The Roving Reader Files
So here we are. It’s Black History Month. It’s 50 years since the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. It’s 50 years (give or take a few) since many African countries gained independence. So why, I hear you ask, talk about a dead white guy?
Well, Basil Davidson is no ordinary dead white guy (if any dead white guy is ordinary). Writer, activist, spy, guerrilla fighter, academic, great explorer, media star – you name it, he did it. Without him would there have been any Black History Month as we know it today? Now there’s a question.
Basil wrote over 30 books on Africa and African issues (several of which reside on the shelves of the Centre), but it’s his little-talked-about Guide to African History, published in 1963, that’s really got me hooked. It’s only small and quite insignificant until you take a closer look. Part of the African Elephant Books series (get that! Anything elephant gets my vote), it’s red-orange with a dinky stylised elephant’s head printed on the front. It seemed to just beg me to open it, written as it was 50 years ago, at the dawn of the age of African independence, an age that seemed to promise so much.
Basil was the only man who could have written it. Born in Bristol just shy of a century ago and fatherless at age 1, he left school at 16 to paste Fyffes banana posters onto walls in northern England during the Great Depression. Not the best of beginnings. For many it would just have been one more stage on the road to nowhere, but not for Basil.
Improbably, he wanted to be a journalist… and he became a journalist. He travelled Europe, and for his pains was recruited as a spook to help organise resistance to the Nazis in occupied southern Europe during World War II. He looked guerrilla warfare in the eye and lived to tell the tale.
Defeating fascism and surviving the Great Depression were formative to Basil’s staunch championing of the oppressed and downtrodden the world over.
A vocal anti-imperialist, in the 1950s he began to use his pen to support African independence struggles at home and abroad. Participation in countless conferences and African odysseys brought him into personal contact with almost every significant African leader you could name. It was Basil who had the kind of channels that could keep the outside world aware of what was really happening in the bitter guerrilla wars for independence in Portugal’s African colonies when the rest of the media, for the most part, regurgitated propaganda.
What has all this got to do with our Guide to African History? Quite a lot.
Basil was self-taught. He was educated at the ‘School of Life’, holding neither a degree nor a tenured academic position. Because he and his family could only survive if his writing was engaging enough for general readers to buy his books, his work had to be accessible to everyone – which was pretty cool for a writer on such serious issues. All this gave him genuine independence and originality of approach.
Coming into contact with all kinds of Africans (rich and poor, educated and non-educated) Basil became painfully aware that, intellectually, the colonial project relied on denying and destroying indigenous African history or culture in order to justify the subjugation and exploitation of Africa’s peoples. He also knew that no viable pathway to the future can be crafted without an understanding of the past – and this is where our elephant-adorned Guide to African History (and other such educational tomes) come in.
The African Elephant Books series had been expressly designed for Africans at the dawn of independence. In his short Guide Basil deliberately wrote in terms that any African of any background could readily understand. Through lucid, elegant prose, he hoped to spin once more the thread that had been destroyed by the colonial project, including those scholars who had been deniers of African civilisation and African value.
This was a feat of courage and persistence in the face of adversity. He had to gather and synthesise, for the first time, the latest archaeological findings, the results of the newly-applied science of carbon dating, and painstaking research from months in dusty archives. In between reporting from guerrilla wars and experiments in independence, Basil did more than anyone else to equip ordinary Africans with the knowledge of authentically African history from an African perspective; a history which had once linked their forebears, through webs of peaceful trade and cultural exchange, to far flung parts of the world that the Europeans could only dream of, even centuries later.
This was radically new. Blow me! Believe it or not, Africa had NOT been isolated and ‘historyless’. NOT backward. NOT childlike. Who would have guessed? Africa had been dignified. Proud.
After colonialism, Africa was poised at the beginning of a great adventure. Basil’s message to its people seems to have been Go forth! Look at the lessons from your own history and culture, and move forward with confidence!
Basil lived to see many of his dreams for Africa come to little. Dying in 2010 aged 95, he had nevertheless always retained hope.
So let’s hear it for Basil Davidson and all dead white guys of his calibre. Let’s hear it for the millions of Africans who still read and value his books and thank him for uncovering their past at a time when nearly everyone else was burying it. And let’s hear it for 50-year-old African Elephant Book No.5, that beautifully clear and concise Guide to African History.
I, like the elephant, will never forget…