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African Studies / Anthropology / History / Biography / Autobiography

 

Living with Africa
Jan Vansina


"Jan Vansina's academic career is virtually simultaneous with the field of African history itself. His centrality in the burgeoning field in the 1950s and 1960s was so intense that he was actually called a 'Culture Hero' in print, after the anthropological concept that a single figure epitomizes in the collective memory an entire epoch." —David Henige, University of Wisconsin

In 1952, a young Belgian scholar of European medieval history traveled to the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) to live in a remote Kuba village. Armed with a smattering of training in African cultures and language, Jan Vansina was sent to do fieldwork for a Belgian cultural agency. As it turned out, he would help found the field of African history, with a handful of other European and African scholars.

"I'm not an ethnologist, I'm a historian!" Vansina was to repeat again and again to those who assumed that people without written texts have no history. His discovery that he could analyze Kuba oral tradition using the same methods he had learned for interpreting medieval dirges was a historiographical breakthrough, and his first book, Oral Tradition as History, is considered the seminal work that gave the study of precolonial African history both the scholarly justification and the self-confidence it had been lacking.

Living with Africa is a compelling memoir of Vansina's life and career on three continents, interwoven with the story of African history as a scholarly specialty. In the background of his narrative are the collapse of colonialism in Africa and the emergence of newly independent nations; in the foreground are the first conferences on African history, the founding of journals and departments, and the efforts of Africans to establish a history curriculum for the schools in their new nations.

Jan Vansina is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor and the Vilas Professor in History and Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1983 and was the first scholar chosen as "Distinguished Africanist" by the African Studies Association of the United States. His many books include Paths in the Rainforest, Oral Tradition as History, Kingdoms of the Savanna (winner of the 1967 Herskovits Prize), and The Children of Woot, all published by the University of Wisconsin Press.


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cover of Vansina's book is a deep red, with white type and a duotone photo of five African men seated on the ground.

June 1994

LC: 94-000588 DT
328 pp. 6 x 9

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ISBN 978-0-299-14324-4
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ISBN 978-0-299-14320-1
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