Oracy is a hallmark of human society. So too is historical inquiry, as societies seek to identify and transmit those remembrances (or “imaginations”) considered important to defining collective social identity; in the process, they establish meaningful patterns by sifting and culling discrete perceptions through the analysis and critique, the repetition and elaboration, of competing testimonies. Yet, while oral communication and historical sensitivities have been present in all human societies for all time, the western historical profession was slow to mesh the two—slow to accept oral accounts as historical sources. In Africa initiatives to bring them together systematically emerged only in tandem with the growth of nationalism outside the hegemony of colonial constructs and, in particular, with decolonization.
To be sure, many people outside the discipline had considered the relations of oracy and history. But both advocates and adversaries alike saw a turning point when Jan Vansina forced the issue on the historical discipline (most decidedly against its will) in the late 1950s and early 1960s. While others before him had argued for the historical validity of oral sources, Vansina framed his position in broader perspective, as a conceptual bedrock essential to understanding Africa. Historical sources abounded in Africa, he argued. They could be identified and understood, and they were subject to the same critical apparatus as western written sources; therefore Africa not only had a history, but it was knowable in the same terms as history in Europe. This was the reference point that drove his work. Whatever position one takes on his work, Vansina is seen as among the first to challenge the professional discipline, to sustain the argument, to push a broad range of methodological tactics, to master the empirical material, and to produce work based on such methods, in such a way that his innovations could not be dismissed out of hand.