The "Very Short Introduction" series of Oxford University Press offers readers the opportunity to expand their knowledge in many directions. African history is a subject I know little about but was interested to explore in this "very short introduction" written in 2007 by John Parker, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and Richard Rathbone, Honorary Professor of History, University of Aberystwth.
The authors state at the outset that their "very short introduction" is less a chronological history of Africa than a meditation upon the various ways that the African past has been thought about or imagined. Parker and Rathbone point to several difficulties in writing a straightforward historical account. In a short compass, it would be difficult to provide a history of a continent and its people over the course of over 5,000 years. During much of this time, the written historical record is scant at best. And the Africa of today includes more than 50 separate countries. The deeper question the authors raise is the sense in which Africa can be said to have a history at all, what it includes, and how it is to be researched and written. These latter themes pervade the book. The authors are careful and cautious in their approach; but on one occasion they suggest the discipline forms part of "the so-called 'cultural-linguistic turn' in the humanities associated with postmodernism". I would have considerable reluctance exploring a subject exclusively or primarily through postmodernist eyes with their biases and relativisms.
The early chapters of the book, in particular, explore the difficulties of exploring African history in terms of understanding the continent, particularly the distinction between the portions north and south of the Sahara desert and the large African diaspora. The authors raise hard questions about unity and diversity in the context of African peoples, and they question the idea of "tribalism" through which many people tend to view Africa. In a chapter titled "historical sources", the authors describe the difficulties of historical study in the absence of a written record. They discuss various alternatives to written records and they insightfully compare the differences between historical study and the types of study by cultural anthropology.
The book examines four large trends in African history in considering the role of "Africa in the world": religion, in particular the competing and almost equally-divided influences of Islam and Christianity, the slave trade, the African diaspora, and the large changes in the 19th Century resulting from European expansionism. These discussions, particular of the former two trends, are brief but highly suggestive.
There is large evidentiary material on the long history of slavery in Africa. Following the years of the slave trade, African history is documented through the age of colonialism, the end of colonialism, and the following and ongoing difficult paths towards self-government and economic growth of the African nations. While it briefly explores this large, complex history, the book is almost equally concerned with historiography -- the way in which historians in and outside of Africa conceived the nature of African history and set about writing it. The authors suggest that this history has changed and will continue to change as the needs continent and its people change. Various tensions in the nature of historical study of the sort the authors describe are not particular to Africa but are common to the enterprise. There undoubtedly also are factors that are particular to African history.
This "very short introduction" thus is more a combination of history, historiography, and the philosophy of history than a historical account. It proceeds at a high level of sophistication for an introductory book. The book includes an annotated bibliography for further reading together with an unusually large number of photographs which help to particularize the text amidst the abstractions. The book will be of most value to readers with a background in historical study (of other places or times); and, of course, to readers wanting to learn about Africa. The book made me want to learn more about Africa and its peoples; and thus, for me, it succeeded in its goal.