Seven Myths of Africa in World History: An Interview with Dr. David Northrup

Above Image: David and Nancy, his wife of 46 years, hiking the Andes in 2017.
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Respected historian Dr. David Northrup is the author or editor of no fewer than ten well-received books, as well as dozens of peer-reviewed articles. Although he retired from Boston College in 2012 after thirty-eight years of service there, he began teaching more than fifty years ago, as a teacher and Vice-Principal of the Central Annang Secondary School in Nigeria during his time in the Peace Corps. He then served as a history instructor at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama from 1968 until 1972, before beginning his time at Boston College in 1974. David has had an outstanding career and is, unquestionably, one of the world’s leading scholars on African history. Needless to say, when I learned that my friend and co-series editor Alfred J. Andrea had recruited David to contribute a book to our Myths of History Series for Hackett Publishing, I was elated.

Because Al knows David best, I asked him if he might contribute a few words about David and his career. Al responded as follows:

Andrew has asked me to add a few words to this all-too brief overview of David’s career and contributions. Well, I could note that he is recognized as a leading expert in the demanding field of African history, and at Boston College (a Jesuit institution that, despite its name, is neither a college nor is located in Boston),  he had a reputation as a teacher-scholar who genuinely cared for,  mentored, and challenged his students. (How do I know this? As an alumnus of that same university, I have my sources.) But I shall pass over these points in silence. I could also bring to your attention the uncontestable fact that David has, for many years, been active in and on the cutting edge of world history studies, as many of his publications bear witness.  Two of his contributions to world history scholarship that have received enthusiastic response from scholars, students, and general readers alike are Africa’s Discovery of Europe (3rd. ed., 2013) and How English Became the Global Language (2013). Further, in recognition of his many significant contributions to the field, his colleagues elected him president of the World History Association (WHA), and several weeks ago, namely June 2017, the WHA named David a Pioneer of World History–a recognition that, in my opinion, was long-overdue.  But I will also let all of that bide, and I shall not utter or pen a word about it.

Having imposed on myself a ban of monastic-like silence regarding David’s academic accomplishments and honors, all that remains is to offer an observation or two on David as a public historian, and by that I mean a person who has a message that far transcends the ivy-coated walls of academe and faculty rooms peopled by ivy-covered professors.

I cannot remember how long I have known David, but it has been at least two decades, and probably longer. Throughout the years he and I have known one another and worked together, especially in our years of service to the WHA and our equally beloved New England Regional World History Association (NERWHA), David has, time and again, proved himself to be generous in offering his time, efforts, and talents to the cause of promoting world history and, thereby,  advancing a deeper understanding–at all levels–of this vital area of inquiry. A nuanced  comprehension of world history is a necessary intellectual tool for anyone who desires to be an effective member of society in the twenty-first century.  Without it, one is doomed to a life of ignorant insularity.  Seven Myths of Africa in World History is but the most recent example of David’s work to bring to students, teachers, and the general public alike his valuable insights into the history that we share as members of the human community.  He does so with a passion born of a commitment to exacting historical analysis and with a coherence and clarity of style that will please even the most nit-picking critics. Bravo, my friend.

And this leads me to my final point–David as a friend and colleague. To put it succinctly, he is terrific. And his generosity of soul, which is apparent to those who know and have worked with him, equally comes through in the pages of his study of the dynamics of Africa in the context of world history.

Because Al does not discuss the issue, I must note that David has won many awards recognizing his scholarship and service to the profession. They include two Fulbright awards, two NEH grants and, most recently, his recognition as a Pioneer in World History Award by the WHA . Beyond his books and articles, David’s influence on modern understandings of African history has been felt in other ways. They include his service from 2001 to 2009 as a member of the SAT II World History Test Development Committee for the College Board, during which he served as its chair from 2004 to 2009. He is also a former President of the World History Association, the current  Vice President of the New England Regional World History Association, and the former Chair of the Wesley-Logan Book Prize Committee for the American Historical Association.

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Above Images: Book cover images of just three of David’s ten books, including Africa’s Discovery of Europe 3rd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2013), Crosscurrents in the Black Atlantic, 1770-1965: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007),  and How English Became the Global Language (Palgrave, 2013).

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Although I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting David face to face, I have certainly long been aware of his excellent reputation as a scholar. Moreover, the lengthy process of helping to oversee the production of David’s book Seven Myths of Africa in World History (forthcoming, Sept. 2017) for Hackett’s Myths of History Series ensured regular communication with David and provided many insights into his excellent work as a scholar. As I read the developing chapters of David’s manuscript, I continually found myself, as a historian of medieval Europe, in the position of reappraising my understanding of African history, as I had also believed at least some parts of the various myths that David so convincingly dispels.

