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Old Lions Department: An Interview with the Africanist Joseph C. Miller at 78


“Historians in every field have to make the conventional leap into the minds of people in the past, who by definition were unlike ourselves, but historians working on Africa, by definition trained in modern institutions of higher education and communicating through scholarly networks composed of the abstractions of modernity, must take an additional leap into an experiential world that they have been trained since childhood to ignore, or marginalize. One proceeds with confidence only at one’s peril.”–Joseph C. Miller

It was like living in a hall of mirrors —nothing was what it appeared to be. 

Joseph C. Miller, former president of the American Historical Association (AHA) and a Professor of History Emeritus from the University of Virginia, whose research focused on early Africa, was to walk through that hall of mirrors in order to fulfill the request of his dissertation director at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1969. Miller’s assignment was to use documents from the Portuguese colonists in Angola to confirm the historicity of the oral traditions of the Africans in the colony. This straightforward exercise in historical criticism led to a tale of secret police, the diamond trade, excursions in the bush, and unsolved histories of astounding depth and consequence. 

His advisor, a scholar by the name of Jan Vansina, was one of the founders of the field of African history. Vansina had recognized that oral traditions—oral knowing—carried historical information. “Previous scholars and the European colonial authorities had treated the oral traditions as superstitious folklore; nobody had taken it seriously as history,” said Miller, while we ate at a Middle Eastern restaurant near the Washington Marriott Wardman Park where the 2018 AHA annual conference was just coming to an end. 

In the shadow of an Africanist giant

Vansina, Miller tells me, spoke fifteen languages or more, and wrote in six, roughly. “He was a true polymath, a genuine genius. He knew all there was to know about absolutely everything —and imagine being a graduate student with this kind of knowledge in front of you day after day.” 

In his book, Through the Day, Through the Night: A Flemish Belgian Boyhood and World War II, Vansina described himself as a young boy who was “equipped with an excellent memory as well as a luxuriant imagination, traits that largely account for my scholastic results.” Vansina, a scholar of European medieval history, lived in the 1950s in a remote village in what is now Zaire. 

In his memoir, Living With Africa, Vansina noted that the Europeans for over a century had a gospel belief that Africa had no history. Racist colonial attitudes could explain why African history as a legitimate research field was overlooked for so long. “The gaze of imperial history was firmly focused on the deeds of Europeans overseas, not on any of the benighted natives,” he wrote. 

Vansina’s seminal book, originally composed in French, called “De la tradition orale. Essai de méthode historique,” translated as Oral Tradition(1965), was based on oral traditions from a part of the continent where there were no written records. “He started the whole thing as a sheer feat of his own imagination,” said Miller. Vansina discovered that he could pinpoint Africans’ oral traditions using critical methods he had learned for interpreting medievals songs and commemorations.

“The Portuguese were in Angola by the 1560s, so we had European documentation there that went back 400 years and we also knew the Africans in the region had oral traditions of their kingdoms,” said Miller. 

The whole trick was getting inside the heads of the Africans from far outside, and the oral traditions were one way to do that.

“If you’re doing United States history, you’re a product of American history, and so there’s a kind of insider’s intuitive congruence between who we are now and who our ancestors were in the past… but an American like me doesn’t have that insight with Africa,” explained Miller. “Anthropology, which studies others’ cultures, is another way to start learning to translate African epistemologies into our ways of knowing and thinking. The assumption, and it’s correct, is that all humans lead their lives similarly; they just see them differently.” 

Trained by Vansina, an anthropologist and historian, Miller from the beginning had a fairly distinctive exposure to anthropology and he recognized it as being very important for being a historian of Africa. He went to London about three years after he got a PhD, and spent a year at the epicenter of British social anthropology at University College - London, where he studied with some of the greats among the African anthropologists. 

The "naive" American and the "liberation war" in Angola

He travelled to Angola during the "war of liberation" as he and African nationalists call it, in 1969 and 1970, at the end of an authoritarian corporatist regime in Portugal known as “Estado Novo” which was “The New State”, developed between World War I and World War II by António de Oliveira Salazar, President of the Council of Ministers of Portugal from 1932 to 1968. 

Salazar had created a dictatorial regime, and Angola was one of the three Portuguese colonies in Africa. “This became a very sensitive political issue in the 1950s when the British colonies in Africa began to become independent, and the French colonies too,” said Miller. 

In Portugal, Salazar held onto Angola and Mozambique and a small colony in Western Africa called “Portuguese Guiné,” but when the Belgian Congo neighboring Angola became independent in 1960, it became available as a base for guerrilla liberation movements to work inside Angola. The liberation war picked up after a big revolt in 1961, in the exact area where Miller wanted to do his research. 

When he arrived, the war was quite active, and allowing any kind of foreigner —“particularly an Anglophone foreigner” —into this politically sensitive war zone was problematic, because the Portuguese had “a complicated, ambivalent relationship with anglophone writers,” said Miller. 

This suspicion was partially due to the famous explorer David Livingstone, who had trekked across the continent in the 1850s, up from the Cape in South Africa to Luanda, which was the Portuguese capital of the colony of Angola. “Then he turned around and walked back across the center of the continent to Mozambique, so he actually operated between the two Portuguese colonies —one on the Atlantic side, one on the Indian Ocean side, and they treated him with great hospitality, received him generously, and then he went back to London and wrote a journal of his adventures, which became an international best-seller. In it, he trashed the Portuguese because they were still involved in the slave trade, and of course, he was an abolitionist from the get-go,” noted Miller. 

The Livingstone incident set the Portuguese and the British off on the wrong foot in Africa, and then there was a scandal at the end of the 19th century involving forced labor publicized by the British chocolatier, Cadbury. One of the founders of the academic field of African History, a British journalist named Basil Davidson, had written another exposé in the 1950s, so that Anglophone visitors in Angola had a very bad reputation, heightened by CIA escapades just before Miller turned up. Miller’s question was, how could he get in? He had to go to Portugal and get a sponsor, who turned out to be a priest whom he describes as “a wonderful, generous man” who advised him when he should apply to the secret police to get a visa to enter Angola. The secret police were the operative arm of the Salazar dictatorship, called “The International Police for the Defense of the State” (the acronym in Portuguese is PIDE for Polícia Internacional da Defesa do Estado), and Miller had to get clearance from them to get a visa to Angola. They were notoriously brutal to the African nationalists fighting for independence.

“I had a family at that time —my wife, a four year old, and a two year old, when we arrived in Portugal, and so I spent six months in Lisbon with my nose in an archive, looking as innocent as I could with family in tow. How many CIA agents travel with a family?” 

Eventually, PIDE decided to let Miller in, “Probably because they had concluded that I was hopeless and not likely to do any damage,” Miller added. When he got there, he had to have official sponsorship to go up into the interior region of his research interest. The area that he wanted to study was the area of a historical political system, which the Portuguese called the Kasanje “Kingdom.” This area was exquisitely sensitive because it was where the first widespread violence of what became the Angolan Revolution had broken out at the end of 1960, leading to an ongoing “liberation war,” so it was tricky to gain access. 

