noted in the Eighteenth Brumaire that

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

In any event, James amply demonstrates that is was the mass movement in Ghana that required the British to leave. Nkrumah’s role was to understand this and give it focus. James’ dedication above places Nkrumah on par with Cromwell (interesting choice, and certainly not one expected by this US-educated reader) and Lenin, and his book absolutely justifies that assessment. Truly, Ghana’s independence movement was in fact a revolution–not a term one finds in American textbooks in this context–and Nkrumah both a theoretician and practitioner of revolution on par with a Lenin.

I have to think that the broad denial of the term “revolution” to Ghana in our textbooks is part of a general tendency of the propertied classes to erase the idea of revolutionary change from the list of possible futures we face. The materials we as teachers get to work with, textbooks and such, subtly categorize “revolutions” into two categories: the good and the bad. The “good” ones are those of anglophonic whites: those of England such as it was and the United States. Reports of revolutionary violence are minimized in textbook treatments of these subjects or dismissed as aberrations. That both merely confirmed already-existing elites rather than replaced them exposes the agenda of the textbook writers: convince young people, the ones who might actually change things, that change is at minimum not desirable, more likely not actually possible. The “bad” revolutions are portrayed as inevitable descents into bloodbaths: we see the French and Russian examples at their worst. Students who because of their decent nature–that is to say, the very people who under capitalism are most likely to want to overthrow it–would gravitate toward thoroughgoing social revolutions are instead taught to revile the very notion of revolution, because they are taught to mistake revolutionary violence with revolution itself. Ghana’s counter-example gives lie to this.

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