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“Northrup’s highly accessible book breaks through the most common barriers that readers encounter in studying African history. Each chapter takes on a common myth about Africa and explains both the sources of the myth and the research that debunks it. These provocative chapters will promote lively discussions among readers while deepening their understanding of African and world history. The book is strengthened by its incorporation of actors and issues representing the African diaspora and African Americans in particular.”
     —Rebecca Shumway, College of Charleston

“A superb introduction to major themes in African history, lively and without jargon, and pitched at the right level for a general or student readership. At the same time, it does not oversimplify. Unlike many other introductions to African history, the text does not overwhelm with details, but focuses on arguments and issues with which readers can engage.
     “Northrup’s approach is balanced. Even as it engages with some politically sensitive topics, it does so in a careful and fair fashion: A thoughtful book, drawing on and reflecting the best traditions of Africanist scholarship. Most of all, it was a pleasure to read.”
     —David Gordon, Bowdoin College

In dialoguing with David, I have learned that he met his wife of 46 years, Nancy Northrup, who is also a historian of Africa and world history, while they were both students taking a history seminar at UCLA, their graduate alma mater. Over the course of their professional lives, they have traveled over much of the world and even lived in three foreign countries while doing research, namely  Nigeria, the U.K., and Portugal. Most recently, they have found themselves spending time in Mexico and Central America, to which David notes “Hiking in the Himalayas and Andes in my 70s was not a long-term plan, but they were happy experiences.”

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Above Image: David and Nancy at their wedding in 1971. 

Fortunately, for us at Hackett Publishing, David was willing to take a break from his travels to contribute his excellent forthcoming book to our series. He has also kindly agreed to answer some questions for us here about the project.

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Question 1: David, could you begin by telling us a little bit about your background and how you came to have an interest in African history? Did your time in the Peace Corps (1965-66) influence that choice?

My first encounter with African studies was in the excellent Peace Corps training program at UCLA in the fall of 1964. The next year, after I’d gotten to know my Nigerian students and become familiar with the inhabitants of the rainforest villages around the school, I remember wondering how it was that my supposedly good prior education had never hinted at the existence of such fine people and their cultural riches. For many years afterwards I would consider the students in this new, non-elite secondary school as the best I’d ever taught and certainly the only ones to beg me to give them more homework. The rural people were similarly amazing. Their communities had more artistic expressions than any place I’d known. Their lives included woodcarving and sculpture, music and dance, storytelling and dramatic presentations, and much more. These traditions were longstanding, yet innovation was everywhere. Within the previous couple of generations most people had learned the English language, adopted various forms of Christianity, and adapted their cultural heritage to the rapidly changing circumstances, of which their new school was a singular example. When another school presented a production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” I initially wondered how much the audience would understand. In fact, they seemed more engaged with the play than most American audiences.

When I resumed my education after two years, I was a changed person in more ways than I realized. I enrolled as a graduate student in history at UCLA intending to continue my studies in medieval Europe while making further explorations in African studies. By the third quarter I had switched my program of studies from Europe to Africa. When I led a Crossroads Africa group to Cameroon in the summer of 1968, every sight and smell made me feel I had come home. Yet where was this leading me? Before getting in any deeper I needed to find out whether becoming a college professor was what I wanted. By good fortune I secured a position teaching African and world history at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where I learned much about the African diaspora and its struggles. In two years I returned to UCLA, completed my coursework for a doctorate in history of Africa, married, and secured funding to do complete dissertation research in Nigeria and the UK. A decade after I’d begun my encounter with Africa, with a new PhD in hand, I began teaching at Boston College.

Question 2: Why did you agree to write a book, directed toward undergraduates and a popular audience, about African myths? In what ways are the various myths about African history harmful for both Africans and the West?

The idea of writing a history of Africa had long been unattractive to me because it seemed impossible to compress the complexity and diversity of the giant continent into textbook length. However, I was intrigued when Al Andrea asked me if I would be interested in writing a small book on myths of African history. Such a book needed to be selective rather than comprehensive. In addition, a thematic approach to African history would be more challenging and interesting to students than a seamless textbook narrative. I embraced this new challenge, even though I was of an age when writing new monographs seemed over.