“I still can’t figure out why they ever let me in, but they did,” said Miller. He made sure he stayed close to the U.S. consulate personnel in the capital, Luanda, because he wanted them to know where he was in case he needed them. Because Angola was an overseas province of Portugal, the embassy was in Lisbon so there was only a consular post in Angola. “They had really good staff; we became fast friends and we partied – diplomatically, of course. The U.S. military, because of NATO, needed to know what was going on militarily in Angola. 

“When the attaché from Lisbon came down to Luanda, I ended up at a dinner, sitting next to the consulate group entertaining this military visitor.” Miller was included so he could meet them and they could see what he might report from the interior —where no other American had gone, other than Methodist missionaries, for a while. “He discretely didn’t grill me,” Miller added appreciatively. “If he had the PIDE would have found out.”

“That was the other side of it. I think, to this day, there are more levels than I can count of what I am still unaware of that was going on in the background of this naive American with a wife and two kids who went into the bush in Angola in a war zone!”

He received clearance from the governor general of Angola, and was passed on to the governor of the district, and then on to the administrator of the local government post in the area he wanted to study. They were tracking him with their espionage apparatus the whole way through. He drove in a borrowed car filled to what turned out to be the breaking point with all of his family’s belongings for an extended stay, because they planned on remaining for a year. When he reached the government post where he meant to settle in, “The first thing I saw was every African government-appointed chief in the district sitting on the steps of the administration building, waiting for me!”

Miller describes himself as naive at that time because he had never done any interviewing for the oral traditions that were supposed to be there, and so he said to his wife, “You unpack, I’ll be back,” grabbed his cassette tape recorder, ran over to “the steps full of elderly African men, all in their regalia,” and said, “Start talking.” Start talking, they did not. “That was an utter disaster,” said Miller. Not many of them spoke Portuguese, so he was collecting their accounts in the local Kimbundu language, which his study of Swahili didn’t help him understand, so he recorded blindly and went back the next day. The elderly men were still there, “and it became clear by that point that the encounter was hopeless - they knew it, I knew it, so they began drifting away,” said Miller. As for his wife, left to manage two kids and settle the family in, “All I can say is that it was fifty years ago!”

The Portuguese had set the Miller family up with accommodations that were “clearly, and pointedly, temporary” in a 10-foot square room reserved for the maid in an unoccupied house in the town, but they were prepared to make do. Miller began digging around, and after about a week, the Portuguese noticed he wasn’t going away. 

“They thought that we’d be in and out of town in a weekend, which was why the week had started the catastrophic way that it had, and they never did figure out why I was staying on, because in their conceptualization of Africa, the people of the country had no history to be discovered. They just couldn’t even imagine Africans having a history,” said Miller.

The historian and the living knowing

Using some of his references to authorities among the Africans other than the government “chiefs,” Miller travelled down “an endlessly rutted and dusty dirt road” and finally arrived at a Holy Ghost Fathers mission in a vast valley, where an African gentleman was waiting for him. He was the delegated historian of the “kingdom” Miller had gone to study, it was at the very end of that polity’s history, and he was its living embodiment. 

“He was probably among a dozen surviving people who knew anything about a polity which had basically been disbanded by the Portuguese at the turn of the 20th century, so that was 70 years earlier.”

The historian had all of the knowledge – the oral “constitution” of the political system – in his head, but because of the protocols and delicacy of these oral traditions (“they are as serious as our Constitution, you treat them with reverence and respect, and you refer to them only in formal circumstances”), he was not authorized to speak personally with authority on behalf of any of its other components. “It would be like the Supreme Court can’t speak to a matter that’s reserved to the United States,” said Miller.

Miller and the living voice of the past he wanted to learn drove down many dirt tracks to villages deep in the bush. The historian would set their visits up in advance through what Africanists call the “bush telegraph”, networks of face-to-face communications that had amazed generations of missionaries and colonial officials (there was no electricity other than generators, and none of those in villages) and they’d sit down with the men who were authorized to speak on behalf of whoever their subjects were. “When the people are the subjects, the speakers become the people —they literally embodiedknowledge.” 

Literate culture considers knowledge as something that’s “out there,” on screens and bookshelves. But if there wasn’t writing, a requirement for abstract knowledge, “there is only knowing, as people do, but not knowledge as separate from people who know,” explained Miller.

“My historian-collaborator had to find the old men who were ‘the knowers’, and then they would recite and he would interpret. Since the knowers represented the communities for whom they spoke, everyone gathered around, not just to listen, but to authenticate what was said by their presence; this was embodied public knowing—shared—and it would have betrayed the trust implied in knowing to have spoken in private. They would have seen it as ‘witchcraft,’ a secretive subversion of a trust.”

Miller brought one of the first-generation cassette tape recorders to make an archive of every one of their words, but the performances of these oral traditions, he said, were far too complicated for an electronic instrument to capture, so he became a notetaker; though when he started out, he had no idea what he was writing down. 

This style of research, “which was created spontaneously, on the fly, in real time” displayed just how politically sensitive the subjects’ history was —not only among the Portuguese, fearful of their ignorance, but even more among the Africans, because they knew, and knowing was reality. After Miller’s first interview, a fistfight broke out in the local bar because of what he had been doing, occasioned by someone who was evidently not authorized to say what he had said. 

Miller recognized a “living knowing” that was “out there”; he had probably tapped a fraction of one percent of it in the 6 months he was in Angola —“the most maddeningly superficial impression,” but “it was an absolutely fascinating experience,” he said. 

He was left with the the key recognition of a situation where two peoples, the Portuguese and the Africans, had been engaged with each other in the same space for 400 years —“sometimes fighting, mostly trading, intermarrying”—but living in two different worlds. This key paradox got his attention, and solving it became the focus of the rest of his career. Fifty years later, he is still trying to figure out its nuances, attempting to conceptualize and articulate how to bridge the gap.

The final irony, Miller says, was that his mentor, Vansina, later proved that the oral traditions he had sent him out to confirm were historical, but they were about the 19th century when they had been invented rather than about the 16thor 17thcentury they were supposed to describe. “But the dead ends, like scientific experiments, sometimes turn out to be more productive than finding what you thought you were looking for. I guess you can’t know what you don’t know until it hits you in the face. The trick is recognizing when it does,” said Miller, “and respecting it”. 

Facing ejection from the authorities

The local Portuguese officials had to tolerate Miller because he came with the authority of their superiors in Lisbon, and so to get him deported from the country would probably have to go all the way up the bureaucratic chain of command at PIDE headquarters in Lisbon. Fortunately, police states are notoriously inefficient. Their official position was they had nothing to hide, that they were not fighting a serious guerrilla war, they had never raided for slaves, and they had never abused the Africans in the colony, even if Portugal had a shameful, well-documented international reputation as colonial rulers.

“They needed to put on the best face they could for me, in the hope that I would go back and, unlike Livingstone, tell the world how good things were in Angola. That’s why they couldn’t keep me out, since they had nothing to hide; but they couldn’t throw me out, either, because again they hadnothing to hide.”

