Skip to content

Novelist Marlon James Dismisses Most Old History Books About Africa As Mostly Good For Comic Relief

Marlon James, photographed at Jumel Terrace Books in Harlem in 2014.
(Carolyn Cole/ Los Angeles Times)

In spite of COVID-19, the recently concluded Ake Festival was able to successfully transition to an online event and continue its tradition of sparking some fascinating conversations among the mix of upcoming and globally celebrated panelists.

One of the more engrossing panels was the ‘When African History Meets Futurism‘ panel hosted by Abdulkareem Baba Aminu and featuring the award winning authors Roye Okupe, Hugo Award winner Nnedi Okorafor and Man Booker award winner Marlon James.

The entire panel is a must-watch and can be found at the bottom of this article, but it was in the last half – in response to a previously submitted question about how the panelists carried out research into all aspects of African culture for their books – that James (one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2019) expressed his lack of faith in the written work of early European anthropologists about Africa:

if it’s a history book about Africa written, written more than, say, 70 years ago, I pretty much read it for comic relief… they’re thoroughly useless. Absolutely useless, useless books, but they’re funny!

After the laughter that ensued, James expressed the view that it was more important to focus on more contemporary research into African history and culture. very important to His view was partly shared by the other panelists.

Okupe, a writer of Afro-historical and Afrofuturistic graphic novels, agreed with James that black people who research the continent’s history need to shed the negative self-views they’ve absorbed that make them feel like second-class citizens. He pointed out the importance of getting past the misinformation in certain history books about Africa and stressed the empowerment that came with research for those, like himself, who grew up in Africa without really learning about the accomplishments of their ancestors.

While she agreed with James that “old research, old old stuff was definitely good for laughs” Okorafor explained how she had found a peculiar value in the things her non-linear research style would lead her to discover.

We have European anthropologists who go into these African communities, and just start mining stuff. And because they did that, certain things that are now lost were recorded, but inaccurately. So I’m fascinated by that too… the inaccuracy of it. Sometimes in the inaccuracy, there’s something that’s created that’s really interesting. I don’t know if that even makes sense. But it’s happened many times for me when I’m reading this really racist research where [the researcher] was off his rocker. And through that perspective, he would view the people in a certain way that I found like, I’m like “Oh, that’s interesting. I can do something with that”. That old research has a value, but in a way that isn’t… that I didn’t expect.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: