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Oral Traditions

Oral Tradition And The Search For The African Past

Thus, although oral traditions are not peculiar to black Africa; their use as a source for the construction of African history has attracted the most attention. Not many of the continent's peoples developed any extensive form of writing. Thus, the earliest written sources on African peoples were the accounts of European and Arab traders, travelers, and explorers who wrote about their experiences primarily for home audiences, or as personal memoirs. For this reason, many of the historical studies on Africa were considered not history but anthropology. Archaeological findings of early African civilizations were attributed to foreign influences. It is in this context that the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper contended that Africa had no history apart from the activities there of Europeans and Arabs. This contention drew sharp responses from the intelligentsia on both sides of the Atlantic—including representatives of the evolving colonial African historical consciousness. There is also a sense in which the denigration of the African past was a replication of the European racial and colonial enterprise, referred to by Edward Said as a "race construct" of "otherness," that is, the creation of a negation of the European ideal in conquered and dominated peoples. The challenge for colonial African and indeed intellectual responses to the question of African history was to prove its existence through the only source that seemed available at the time: oral traditions.

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