Miller was welcomed with effusive hospitality, yet because they couldn’t understand what he was doing, their ignorance bred suspicion and they wanted him out, but they couldn’t admit that they did. The solution: keep Miller but only on short 30-day visas, so every month, he and his family had to drive the dusty, rutted roads into the town where the secret police were based, hand in their passports, go back to where they were living, and then return the following week to pick up their passports with the extended visas. 

They followed this routine for about four rounds, every four weeks, going on five months. One day, when they went back, the police told them that they had no passports for them. The local agent told him, “Oh, they’ll be here, just come back next week. Just come back, we’re working on it, we can’t understand why they aren’t here.” which meant, as Miller mused, “we can’t tell you that your visas are in trouble, buddy.” 

He eventually began to get the hint, a glimpse of reality in the hall of mirrors. The chief government officer from the district headquarters where Miller was living ran into him one evening on a sandy street, after office hours. It was an unofficial meeting, therefore it was an off-the-record interaction, and it didn’t count. “Deniability, we would say now,” implied Miller. The officer told him he understood that the family didn’t have visas, finding it very strange, but telling him, “Of course, you know what we do to foreigners in our country without visas.” 

“No,” replied Miller. 

“Well, come on and have a drink,” the officer said with a knowing smile, so they went to the officer’s house where he spent the evening offering him generous amounts of Angolan scotch. It was all very “friendly” according to Miller. “And I couldn’t refuse the generous flows of alcohol without breaking through the illusion.”Then his missionary friends started getting questions about what they thought Miller was doing there for so long. Eventually, one Saturday afternoon —the business week ends at noon on Saturday —at about 3 o’clock on the dusty main road in the town, where he had gone to buy a six-pack of beer for the weekend, he saw one of the secret police officers he knew from his trips to the district capital, walking down the street. The PIDE man said, “What are youstill doing here?” 

Miller said, “I live here. Doing my research, doing very well, thank you for asking.” They both continued walking in opposite directions, but the leading question resonated.

There were also other instances of similarly oblique hints at quickening Miller’s departure from Angolan soil. The area was known for its diamonds; one could literally kick up the sand and spot the microdiamonds glinting in the sun, but because there was a monopoly on the diamond business, “you couldn’t bend down and pick them up,” as tempting as it may have been, since it was illegal to possess diamonds. 

One day, in broad daylight at high noon, an older African gentleman showed up at Miller’s house and knocked on his door. Miller greeted him, “can I help you?” The man had a coat on, his hand was inside his lapel, and he said in Portuguese, “Sir, would you like to buy any beans?” “Why would I want to buy beans? What are you doing with beans?” Miller replied. 

The man said, “Sir… beeeaaans.” It took two more verbal exchanges before Miller finally comprehended what the man was trying to sell him. The man had a brown beer bottle, which he showed to Miller from inside his lapel. Then Miller exclaimed at the top of his lungs, because he was so surprised, “Oh, you mean diamonds!” The man wheeled around and hauled out of there running full tilt. Miller began to understand: “I’m being set up.” The trick was, Africans would fill beer bottles with broken glass, trying to peddle to naive tourists or visitors. 

Since Miller wasn’t being expelled, he had to appear to leave of his own volition. He needed an excuse, because the Portuguese were elaborately not kicking him out. His research was going so well that he had no reason to leave, except hoping that the dry season would end and that the rains would begin and turn those dusty roads to impassable muddy quagmires. He prayed for rain, and of course, the rainy season was late – but it finally came. He said, “Okay, I really don’t want to leave. You’ve all been so generous to keep me here, but the rains are coming in, and we’ve got to get back down to Luanda.”

Coincidences and mind games in pursuit

A military company, manned by 120 junior officers, was stationed In the town because of the liberation war that was going on; Miller had been introduced casually to the captain commanding this company, in the tiny social circle of officials, and foreigners. His family packed their belongings into their small, borrowed car, and drove back to the capital city, but along the way they wanted to visit a famous waterfall that they’d never see, miles down a dirt road off the main asphalt. They took the right turn and went all the way in there. 

The Portuguese had a way of overdoing their tourist sites, said Miller, and they had built a modern, rather lavish resort with a dining room of international conference proportions. They drove into the suitably large parking lot —there was a single car parked. “They must be closed,” they thought. But they went up to the building, and the door was open. They went in, and the full service staff greeted them. “There was one table among probably three hundred, and who should be sitting at it but the captain of the company, the military officer, and his wife. “What a coincidence!” said Miller. It was clearly a social occasion, nothing official.

The officer said, “Oh, what a coincidence, so nice to see you here. We were afraid we were going to miss you. Sit down, let us entertain you.” They guided them around the tour of the waterfall, and “it was a dramatic and beautiful hike.” They got back in their overloaded car, started to drive back to the main road, and the sun was setting. One of the tires blows out. Miller changes that tire. Then they drove another twenty miles, until a second tire blew out. “Sun’s going down, two little kids in the car, African savanna … what now?,” said Miller. 

Then there’s a cloud of dust out on the road, and who should drive up but their “good friend”, the military captain and spouse. The officer stopped, took command of the situation in full military style, got all the Africans from the village to come and lift up the car by hand to remove the tire, drove Miller’s wife and kids—and the tire—into town, came back with a repaired tire, and led Miller into town with his car, slowly. 

“The good news of being surveilled constantly by the Portuguese secret police is that they were also concerned to take care of us. Because they could not understand what I was supposed to be doing, I was clearly clueless about living in the bush. I could be a danger to myself, my family, and to them.”

Was it psychological warfare or were the Portuguese actually coming to Miller’s aid? It was both ways, Miller said. “That was the political and personal side of doing his research.” Nothing was what it was presented as being—a hall of mirrors and mirages in the savanna.

In another encounter, the town administrator who had invited Miller over his house for scotch was acting as the ‘bad cop’, but his assistant was the ‘good cop’ —he was the younger man, probably about Miller’s age at the time, and he was the one deputized to be friendly to him. One day the ‘good cop’ saw Miller out in the street and asked him to come over to his residence and have lunch with him and his family on Saturday, which was “another coincidence.” 

“In Salazarian times in Portugal, given the very discreet privacy of the family, that was a serious invitation, to be taken into the family space in their house, significantly beyond a business-oriented, cordial relationship. The excess formalities really felt like Edwardian Britain, i.e. pre-WWI,” said Miller, emphasizing that these were formalities that existed during Salazarian times, and that “Portuguese culture is totally up to speed now.”[1]

Lunch at the administrator’s house began with a “spread” for lunch which featured grappa, an Italian word for a highly alcoholic, clear distillate from from the dregs of making wine, also known as fire water or Scandinavian Akvavit, of a Portuguese variety. After that, wine, multiple courses, liqueurwith dessert, and everyone was feeling content. 

The administrator invited Miller for a man-to-man talk even further into the inner sanctum of the family in the formal front room, where his host brought out the best delicacies they had in the house, which interestingly centered on Portuguese food: tripe, pickles, and olives. The sun was setting through the window, and the host was getting Miller as oiled as he could, because he brought out the scotch. 

Out of the blue, he said, “Senhor Miller, what are you reallydoing here?” as if Miller hadn’t been showing the authorities even the research notes he was sending home. “They knew exactly what I was doing, but they couldn’t see it for what it was. They literally could not conceptualize that I was learning the Africans’ history,” said Miller. He managed to record enough of it that he ended up writing a 555-page dissertation from less than 10% of his notes.