Although I have written my share of scholarly monographs, I have derived the greatest satisfaction from writing for students and general readers. I had compiled and edited the first volume in a series of “Problems in World History” called The Atlantic Slave Trade as well as writing Africa’s Discovery of Europe, 1450–1850, both aimed a classroom use. The demand for such books is evident in the fact that both are now in their third editions. As these volumes illustrate, my work as an Africanist has also led me to explore the history of the Atlantic world and world history. Indeed, world history was the primary subject I taught at Tuskegee. In these volumes, as in other of my publications, the concern was with correcting one-sided and distorted treatments of African history. The new project would continue challenging myths on an even broader scale, in a format that would be accessible to students and general readers.

I don’t know if myths still harm Africans, but the belief in Africans’ inferiority once provided justification for their enslavement. Westerners cannot move past that unhappy past unless they let go of the vestiges of such unfounded beliefs.

Question 3: What is a “myth” in the context of your book? Can you give us an example of a popular myth related to African history and how it emerged? Broadly, what causes various groups to embrace certain historical myths related to Africa?

The book uses “myth” to describe a belief that is contrary to fact and logic. Historical myths may be based on faulty evidence and reasoning or even unsupported by evidence at all. Many myths about Africa are due to ignorance. For example, the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) asserted the existence of monstrous Africans who lacked noses, mouths, or even heads. Because Europeans knew little of Africa, such improbable nonsense was repeated for many more centuries.

Besides simple ignorance, prejudice also distorted beliefs about Africa, creating myths that made Africans superior or inferior to other humans. Some myths of African superiority originated within the continent, though many more have their origins elsewhere. Medieval Europeans believed exaggerated tales of marvelous African kings, though later generations defended buying and selling African slaves on the grounds of their inferiority. In recent years movements among members of the African diaspora in the Americas have proposed exaggerated beliefs in Africans’ historical superiority that, while well meaning, are as mythical as the beliefs in their inferiority.

Question 4: What are the seven myths that you focus on in your forthcoming book? Why did you choose them? Could you please provide a couple of lines summarizing each myth to give our readers an overview of what topic they can expect to be covered in the book?

When I told a colleague I was working on a book on seven myths of African history, he immediately replied, “Only seven?” How right he was!  To cope with th numbers I have often grouped related myths in a single chapter. In brief, the myths are these:

  1. Africa has no history or at least none worth knowing. European intellectuals once proclaimed this notion openly, but to this day the attitude is covertly held by many academics, who resist seeing Africans in any historical role other than as victims.

  2. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures all single out Ethiopia as a special place spiritually. This chapter probes three myths about Ethiopian kings: the Ethiopians’ belief that their royal lineages descended from the union of King Solomon of Israel and the Queen of Sheba; the medieval European Christian belief that the Ethiopian monarchy was the home the legendary Prester John, a descendant of one of the Magi; and the modern Rastafari belief that the last Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie (earlier known as Ras Tafari), was an immortal deity.

  3. The coming of European merchants to sub-Saharan Africa was a sharply negative departure from Africa’s earlier overseas trading contacts. The chapter shows that, to the contrary, Africans dealt with early European traders along the Atlantic much as they had with medieval and ancient traders in Indian Ocean.

  4. The Atlantic slave trade stole Africa’s people and devastated societies in Africa much as they devastated the lives of those enslaved. Modern scholarship supports less apocalyptic reading of Africa’s role in the trade and of its immediate and long-term effects.

  5. This chapter takes up the myth that pre-colonial African societies were largely small scale, ethnically based, and unchanging, documenting the dramatic enlargements in the scale of states and identities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

  6. Although voices from the diaspora have judged Islam to be better suited for Africans than Christianity, this chapter shows that Africans have been making their own choices. While African Muslims were once more numerous, since 2000 a larger number of Africans hold Christian beliefs.

  7. A prevailing myth holds that the news from Africa is uniformly bad, but this chapter shows that there are also strongly positive political, cultural, and demographic trends in contemporary Africa.

Question 5: Which chapters in your book will be the most controversial? Why?

The book is intended to inspire critical thinking, discussion, and debate but is not meant to provoke controversy. It uses mainstream historical scholarship and a broad comparative approach to critique outdated, inaccurate, and extreme misconceptions. The last thing the author wants to do is present an extreme or controversial interpretation of the African past.

Many of the myths examined are from earlier times and so not likely to be controversial. The text is careful to treat the reasons why people devised myths with respect, even as it seeks to expose their faulty factual basis and ideological bias. Although individual readers may disagree with one of more of the book’s arguments, I hope they will not find its critical approach outrageous.

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Above Image: David (R) in attendance at the 2017 annual meeting of the WHA. From left to right: Patrick Manning (AHA President), Gerald Oluchi Ibe (Lecturer in History, Imo State University, Nigeria), and David Northrup.

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