Histories of Dirt

Media and Urban Life in Colonial and Postcolonial Lagos

Book Pages: 272 Illustrations: 14 illustrations Published: December 2019

African Studies, Cultural Studies, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

In Histories of Dirt Stephanie Newell traces the ways in which urban spaces and urban dwellers come to be regarded as dirty, as exemplified in colonial and postcolonial Lagos. Newell conceives dirt as an interpretive category that facilitates moral, sanitary, economic, and aesthetic evaluations of other cultures under the rubric of uncleanliness. She examines a number of texts ranging from newspaper articles by elite Lagosians to colonial travel writing, public health films, and urban planning to show how understandings of dirt came to structure colonial governance. Seeing Lagosians as sources of contagion and dirt, British colonizers used racist ideologies and discourses of dirt to justify racial segregation and public health policies. Newell also explores possibilities for non-Eurocentric methods for identifying African urbanites’ own values and opinions by foregrounding the voices of contemporary Lagosians through interviews and focus groups in which their responses to public health issues reflect local aesthetic tastes and values. In excavating the shifting role of dirt in structuring social and political life in Lagos, Newell provides new understandings of colonial and postcolonial urban history in West Africa.


"Stephanie Newell's Histories of Dirt does for this generation what Mary Douglas did with Purity and Danger several decades ago. Focusing on what seems ubiquitous and thus utterly banal—dirt—Newell shows how the phenomenon of dirt is interpretable from a variety of sometimes contradictory perspectives both by local Africans and by the team of researchers that set about investigating the phenomenon. This is a high-order interdisciplinary work, full of fresh insights and with a turn toward what Africans think about themselves that will provide salutary methodological and conceptual lessons for scholars in African Studies and well beyond." — Ato Quayson, Stanford University

“Brilliantly reading imperial discourse against the grain, Stephanie Newell offers compelling dissections of the perspectives, assumptions, privileged subject positions, and framings that characterize imperial thought. At the same time, she gives close attention and consideration to the range of voices of the people of Lagos, producing powerful arguments about the popular, cultural, and social structures that express urban values. With great ingenuity, Newell has constituted an archive of the present that provides local voices and views on subjects initially warped by colonial discourse. Histories of Dirt is an important and major contribution.” — Kenneth W. Harrow, author of Trash: African Cinema from Below

"In rethinking the nature of history, the novelty of Histories of Dirt lies in its proposal for an expansion of historical methodology to accommodate public opinion as a valid source of contemporary history based on the aggregation of individual's conception of social experience."  — Olukayode A. Faleye, Canadian Journal of African Studies

"Histories of Dirt is a work of great creativity and nuance, and its message is especially urgent today. 'Èkó ò ní bàjé,' goes a political slogan turned popular now—Lagos will not spoil."
  — Samuel Fury Childs Daly, International Journal of African Historical Studies

"At the core of the analysis is Newell's effort to uncover non-elite perspectives, generally marginalized or ignored in the remonstrations on public health and moral hygiene put forward by policy makers, authority figures, and power brokers." — M. M. Heaton, Choice


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Stephanie Newell is Professor of English at Yale University and Professor Extraordinaire at the University of Stellenbosch. She is the author of several books, most recently, The Power to Name: A History of Anonymity in Colonial West Africa.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Abbreviations  vii
Author's Note  ix
Preface. The Cultural Politics of Dirt in Africa (Dirtpol) Project  xi
Acknowledgments  xvii
Introduction  1
1. European Insanitary Nuisances  16
2. Malaria: Lines in the Dirt  32
3. African Newspapers, the "Great Unofficial Public," and Plague in Colonial Lagos  43
4. Screening Dirt: Public Health Movies in Colonial Nigeria and Rural Spectatorship in the 1930s and 1940s  58
5. Methods, Unsound Methods, No Methods at All?  79
6. Popular Perceptions of "Dirty" in Multicultural Lagos  90
7. Remembering Waste  115
8. City Sexualities: Negotiating Homophobia  142
Conclusion. Mediated Publics, Uncontrollable Audiences  158
Appendix. Words, Phrases, and Sayings Related to Dirt in Lagos  169
Notes  175
References  215
Index  241
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