Miller eventually figured out why the PIDE police were so determined to see him pack his bags and leave the town. It was in the path of what was about to become an zone of the liberation war.A caravan of guerrilla fighters had come across the border and was moving on foot with their supply train for one of the bands of their guerrilla comrades hiding out in the forests deep within the country, isolated, desperately in need of munitions and food. This group wasn’t close to where Miller was residing, but they were coming from the eastern boundary and heading through the area where he had been living to get to the resistance forces they wanted to relieve. 

“The Portuguese didn’t know what they were going to have to do to stop this group of liberation fighters, and they didn’t want any witnesses, in case it got ugly. That was why it became more and more urgent for them to get us the hell out of there, but since I was officially 100% welcome to stay as long as I wanted, the hints all had to be done indirectly. I had to get it.”

Miller got a strong sense about the rough-and-tumble politics of the region, where literally life and death were at stake. Angola in the late 1960s seemed to him as like the frontier in the United States in the 19th century. “You can read about the Wild West, but until you’re in the Wild West…” said Miller. 

In the country, at the time, there were game laws forbidding hunting, and there was a large population of big animals available to be hunted, such as “horse-sized antelopes, and the antelope meat was pretty good,” remarked Miller. “The ‘joke’ was that you didn’t have to worry about the game warden because if he reported anybody hunting illegally, they would find his body with a bullet in his head.”

The missionaries the Miller family stayed with for several weeks while he was consulting with the official historian of the “kingdom” had a residential school with 120 young boys as students, and they had with many mouths to feed without a budget, to speak of. 

“They would set out at midnight in their Land Rover pick-up truck, head across the open savanna, shine their sealed-beam spotlight around the horizon as they drove, and if an antelope looked up, the eyes flashed in the light. Spotting an antelope from a hundred yards away, or driving up within ten or twenty yards of them, would allow the missionaries to pull out their high-powered rifles and shoot the animal. They didn’t miss many. All the antelopewould smell was kerosene —no human scent, and it was night and they were probably blinded by the light. Normally, the missionaries would come back when you could see light in the east with maybe ten of these pony-sized antelope, orsmaller than that. I was fascinated with these midnight forays, I wanted to see what the open bush was like! When it was light, they would butcher all of these carcasses and then dry the meat to feed the boys, except for the tenderloin. They would eat that themselves, including us, so we would have sautéed antelope filet and the antelope brains, scrambled with eggs, for breakfast.”

Another trap the Portuguese authorities set for Miller was that they sent two or three soldiers from the company that was stationed in the town to his house one evening. They knocked on the door like the African with the fake diamonds and said, “We hear you like to hunt,” and Miller said, “Well, no, but I like to watch hunting.” 

“No point in denying” because they clearly knew exactly what Miller had been doing. They said, “We’re going to go out with our military equipment later in the week to bag some game, come on along, we’d love to have you.” Miller thought to himself, “Oh, why not?” 

If questions are raised about how Miller got in all of these scrapes, he insists it’s because he’s curious—or foolhardy. He said to the troops, “OK, let’s go, Thursday night.” Wednesday, they came back and said, “All set for tomorrow night, senhor. We’ve got your gun, no problem.” Miller said, “Oh, don’t bother with the gun, I’m not going to handle a weapon. I don’t hunt. I’ll go along for the ride, but I don’t want to shoot.”

Lo and behold, the next morning, one of my intended hunting companions came by and said, “Senhor, the captain has deployed us tomorrow night, and we’re not going to be able to go on that hunt. We are so sorry.” Once they knew that he was not going to incriminate himself by firing illegally at an animal, at which point they’d have him red-handed, then the deal was off. “Everything was deniable.”

“They saw me as hopelessly naive and therefore unintentionally getting myself in trouble. In some ways, I was naive, I had never been to Africa before, and I didn’t know the Byzantine politics of a modern police state and so on. For show, they thought I would come in and then get the heck right out. Once I was there months rather than days, I became a problem for them. They didn’t know what was going to happen. They felt they were living in a powder keg, because the violence that had started the liberation war in 1961 had been brutal. The Africans in some parts of the colony murdered every Portuguese they could find, and those were colleagues in the government service of the men who were running the district where I was, only eight or nine years later. For them the massacre was living memory, and on one or two occasions, one of the families opened up to me about how they really felt. They were truly terrified although I did not respect what they were doing, holding on to a colony with a notorious history, I had to respect their dedication to doing what they felt they had to do.”

What about the witches?

The first interview that Miller had conducted had led to a fistfight in a local bar, and “the situation was fraught in every possible way.” He also could not learn the African language spoken by the people he wanted to understand. It wasn’t that he was worried about learning it, although that would have been subversive from the point of view of the secret police since the Portuguese didn’t know the African languages. Instead, it was that no African native speaker dared to teach him because the secret police were so heavy on their backs that they would have known about it instantly, and Millerwouldn’t have been able to protect them. “By 1969, I don’t know whether they would have disappeared without a trace or whether they would have been simply transferred in some way, some place far removed from me, so I would have been endangering the people I wanted to support by rendering their history in terms that the rest of the world could understand, and respect.”

After spending six months in Angola, “and in the end, being hounded up by the secret police, praying for rain to make a graceful exit,” Miller was getting ready to leave and he was doing a final interview with one of his consultants, who happened to be working for the Portuguese government. They were talking in a government office room, so they were within range of the spies. Miller doesn’t have any idea where the idea came from, but they were talking in the usual terms about genealogies, and the next thing he knew, it hit him. He said, “But what about the witches?” and the man practically fell through the floor, like the fellow with the fake diamonds in the bottle—and denied everything—which meant, Miller knew, that he had “hit pay dirt.” But that was the last interview that he ever had a chance to do. There he was, finishing with what should be been his opening question, and since then, he has spent most of his career figuring out the significance of “witches” in the Africans’ history.

He wanted to know about the Atlantic slave trade, and he had written enough of the business side of it, but the question was, how did the Africans experience it, in a way that makes understandable what the modern world sees as an incomprehensible “crime against humanity”? “You’ve got this other world out there I’ve got to get into. What are the Africans experiencing? It turns out that, in a phrase, they experienced the Atlantic trade as ‘a plague of witches’, because ‘witches’ in Africa are not old ladies on broomsticks flying across the full moon in a night sky. Africans have a strong sense of community integrity, of belonging, and the self itself is relational, not the individual that we think of. You ‘are,’ in an existential sense, only in relation to the people with whom you are in contact.” 

The witch, Miller said, is the person who stands back from that intense relationality. “If you think about group dynamics, like any close group whom you are with, there’s no control going on there, it’s spontaneous. You’re there, you’ve got a role, you’re not going anywhere; imagine an African village of people who live closely together. Everybody is under control, they know their places, and with people being people, a lot of respect is probably a good thing. But if somebody steps out alone, then they’re out of the web of trust. They could do anything, so that the personal autonomy that we as individuals celebrate—the self as we see it, independent—they condemn as evil and destructive of the ontological, philosophical collective reality in which they live; in their group integrity. A lone individual is basically threatening their world of mutual obligations. The “witch” is what ethnographers – however unfortunately –have called that sort of dangerous presence in their midst, and it is particularly dangerous because it is in their midst! It’s not just somebody ‘out there’. That’s a “cannibal”, the ultimate ”other” – no less a figment of their imaginations, but no less an articulate statement of the threat they feel to their integrity. But the witch is ‘in’ here! And it’s invisible. Do you see how the psychology works?”

Miller went into detail about what the slave trade did: it enabled the Africans to fight many violent, destructive wars, with many captives sold to pay for them, but it also financed ambitious people in Africa to stand alone, outside their groups. If someone received financing from traders, who were by definition ‘outsiders’, and the entire trade ran on commercial credit from the Europeans, the loaned goods enabled more borrowers to deviate from their groups, to work with the Europeans, and to get the wherewithal to buy their way into a new kind of power independent of local respect – they were “witches”. 

“This is the commercialized world we live in now; we take being individuals – and needing money to support ourselves, by ourselves – for granted.” The act of the people standing back constituted a leap for the Africans. 

“It’s not only standing back. Normally, when you stand back, you’re vulnerable, you’re going to last maybe a few days in the woods by yourself, but if you’ve got Europeans who are selling you mostly cloth, but also guns and other materials, you can use all that to hire other people out oftheircommunities. They do things unconscionable within their own groups, partly because they’re on their own. They have to do what’s necessary to survive by themselves, without the loyalties to people around them, and with no loyalties in return.” With these catalytic ingredients, you end up with an uncontrollable ‘plague of witches.’

For Miller, the logic is evident, and the bottom line was that capitalism in Africa was very destructive. “The definition of a slave is an uprooted, vulnerable-because-isolated, individual, so it produces the slaves by creating the vulnerability.” 

The psychology of the African “witch” extends to numerous billionaires in modern Africa who are accustomed to using their wealth to leverage their personal interests and achieve their own ends. This psychology, Miller posits, is highly visible, in terms of the heedless way those billionaires operate. 

“They don’t need anybody else because they’ve got however many billion dollars, and they’ve been raised that way and that’s how they operate. In an African sensibility, people like that are ‘great witches.’ It’s a common popular opinion of the kleptocrats who use the presidencies of some African countries as life-sinecures, and then seem to live forever. Take Mugabe recently in Zimbabwe. We all sense that, and it begins to convey a sense of the emotionality of what we’re talking about here.”

This emotionality is another aspect of history that Miller wagers would be rewarding to explore closely “because most historians analyze the world as though it were rational, and it has its rational aspects, but if what really moves —movespeople to make a change and take the risks to change —that’s motivating in an emotional sense. Until we start writing history in terms of the feelings that motivate us, we’re not really capturing the worlds we’re trying to portray.” 

This is very difficult to do because it’s by definition inarticulate, he said. The records that we do have are mostly articulations, often rationalizations, in writing. Miller is excited by at least having the illusion that he can get inside the heads of the people who are so different from him, that the difference ends up revealing more about himself than he could have learned without going through them. This imaginative insight, he emphasizes, works much better with collective sensibilities than with individuals’ specific actions.

“Understanding the others we need around us—since what makes us human is that we’re social creatures and empathetic—is a constant series of approximations of feeling others’ intentions and wants, until you get enough of a resonance to move on, and doing so reveals what else you hadn’t understood. Doing history is like that with people in the past, except that they can’t respond in real time to help you “get” them. These moments of truth come along in reassuring regularity for me!”

The businessman who didn’t know he was going to be an Africanist

“African history entered the sixties as a vigorous and promising but still immature specialty.”–Jan Vansina

How did Miller ever become an Africanist in the first place? It was by mistake, he says. 

He grew up as the son of the president of a department store in “a middle Western, middle-sized, middle class town” and his father had succeeded his own father, who’d been a partner of the founder of a wearing apparel store in the 1880s or 1890s. He was slated to be the third generation heir to running it. However, Miller thought he ought to see the world a little bit before he came back home to stay, and so he went away to a liberal arts college, Wesleyan University in Connecticut. 

The university president, Victor L. Butterfield, was one of the defining figures in the mid-twentieth century movement toward the liberal arts — one who defined that educational program. At Wesleyan, Miller had to choose a major subject, and the one that was least constraining was history. He could take music, literary, or art history and count it all towards his major, so he ended up with a “history” major on his diploma without really studying much history as such. “It never occurred to me that there was a ‘there’ there, a coherent thing that gets called history.”

He decided that, before he went home to run the family store, he was going to get an MBA, so it was off to Northwestern in Chicago—not to Harvard or Wharton—since he was en route straight back to the Middle West. He got his MBA and also married a young woman from his hometown whose parents and his parents had known one another all their lives, since the grandparents had been friends with his grandparents. They had a daughter and moved back to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for good. 

“Except I hated it,” said Miller. “I didn’t even know I hated it because the future was too presumed. I was uncomfortable. One day, my wife was on the street downtown, where she ran into a high school friend of hers whom she hadn’t seen for five years, and who also had a one-year-old daughter. The two moms say, ‘Oh, let’s get our daughters together for a playdate.’ They did, had a great time, and they decided, ‘Let’s get our families together.’ So we received an invitation to go to my wife’s friend’s house for a dinner party.”

His wife’s friend was married to an assistant professor at Coe College, where all four parents had graduated, but that wasn’t why Miller would never forget that evening. The dinner table at the party was full of assistant professors, and their conversation was like a light bulb going on for Miller. “These people made sense! These people were fascinating, this is stimulating! I realized, maybe this is the company that I ought to be keeping, not all my long-time friends here in town. What am I going to do about that?”

Miller decided to go to graduate school, and his advisors in this group of college faculty said, “well, don’t go into European history or American history because there are already too many of us. Why don’t you try one of these – and they sort of *wrinkled up their noses* and said –‘new non-Western fields.’” 

Miller had no idea what those fields might be, and then “for all the wrong reasons,” he included the University of Wisconsin among the graduate schools where he applied. He had heard somewhere they had a great department of history, except that it turned out that what he’d heard was about a “legendary figure named Frederick Jackson Turner who was one of the great figures in American historiography at the turn of the century, at Wisconsin until 1910 in the era of La Follette liberalism.” 

He applied to Wisconsin, half a century later, without knowing this; in retrospect, not a promising start for an aspiring historian. At the bottom of the first page of the Wisconsin application, the question was: “What seminar do you want to do?” “I was going to go to graduate school to find out what I was interested in and I had been guided toward non-Western fields. Wisconsin probably offered thirty different fields —it was a huge history department. They had 750 graduate students when I had got there.” 

The “non-western” options on the form read: East Asia, China, Latin America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and then it said Africa. Miller’s reaction literally was “Africa?” He didn’t know Africa had a history. 

