Unreasonable Histories

Nativism, Multiracial Lives, and the Genealogical Imagination in British Africa

Unreasonable Histories

Radical Perspectives

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Book Pages: 368 Illustrations: 51 illustrations Published: November 2014

African Studies, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies, Theory and Philosophy > Race and Indigeneity

In Unreasonable Histories, Christopher J. Lee unsettles the parameters and content of African studies as currently understood. At the book's core are the experiences of multiracial Africans in British Central Africa—contemporary Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Zambia—from the 1910s to the 1960s. Drawing on a spectrum of evidence—including organizational documents, court records, personal letters, commission reports, popular periodicals, photographs, and oral testimony—Lee traces the emergence of Anglo-African, Euro-African, and Eurafrican subjectivities which constituted a grassroots Afro-Britishness that defied colonial categories of native and non-native. Discriminated against and often impoverished, these subaltern communities crafted a genealogical imagination that reconfigured kinship and racial descent to make political claims and generate affective meaning. But these critical histories equally confront a postcolonial reason that has occluded these experiences, highlighting uneven imperial legacies that still remain. Based on research in five countries, Unreasonable Histories ultimately revisits foundational questions in the field, to argue for the continent's diverse heritage and to redefine the meanings of being African in the past and present—and for the future.


"[E]rudite and ambitious.... Lee brings to his study a sharp mind, a deep knowledge of recent African historiography and a readiness to develop arguments in a provocative but appealing manner.... [I]t provides the most sophisticated analysis currently available on the emergence and changing shape of these communities in the colonial and postcolonial periods." — John McCracken, Canadian Journal of African Studies

"Christopher Lee demonstrates in Unreasonable Histories: Nativism, Multiracial Lives, and the Genealogical Imagination in British Africa that the close analysis of this quintessentially liminal population can illuminate the workings of race as a relational category in British colonial Africa—a category that, Lee argues, has been neglected by historians of mid-twentieth-century Africa in favor of the more compelling one of ethnicity. He uncovers and makes a convincing case for the importance of multiracialism to understanding how racial difference was imagined, constructed, and functioned," — Miles Larmer, American Historical Review

"Unreasonable Histories provides insights on the content of contemporary African studies as currently understood.... The book is rated good and a classical material that relays the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial happenings and experiences of the selected African countries where interactions between the natives and the white brought about social and cultural dislocations of racism and racial discriminations..." — Aderemi Suleiman Ajala, Ethnic and Racial Studies

"[A] rich and thoughtprovoking study that speaks beyond its immediate subject to raise issues about the boundaries of African studies and the ways in which archives are framed to promote particular epistemologies." — Elizabeth Elbourne, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"This book is a welcome addition to the histories of mixed-descent communities in Britain’s former Central African dependencies.... In this well-organized, carefully researched book, Christopher J. Lee charts the histories of what he describes as ‘multiracial’ Africans from 1910 to the 1960s." — Juliette B. Milner-Thornton, Journal of African History

"Unreasonable Histories is elegant and creative, well researched and very interesting....The materials are rich, and the stories he tells of the lives of multiracial Africans are moving. It is in his recovery and retelling of these personal accounts that the book comes alive, taking on a vibrancy that leaves no doubt to its relevance to African Studies and African history today." — Melissa Graboyes, Canadian Journal of History

"This book is a call to action in the broadening of analytical categories and paradigms. It is equally a call to rethink, and circumspection in the use of inherited historical categories that in actuality cannot be cleared of the tags of invention, creations, and constructs." — Kwaku Nti, Journal of Global South Studies

"With Unreasonable Histories, Lee complicates diverse social and political imaginations that might too simply be dismissed as racist. Multiracial peoples may have echoed the paternalism of British officials in their demands for recognition, but they deployed politics of the uncustomary on their own terms and against colonial categories. Lee contributes to historical understanding of the complexity and ambiguity of individuals who neither consented nor openly resisted." — Jill E. Kelly, The Historian

"[A]n important and valuable addition to the ongoing discussion of late colonial ideology and its social, political and academic consequences." — Robert Heinze, Africa

