John M. Janzen
Religion and healing are useful scholarly constructs in summarizing, consolidating, and interpreting a myriad of details from the historic African-Atlantic experience. For heuristic purposes, religion is understood as the worldviews, rituals, and supernatural beings that represent ultimate reality; healing is the understanding of, and responses to, affliction and misfortune, and the struggle to achieve wholeness. Combining religion and healing in an overview of the African diaspora experience will consider the following: original African worlds in four regional contexts in Western and Western Central Africa (e.g., Senegambia, Upper Guinea, Southern Guinea, Kongo-Angola); the traumatic middle passage refracted in the “broken mirrors” of memory; how this memory is mixed and reinterpreted with the New World experience of slave markets, plantations, maroon settlements, and during post-slavery, post-empire times; scholarly models of continuity and transformation; and modern constructions of religion and healing.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Please check back later for the full article.
Among today’s Africanist scholars, the common understanding is that pre-colonial African ethnic identities were relatively fluid, permeable, overlapping, and complex; and that the more bounded and politically pertinent ethnic identities of today are (at least to a certain extent) the product of a colonial order of delineated control and dual processes of ethnic invention and imagination. Nevertheless, although ethnic identities became more bounded during the colonial period, they did not become fixed or unchanging. Instead, community members still debate and reinterpret ethnic brands, content, allies, and cousins through four distinct but potentially interrelated avenues of ethnic negotiation and renegotiation: namely ethnic migration, assertions of difference, ethnic amalgamation, and ethnic branding or positioning. This reality ensures that ethnic narratives can adapt and respond to an ever-changing world, and, as a result, that ethnic identities remain relevant to ordinary people and useful to political elites. Evolving narratives regarding shared pasts and intertwined futures help legitimize political claims based on past injustice or desert and/or historically informed fears or hopes regarding future socio-economic and political dynamics.
The use of oral tradition is a distinctive and essential element in many fields of African studies. History must acknowledge it; literature sees it as the medium for much of the indigenous creative endeavor across African cultures; anthropology and its cousin disciplines rely upon oral information for their understanding of traditional societies. An appreciation of the value of the oral tradition as a source across disciplines involves two efforts: first, a survey of the reported oral tradition as available and documented in past periods, and second, a review of the principles and practices involved in the collection, analysis, and presentation of the oral tradition.
The paucity of written records has been grounds for dismissal of the notion of African history—most notoriously in the case of Hegel, who in ignorance wrote off the home of the human species—and more recently a cause of pride among African intellectuals who have asserted the value of the oral tradition in the face of skepticism rooted in prejudice and too often in overt racism. An appreciation of the value of the oral tradition threads its path between extremes and occasional controversy. The era of the smartphone has made the documentation (and creation) of oral tradition almost too easy. Past generations made do in different ways. Their reports should not be dismissed, but studied; they are the available background to information collected in the modern era. Accurate collection and critical analysis are the essential tools for the understanding of oral tradition.
Perspectives on southern Africa’s past in the eras before the establishment of European colonial rule have been heavily shaped by political conflicts rooted in South Africa’s history as a society of colonial settlement. The archive of available evidence—archaeological finds, recorded oral materials, and colonial documents—together with the concepts used to give them meaning are themselves products of heavily contested historical processes. Archaeological evidence indicates that Homo sapiens, descended from earlier forms of hominin, was present in southern Africa at least 200,000 years ago, but many members of the South African public reject evolutionary notions of the past. From about 200