“But I’m curious. What the heck? I checked the ‘Africa’ box and, through no informed insight of mine, I ended up at the University of Wisconsin in the best African history program in the United States with two of the paragons—the founders of the field, one of whom was Jan Vansina with whom I studied, and the other was a founder of the entire fields of African and world history named Philip Curtin. The group of students I joined, fifty years later, has been about as prominent as any group of graduates of any African history program in the world. It was a magical moment, entirely not my fault. I just blundered into it! And because I’m curious, I never looked back, and every day was a revelation. Every day was learning something I didn’t even know I didn’t know, and that’s been the excitement for me and it’s still operating that way. So that’s how I ended up in Africa. The other way to describe me would be insatiably ‘curious,’” said Miller. Thecuriosity to say, “that’s interesting, let’s have a look,” and having an imagination, seems to have served him well over the course of his long and eventful career. 

But his parents knew. When he told them that he wasn’t going to follow the path they’d set up for him—to be a businessman in Iowa—his father was totally understanding and accepting. “What courage, to trust me with a crazy idea like becoming a historian of … where? And my mother just looked at me and said, ‘What took you so long?’ (to figure out what was obvious to her). Apparently my curiosity as a child had driven her crazy for years,” said Miller. As it turned out, he took to academia “like a fish in water”.

The young man who didn’t know that Africa had a history found himself in on the first wave of graduate students who had that as their mission: to demonstrate to the world that Africa had a history. In Angola, Miller went out to use the colonial historical documents to confirm the oral traditions, and the good news was that they had no connection. “You might learn something if you are at that kind of an impasse. African history was born at about 1960, and what there had been before was imperial history and colonial history, both of which assumed the Africans were, well, not ‘savages’ but ‘backward people’ who needed help from the civilized world, who were patronizing — African history was founded with the mission of showing that Africa did have a history of its own, and a respectable one. That was my reaction the day I saw it on the application.”

The only test Miller ever failed was the aptitude test in high school that the guidance counselor gave to everyone. The sense in which he failed it, he says, was that his interests were all across the board, strong in every field, and there was no clustering, no point that said, this is where you ought to end up. He ended up going into African history, where he got to dabble in archaeology, linguistics, ethnography, and so forth, and he says he ended up having a career that the test predicted. “The test was supposed to show what I had an aptitude for, so I guess I had a fair number of them. Aptitude, I think, means interest, because you’re going to succeed in what you’re interested in, so it’s not an inherent psychological attribute. So here I am—maybe a jack of all trades but master of none?”

Analyzing the ‘numbers’ of the Atlantic slave trade

“A historian of Africa, was a rarity in academe.” –Jan Vansina

During Miller’s ventures at business school, the culminating senior project there was a course where students were supposed to write an industry study, “by which they probably meant a fifteen page analysis to advise investors on whether or not they should invest in this industry.” Miller picked the domestic “trunk” airlines industry. 

“This was back when airlines were completely regulated and there were twelve of them, and so I went to work and by the time I was done, I had a 75-page history of the domestic airlines industry without any investment advice at the end. I had instinctively written a narrative history of the industry five-times long as they were expecting.”

The irony, he said, is that he went to Angola to go so far into the back country that if he had gone any further he’d be coming back again. He survived that, came back, and wrote a dissertation about the oral traditions. He had been sent out to write the history of a kingdom; the dates were from roughly 1620 to 1905. The dissertation that he wrote, which was 550 pages in length, was the introduction—the background that would set the context for understanding the formation of the kingdom. He had once again shifted back in time and broadened his perspective, but he still had to write the history of the kingdom. 

“It was the place that the Portuguese bought slaves to send to Brazil, which meant that Chapter 2 had to be the framework of the Portuguese slave trade.” That turned into a fifteen-year project and produced an 800 page book. 

He still hadn’t written the dissertation he’d initially planned, but kept discovering more context that had to be explained in order to understand what people then had done. The way that his business degree tied into this research was his approach to writing about the Atlantic slave trade; the field was richly quantitative at the time, and researchers were realizing that there were actually records of 80% of the ships that carried slaves to the New World.

“The assumption had been that so immoral a trade must have been illegal, so that there would be no records because it was like smuggling — all off the record. But then they started discovering there were records.” This straightforward quantitative style of data collection, which became very popular in the early 1970s, consisted of finding documents, pulling numbers out of them, presenting the numbers in a table, describing them in prose, and then making a few basic statistical calculations. 

“But history depends on rich, detailed contexts, and they weren’t stopping to contextualize the numbers,” asserted Miller. With a research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he told himself that he had an ethical obligation to try to humanize this story, “to fill in more context and find a humanistic angle,” as opposed to “objectifying the people who were enslaved [by treating] them in this purely quantitative fashion, as just numbers.”

While immersed in the Portuguese documentation of the trade, Miller kept seeing the same phrase: “the slave risk” (o risco dos escravos). The traders were businessmenrunning the business — he had been so intent on rescuing the enslaved from the dehumanization of enslavement that he hadn’t thought about the slave trade as the business that, for them, it was. They were calculating the risks on their investment, and the major risk that would make the difference between a profitable venture and an unprofitable one was how many of the slaves died while they owned them. Mortality was the operative variable around which the traders had organized the trade to avoid bearing the “slave risk” of death. 

“You want somebody else to own the slaves, but you want to have a contractual interest in them that would survive them if they died that would allow you to reap the profits from some other owner. Because I had a business degree and understood how to contract risk away, I recognized this key strategy. Not probably one other historian of the Atlantic slave trade would have recognized that strategy, inhumane as it was.”

This angle on avoiding the mortality among the slaves that the slavers were causing became his 800-page book, Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism in the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730–—1830, which won the Herskovits Prize of the African Studies Association. “And it’s all because I couldn’t stand being in business,” said Miller. “Isn’t it amazing? There are no dead ends in life, everything is going to turn out to have been advantageous if you recognize it. I grew up in a retailing environment, but the key was the technical training that I learned; courses in accounting and finance —that was what opened this window onto how the trade operated.”

For Miller, this was one of those moments where he saw how it all elegantly, ‘fit’ together. “Every once in awhile, historians experience that eureka moment, ‘nowI get it!’ We understand something in a way that we take in and make it a platform for the next book. When you see how a book you’re writing locks into a logical, coherent whole, you get that feeling that you’re learning. That slave risk and the slave trade was a ‘way of death’ for the enslaved – a way in space, the ‘middle passage’. It was also the way that so many who died went, and the ‘way’ that the slavers managed their business, and, I suppose, part of the way that merchant capitalism worked to accumulate so much wealth in Europe at the cost of so many lives in Africa, on the Atlantic, and in Brazil. I can go for years on this.’”

“Wherever you’re going, you have to have an objective, you’ve got to have an outline, you’ve got to have a goal, but also always be aware that the opportunity is not going to be what you thought it was. It will turn up somewhere in your peripheral vision, maybe a 45oangle from where you thought you were headed, like going out to confirm the oral traditions with the documents and it turned out they didn’t, or like going out to write a straightforward, statistical, quantitative counting of the slaves who were carried from Angola to Brazil and the realization that the story was actually about human mortality. I stumbled on all of that. Having the sort of peripheral awareness of the implications of what you’re doing as well as what you do, and then, having the nerve to turn on a dime.” 

