The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-state

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Times Books, 1992 - Africa - 355 pages
Basil Davidson is among the most widely read and respected of Africa's historians, and is, as Roland Oliver, author of The Cambridge History of Africa, has observed, "the one best trusted in Black Africa itself." Now, in this often brilliant, unfailingly provocative work, he traces the roots of Africa's independence movement and puts the continent's present-day political instability into historical perspective. Emerging from foreign rule in the 1950s, the African people looked hopefully toward a future of independence and self-determination. But today Africa is a continent in crisis. The root cause, argues Davidson, lies in a historical irony--Africa's liberators, reluctant to embrace Africa's own history, chose to form nation-states based on fundamentally flawed European models. Thus, the sectarian strife of Europe was reproduced in Africa, compromising the new nations almost from the moment of their birth. Filled with stimulating insights, The Black Man's Burden tackles some of the most vexing and fundamental questions of our time. Davidson begins with an inquiry into the pathology of nationalism and tribalism, and shows how they have collided in modern Africa. He demonstrates how the colonial legacy deformed (almost from the start) the project of African liberation. For African freedom fighters, mostly schooled in Western ways, could only imagine an African future inspired by the very West whose shackles they sought to break. Even the language of their discourse was derived from the West. Thus, they turned their backs on whatever might have proved useful and usable from their own African heritage. The creation of nation-states, like the Janus-faced nature of nationalism itself, proved, in the event, to be not so much liberating as suffocating. The state, Davidson argues, became a monster, its ever-inflating bureaucracy enrolled in the service of a particular family or ethnic group or tribe or alliance of tribes. Others, in an effort to resist the depredations of the state (or in a refusal to recognize its legitimacy), sought refuge in networks of tribal solidarity and community. Intelligent, passionate, sophisticated, Davidson explores the evolution of nationalism as it has unfolded in both Africa and Europe. He sheds light into obscure corners, combines scholarship with enthusiasm, and accomplishes that rare feat of turning the reader inside out in order to view the world with fresh eyes. He concludes with a reflection on movements of renewal and democracy that are now pushing their way across the continent.

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About the author (1992)

Basil Risbridger Davidson began his journalistic career as a member of the editorial staff of The Economist in 1938. That assignment was interrupted by World War II, during which Davidson served in the British army with distinction, receiving the Military Cross, the U.S. Bronze Star, and the Jugoslav Zasluge za Narod for his service in the Balkans, North Africa, and Italy. After being demobilized from the service, Davidson returned to journalism, first as the diplomatic correspondent of The Star and then as the Paris correspondent of The Times. He went on to become chief foreign lead writer and then special correspondent for the New Statesman, special correspondent for the Daily Herald, and lead writer for the Daily Mirror. As a journalist he published numerous works of fiction including Highway Forty (1949), Golden Horn (1952), The Rapids (1955), Lindy (1958), and The Andrassy Affair (1966) His nonfiction work includes Partisan Picture (1946), Germany from Potsdam to Partition (1948), and Daybreak in China (1953). Most of these were the outcome of his wartime experiences and subsequent career in journalism. During these years Davidson took an increasing interest in the African past. This interest brought him to the University of Ghana as a visiting professor in 1964 and as professor in 1965. Since that time he has devoted himself to the discovery of that history. He published his first work on Africa, Report on Southern Africa, in 1952. A host of other publications followed. His work has been characterized not only by his sympathy for Africa and for the Africans but also by the explication of the African past with a combination of the thoroughness of an investigative reporter and a style that has made his books popular with a large international audience. Although some of Davidson's earlier conclusions have been revised by later scholarly research, this in no way has diminished his influence on giving legitimacy to the history of Africa. His readable elucidation of African history has brought him many honors and awards over the years. His most effective exposition of the African past, however, may have been as author and narrator of a popular eight-part television documentary of Africa's history that aired in 1984. His most reflective thoughts on his research and writing on the African past may be found in his latest book, The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation State (1992).

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