"[T]he empirical research that went into the study is commendable and exhaustive. . . . It is indeed a most welcome contribution to imperial/colonial and African history." — Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Journal of Southern African Studies

"Like its multiracial subjects, Unreasonable Histories defies simple categorization. In the end, its contributions will remain enduring." — Tyler Fleming, History Teacher

"Lee’s important book on multiracial people in British Central Africa has insights that will be appreciated by scholars of historiography, method, colonialism, postcolonialism, racial thinking, and nativism. . . . Fresh and insightful. . . . Lee’s imaginative approach recreates a multiracial history grounded in genealogical connections and the opportunities such ties brought." — Allison K. Shutt, African Studies Review

"Unreasonable Histories makes an important intervention in a number of fields: African studies, imperial history, the history of race, and the history of the family. It also invites creative thinking about how to render pasts that unfold at the margins. Conceptually innovative, clearly written, and deeply informed, it is far and away the best work to address Coloured and other multiracial communities in colonial and postcolonial Africa." — Clifton Crais, author of History Lessons: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, and the Brain

“This is a wonderfully ambitious book that tackles a history that is challenging as a matter of theory, of historiography, of politics, and of the empirical substance of past experience. Christopher J. Lee’s book arrives at a critical moment in Africanist scholarship and will become a part of a new historiographical turn." — Timothy Burke, author of Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption, and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe

"Unreasonable Histories is a brave and erudite book that focuses on historical communities and political projects that conventional historiographies have often dismissed as dead ends. By treating these experiences seriously, Christopher Lee reminds us that racial thought in the colonial world took multiple, complex, and innovative forms. In doing so, he productively challenges binary assumptions that continue to underlie African studies—assumptions, he argues, that are ultimately rooted in colonial forms of knowledge." — Jonathon Glassman, author of War of Words, War of Stones: Racial Thought and Violence in Colonial Zanzibar

"I highly recommend this brilliant book for what its author calls its 'epistemic disobedience'. Christopher Lee argues that the colonial native question still structures and shapes the contours of academic research in the long aftermath of decolonization, with postcolonial nativism taking on its mantle. Embracing rather than simplifying demographic complexity and insisting on bringing into focus interracial histories, Lee radically undoes the discrete boundaries of racial terminologies often employed by postcolonial scholars, opening many more ways of being African to our scrutiny." — Sarah Nuttall, author of Entanglement: Literary and Cultural Reflections on Postapartheid

"Christopher Lee's Unreasonable Histories is a major contribution to the history of racial minorities in southern Africa. The book tracks the genealogy of a racialized nativist discourse from its colonial inception and construction to the advent of postcolonial imaginaries that have pursued national unity through the promotion of indigenous identities and cultures. Through this process, the experiences of 'multiracial' Africans were often rendered invisible within nationalist narratives. Lee consequently demonstrates the potential of these minority experiences to unsettle the past and present effects of colonial nativism, while remaining critical toward the racialized politics that have also accompanied such histories. Overall, this is a timely book that will raise new questions regarding citizenship in post-settler societies across Africa."
— Brian Raftopoulos, editor of Becoming Zimbabwe: A History from the Pre-colonial Period to 2008


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Christopher J. Lee is based at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

Table of Contents Back to Top
A Note on Illustrations ix

A Note on Terminology xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genealogical Imagination 1

Part I. Histories without Groups: Lower Strata Lives, Enduring Regional Practices, and the Prose of Colonial Nativism 23

1. Idioms of Place and History 27

2. Adaima's Story 53

3. Coming of Age 72

Part II. Non-Native Questions: Genealogical States and Colonial Bare Life 91

4. The Native Undefined 95

5. Commissions and Circumventions 111

Part III. Colonial Kinships: Regional Histories, Uncustomary Politics, and the Genealogical Imagination 141

6. Racism as a Weapon of the Weak 147

7. Loyalty and Disregard 175

8. Urbanization and Spatial Belonging 207

Conclusion: Genealogies of Colonialism 233

Notes 249

Bibliography 305

Index 337
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5725-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5713-1
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