“You’re basically changing course, leaving something you thought you knew and venturing into something that you didn’t know that you didn’t know. When I went to graduate school, the joke was, you don’t have to be smart to get a PhD, you just have to be obsessive. You need to have patience and persistence. You need to be a finisher. I ended up being a marathoner, too!

“You have to have a goal but don’t expect to ever get there. Watch for the real opportunity that’s going to show up in your peripheral vision as a consequence of where you were headed. That’s why you need to be heading somewhere – otherwise you won’t generate the peripheral opportunities or recognize the opportunity when it comes along. Another aspect of that is never forget the people who helped you along the way. That’s a lesson from Africans, because no one is an automaton. We are quintessentially social creatures and we get ahead only together. The cliché versions of this deep truth are everywhere: ‘strength in numbers’. I should have credited my African master historian as co-author of my dissertation; I would do that now, but at the time we gave credit to people we called ‘informants’. Shamefully disrespectful as it was.”

When I asked Miller to weigh in on what he thought was the most significant event in world history, he answered, “Everything. History is a seamless whole, a negotiated outcome of millions of misunderstandings. Outcomes, or the ones that have made a difference – which would be my definition of “importance” in a technical sense, contexts or encounters—moments—that eventuate in widespread and lasting changes. The steps from which, collectively, there can be no turning back, because they work so well, or give those who pick them up such an advantage that everyone else has to get on board or be left behind, obsolete, with no successors carrying on their “bad old ways”.  

“You can identify a short list there, over the 100,000 years of human history, that is, since our earliest ancestors worked out semantic language – that is, language with a grammar that enabled people to express and communicate new meanings by putting new words in familiar grammatical positions in their utterances. (We build change only out of the familiar, the new has to modify – often minimally – the old, in order to be intelligible.) “History” is collective mobilization to make intentional changes – as opposed to repetitive, static signaling and copying, with the changes it produces being accidental, incidental, fortuitous, and then copied. That is to say, very slow – like the preceding 2 or 3 million years of hominid evolution (NOT history). Language, which made us human, was the break-through. The rest has been history!”

As an Africanist, Miller also found literacy to be a pivotal strategy in history. He considers language to be the first big difference in the history of the world, what distinguishes us as human beings. The second great step is separating the syntactic language from the speaker and hearer in the moment with literacy. But still directed to a known, if only imagined, reader.

“You can speculate on that when you get through various ways of representing words and starting to represent images independently. The internet is probably going to prove to have been another step in this process of thinking and communicating with technology as profound as literacy. We will think in new ways…”

Here is his response in full:

“If you look at the way that I describe the world of orality, where you can’t have knowledge, you only know and share it with others around you, the ability to put knowledge out there and the way that it is done the most efficiently —it’s the only level at which you can do it syntactically, creatively. 

“You can have mnemonics, devices to help you recall what you already know. Africans have all kinds of symbolic systems to represent knowledge independently of themselves, but the only way you can do it at the level of language is syntactically. That means that you can begin to have knowledge independently of the knowers, and the reason why Plato invented philosophy was the knower had to be distinguished from the knowledge. He plays back and forth with reality —is reality what you can write on the wall up there, the shadow that’s on the wall, or is it the person whose shadow is projected on the wall by the light? There’s a reason why, at the threshold of alphabetic literacy, he presented his thinking, in writing, as dialogues between imagined speakers, who went back and forth on this sort of ontological question.

“Literacy, particularly written with a phonetic alphabet, which allows you to write whatever you could say, orally, has made a huge difference for the ability of people. If you can’t represent them with mathematics, you can represent them symbolically or keep accounts in writing or on an abacus, and Africans have string systems and knot systems and designs in the sand and all kinds of things to represent given ideas. They humanize abstractions – like what we think of as ideas – to bring them down to earth as people recognizable to the listeners, that is familiar. In the end, they are not the knowledge in the way that you create it—they are reminders, mnemonics, for knowing. Africa hits you in the face with alternative – pardon the expression – realities like this one. 

“The starting point of understanding these contrasts, for me, was Jan Vansina, who took oral traditions seriously. His book was an example of how knowledge changes. You don’t make great leaps - we’re literally incapable of it. Or if we did, it would sink without a trace, since no one else could understand it. The only place we have to learn from is what we already know, so that we extend our knowledge incrementally by expanding only bit by bit, on what we already think.

“Vansina was a trained medievalist and the way he historicized oral traditions was to treat them as analogous to the way in which he was trained to criticize manuscripts from medieval times. That was a classic example of the ambivalence of change itself – he accomplished something radically new only by drawing on one of the oldest aspects of historical methodology. Manuscripts in the middle ages were all hand-copied and every time you copy by hand, you make mistakes; you might have twenty versions of a given document in the corpus of historical records that medievalists can access. The original is, of course, older, and it is often lost. How do you reconstruct what the missing original might have been? Scholastics and then modern scholars worked out methods for comparing variant texts to find out when each mistake was introduced and then copied over and over, and you can gradually reconstruct an original. That was what Vansina proposed you could do with oral traditions, so you would go around and collect every version of a given story, word-for-word and then conduct a kind of manuscript analysis of the variants to get to an original “eye-witness account”, taken as historical truth. 

“Vansina didn’t really analyze the way oral traditions worked in their own oral environments. He did it with an analogy to what he already knew about writing—and it was dead wrong—because he didn’t take sufficient account of the distinctive dynamics of communicating in an oral ambiance. But what he did was unbelievably productive, and it – entirely fortuitously, since I was sent out to prove that he was right – put me in the position of discovering how wrong it was, and I wasn’t not the only one, but discovering a particular way in which it was wrong allowed me to take a step forward in sensing how we understand their creation and performance. Oral traditions don’t exist except in their performance – they’re not there the way that a book is on a shelf. It’s parallel to the distinction between knowing and abstract knowledge. The performance is always in the moment, and because it’s oral, the way you and I are talking here, it’s not an anonymous readership, you don’t know who’s going to read whatever you write. You can’t engage them, so you have to write in a way that’s accessible to everybody, or at least reasonably accessible. But when we’re talking, it is a give and take so that every oral performance is as much a product of the context, its own moment, of the listeners, as it is a product of whatever the speaker may have learned in another context. 

“It’s anextremely creative art to perform this corpus, but you’ve got to know your place, the same way a skilled performer on a stage reads their audience and adapts their performance to the moment, or the call-and-response patterning in a lot of folklore performances. Or Plato’s dialogues. You can imagine how I improved my lecturing to classes when I figured this out. I have a universal rule of human experience: the 90/10 rule. For example, all stereotypes are 10% true, and that’s why they’re so hard to demolish. Or 10% of my friends cause 90% of the annoyance in my days. 

“Or, every profession – including mine, and yours – have 10% bad apples. In teaching a class, the relevant application is that 90% of my listeners “get” 10% of what I say – and that’s not an insult to my students or students anywhere: it’s just the human condition. A teacher dreams that 10% of his students will get 90% of what he says – and maybe that’s why the “A” grade is usually calculated above scores of 90. The good news is that this rather loose estimate (and since it’s a cliché, chances are that you’ll remember it) tells me how often I have to repeat the same point until 90% of the class understands 90% of it.

