The study of intellectual history in Africa is in its infancy. We know very little about what Africa’s thinkers made of their times. Recasting the Past brings one field of intellectual endeavor into view. The book takes its place alongside a small but growing literature that highlights how, in autobiographies, historical writing, fiction, and other literary genres, African writers intervened creatively in their political world.
The past has already been worked over by the African interpreters that the present volume brings into view. African brokers—pastors, journalists, kingmakers, religious dissidents, politicians, entrepreneurs all—have been doing research, conducting interviews, reading archives, and presenting their results to critical audiences. Their scholarly work makes it impossible to think of African history as an inert entity awaiting the attention of professional historians. Professionals take their place in a broader field of interpretation, where Africans are already reifying, editing, and representing the past.
The essays collected in Recasting the Past study the warp and weft of Africa’s homespun historical work. Contributors trace the strands of discourse from which historical entrepreneurs drew, highlighting the sources of inspiration and reference that enlivened their work. By illuminating the conventions of the past, Africa’s history writers set their contemporary constituents on a path toward a particular future. History writing was a means by which entrepreneurs conjured up constituencies, claimed legitimate authority, and mobilized people around a cause. By illuminating the spheres of debate in which Africa’s own scholars participated, Recasting the Past repositions the practice of modern history.