Recasting the Past — 2009

History Writing and Political Work in Modern Africa

Edited by Derek R. Peterson and Giacomo Macola

“As a group, the contributors and editors of Recasting the Past constitute one of the most impressive cohorts of scholars brought together in a collective volume project in the past three decades. This work will be required reading for any individual venturing into serious study of Africa’s past.”

David William Cohen — The University of Michigan

“Collectively the authors of Recasting the Past are to be saluted, as are their editors. As an assertion of the vibrancy of Christian Africa’s history of ideas in the twentieth century, this collection could hardly be richer.”

International Journal of African Historical Studies

“This collection accomplishes what no monograph could because these nuanced inquiries each require deep expertise. The variety of questions posed here suggests many ways that professional historians could appreciate more fully the production of historical knowledge in Africa. Students of African intellectual history will come away better able to appreciate the deep and multiple roots that generate the production of culture in Africa.”

American Historical Review

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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.


Derek R. Peterson is a senior lecturer in African history and director of the Centre of African Studies at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Creative Writing: Translation, Bookkeeping, and the Work of Imagination in Colonial Kenya, and editor of The Invention of Religion: Rethinking Belief in Politics and History.


Giacomo Macola is a lecturer in African history at the University of Kent at Canterbury. He is the author of The Kingdom of Kazembe: History and Politics in North-Eastern Zambia and Katanga to 1950, and one of the editors of One Zambia, Many Histories: Towards a History of Post-Colonial Zambia.

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280 pages · 6 × 9 in.

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