“Go to the compound interest formula, since we’re building incrementally. 10% increments, on what we already know … Repetition, repetition, repetition. At least, if you’re trying to teach a subject as unfamiliar as Africa, where students start from virtually no knowledge, a vacuum. U.S. history is a piece of cake by comparison, where at least you have a base of misimpressions to work from. Wrong knowledge is a lot more than no knowledge.

“If you understand how communication works in an oral environment, then you realize that somebody’s variation of a story is not one variant on a preceding, stable thing, and another variant on a stable, preceding thing and another variant on a stable, preceding thing. They are all in-the-moment creations, but what is the stable part of this performance? It turns out the stable part is an oral mnemonic —a proverb, or a song, or a personified concept - which is memorable because of its phrasing, its sheer orality, it could become poetry if written, because it’s adaptable, it’s applicable —that’s the point. It has a pattern, a rhythm, some aspect of the oral language that makes it memorable, just like if I start a limerick, you can finish it because of the meter and the rhyme. What you do with language is very important, provided that you understand that you’re doing it in an oral environment and not on paper. And it’s about 10% of the performance, which is 90% creative, to make the 10% memorable.

Humorous stories and laughter

Miller has a hearty cackle that is sure to pierce the sound barriers in any room he’s in. He displeases his 18-year-old son when he’s in an audience, and everyone in the auditorium knows he’s there because his laugh cuts through the background noise. 

It’s been estimated that this Africanist will get the last laugh. 

On one occasion, Miller was at a meeting on slavery—one of many he attends—and this one was at Baylor University, widely considered the core university of Southern Baptist faith. The meeting had the usual academic cast of classicists, who worked in the ancient Mediterranean, but also biblical scholars who were working on the same time and place from a different disciplinary perspective. Miller noticed that something he hadn’t anticipated was going on when the first speaker stood up and apologized for being a Lutheran, and then went on to give his talk. A woman also got up and repeatedly apologized for being a Catholic before she carried on. Miller gradually realized that every speaker was identifying themselves in terms of their faith. The meeting was an academic confession. Miller considers himself “a fallen Unitarian.”

“You can’t get much farther from faith than that!” said Miller. “But how can I stay in the spirit of the occasion? I got up and confessed to being a believing historian, and I hoped I’d get a ripple of amusement, at least a smile. Dead silence. So I laughed quietly, to myself; I’m still laughing, a lot louder!”

Miller’s classes, he assured me, “are usually rollicking with laughter,” resolving that “you gotta keep ‘em laughing” as if comedy relief for lengthy historical lectures is the way to go. 

His hopes for African history haven’t entirely changed since he spoke as the President before the American Historical Association meeting in Washington, D.C., in January 1999. He sought to “bring Africa within the realm of academic respectability” then, and he still reflects on inventing African history in 1960 “out of very unpromising raw materials; it was colonial history, imperial history, all about the Europeans, strewn through and through with mid-twentieth-century racism. These remain the main fields of the historic professions to this day, though with significantly reduced racial complacency.”

“In the United States, roughly 55% of historians are American historians, the second biggest component of the discipline are the European historians and the deep historical traditions and deep ethics of those particular fields and they thought (because they didn’t always look around) they’re perfectly capable of operating without Africanists. Except that Africans are in fact right in the ongoing streams of their fields, if they open up to see them, and not just Africa — every other part of the world. They’re going to be able to do what they want to do better by taking in all the other so called once-negatively phrased “non-Western” fields. 

“For ten years, I directed a series of NEH summer seminars that I called ‘Roots: The African Dimensions of Early American History and Culture’. Now we realize that enslaved humans were the largest asset class in the U.S. economy in 1860 – right there, hidden in plain sight. Or the fact that 80% of the people who came to the New World before 1820 came from Africa. We have all benefited from their presence – although they were denied recognition for all they did until the 1960s: the Civil Rights movement, the invention of African-American and African histories. Fifty years later we’re still only beginning to make progress, to take them as seriously as they deserve. 

For Miller, the big part of his professional life has been trying to find the bridge to communicate as an Africanist with these mainline fields. He’s happy to say that the history of Africa “is in very good shape, thank you very much, thriving.” When Miller became the president of the American Historical Association (AHA), he was the second Africanist, the first having been one of his mentors, Phil Curtin, “a brilliant man” who was also a world historian, but Curtin had given his presidential address in 1982 as a world historian. “In 1982, when he was president, that was probably appropriate because that was the capacity in which the AHA as it was then constituted could comprehend. It’s the 90/10 rule at work, but I came along fifteen years later, and I decided, ‘I’m going to bite this bullet.’” 

The address that he wrote, entitled “Africa and History/History and Africa,” tries to articulate what they get out of acknowledging Africa’s presence. 

“We Africanists don’t need to belong - we’re fine, but we’re all going to be better together, if the field opens up. It’s now twenty years since I was president of the AHA and that mission still remains very incompletely fulfilled. There are Africa panels, but that’s the point —they’re ‘Africa panels.’ It’s like separate but equal or it’s like ‘we will tolerate you, provided you don’t intrude on us.’ There are actually some panels that are beginning to make this integration pretty well. 

“I’ve written several essays, and one in a book based on the concept there there was a global ‘early modern’ era, not just a European concept setting Europeans apart from the rest of the world, at the threshold of what became a kind of ‘civilizing’ mission? The chapter that I wrote on Africa was to say that if you look not at early modernity in its European forms but rather at the historical processes that were going on throughout the world, there are analogues, unrecognizable unless you go into Africa and other world regions, so there was a parallel process going on in Africa. Being able to recognize those parallels would be an example of a concept where I can recognize their patterns in what I do, and maybe I can then help them to recognize my patterns in what they do. Then we can talk, then we will be communicating. For maybe twenty years, the historical profession as a whole has been hovering on the edge of that kind of integration. We haven’t quite broken through, in my opinion, but I hope we will, and in the meanwhile, I’m going to do what I can to further that.”

On family life

“Did I say I have an 18-year-old son? He is going through the college application process in the last six months, so we spent most of the summer travelling around the colleges because most of them are in Virginia, and my observation there was that after fifty years on the supply side of the education business, I’m really interested to sit on the demand side as the parent of a prospective student.

“He and we, his parents, agreed that Lynchburg College seemed to have real potential. It’s a great college, but the potential that he needed—it’s very individuated. They had a rolling admissions process, and he applied on the 1st of November just to see what would happen, because if he got in, then he didn’t have to write any other applications. Two weeks later he received the classiest admissions notice you can imagine —this was not a plain business envelope, thick or thin. It was a big bright school-color red with large block white letters “YOU’RE IN!” He took a picture of it and sent it to me in a text. I was sitting in a meeting in Chicago and my phone buzzed in my pocket, so I opened it up and there was his image of the admissions letter. Is that classy or what? Big, bright white-on-red “YOU’RE IN!” 


[1] Miller notes that he “doesn’t want to be disrespectful in any way to the many people (non-PIDE) who were wonderfully generous and hospitable” to him while he was living in Angola. Their courtesies were what made the gracious style of his voluntary expulsion so plausible.