I am an historian of Africa who works in two contexts: African pasts that predate European colonialism and the convergent context of African, Native American, and European pasts in the early modern Atlantic world.
As an historian of oral societies, my work is shaped by the imperative to produce the archives of evidence from which I write history. I build these archives using a variety of methods from the disciplines of linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, materials science/archaeometry, and oral history. I also connect the archives I produce to the environmental, paleogenomic, and paleoclimatic records of Africa through research collaborations and/or published scholarship. As an historian, I mine these archives to answer questions about the African past that are of broader humanistic concern. My work has been funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, and the Fulbright-Hays and Fulbright IIE Programs.
In my current research, I have followed Africanists’ well-worn path into the Atlantic. As the pandemic cut me off field-based research, I took up a long-standing research goal: applying the Africanist’s toolkit to Atlantic contexts. These methods allow me to address one of the most intractable questions in Atlantic history—what did enslaved Africans think about their experiences?—in and on slaves’ own terms. Moreover, I can do so without over-privileging those areas of the African continent for which (or those African individuals for whom) we have richer documentation. The first book, Resounding Convergences: Toward an Atlantic in Terms of Africa, explores enslaved Africans’ political ideologies in the Atlantic world, connecting communities of deep interior and coastal West and Central Africa to the greater Caribbean, Brazil, and South Carolina-Georgia Lowcountry. The nature of the evidence I use in this project matters: in oral African societies, it was words naming ideas—not manuscripts and treatises—that were exchanged, debated, and revised in political projects. In some cases, interaction with Native American populations or with the echoes of their knowledge as preserved in indigenous vocabulary shaped the terms of debate because African and Native American languages’ common agglutinative structure facilitated forms of convergence not shared with European languages. Although I focus on the 16th - 19th centuries, linguistic methods can produce data that span millennia, allowing me to contextualize the Atlantic in a long, radical political history of destabilizing convergence unfolding first in West and Central Africa and then in the Atlantic. A key component of the project is a digital archive of reconstructed indigenous African and Native American lexicons and a digital handbook for expanding access to the technical aspects of the comparative historical linguistic method to colleagues and students at institutions where it is not represented.
A second book, Enslaved Translation: Histories of the Possible on the Eve of the Haitian Revolution reconstructs the production of a late 18th century ‘Congo’ vocabulary from Saint Domingue. While other scholars have used this source to explore the intimate dynamics of slavery or African ontologies carried to the New World, historical linguistic methods allow me to ‘read’ the vocabulary as a series of multilingual conversations stemming from acts of translation undertaken in group interviews in the fraught context of late colonial Saint Domingue. This short volume expands the way we write the history of enslaved Africans by foregrounding narratives of ‘the possible’ in the form of reconstructed conversations that are neither quotable, nor fully knowable, but which, nevertheless, offer our nearest approach to pasts otherwise impossible to voice. Methodologically, it exploits the accidental archiving—through new European practices of language documentation—of the peculiar qualities of Atlantic convergence zones, which contained both unrelated languages and African languages related at a range of time depths. It expands the familiar narrative scales of Africanist scholarship based on comparative historical linguistic evidence into the genres of testimony familiar to document-based histories.
My first book, Collecting Food, Cultivating People: Subsistence and Society in Central Africa was published in 2016 in Jim Scott’s Agrarian Studies Series at Yale University Press. Drawing on historical, ethnographic, linguistic, and archaeological archives, this project traced the coproduction of novel forms of social status, embodied knowing, and subsistence technologies from early times through the 19th century, teasing out the way informal micro-politics shaped the decentralized politics of south central Africa even as those communities borrowed political ideas rooted in technological metaphors from nearby kingdoms. The particular forms of association and authority developed in this region rendered Botatwe communities politically and, thereby, historically invisible to British colonial officials—a story of invisibility that returned to shape the election of Hakainde Hichilema as President of Zambia in August, 2021. Collecting Food won the Wallace Award and was named a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title.
My current and future work on Central Africa developed from this project, expanding its reach to investigate the politics of place, identity, and movement in the wider frame of the Bantu Expansions (the process by which languages of a single family spread across one third of the African continent). In an NEH-sponsored project, my co-PIs and I combine linguistic, archaeological, ethnographic, and paleoclimatic evidence to understand the mobility of people, languages, and objects as changing cultural practices in rather than explanatory devices for the Bantu Expansions. A project funded by Mellon allows me to use similar sources to dive deeper into the history of pyrotechnologies (metallurgy, hunting, swidden, and potting) to understand the simultaneous development of new sensorial and affective materials, novel metaphors of fertility, and voluntary affiliation to emerging kingships in precolonial central Africa, challenging the instrumental logics of tribute and redistribution underpinning current histories of central African kingdoms.