April 20, 2005: Reading Room
When Caroline Elkins ’91 started working on her Harvard doctoral dissertation on the Mau Mau rebellion, the long and violent uprising by Kenya’s largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu, against British colonizers in the 1950s, she thought she would find information to support accepted historical theory. Scholars had concluded that the detention camps the British had set up for the Kikuyu who had been forced off their land during the uprising had been, in fact, a successful experiment in social integration, in which the Kikuyu people learned civics and homemaking skills meant to teach them to be good British citizens.
Yet the more Elkins tried to prove the standard historical hypothesis as a liberal reform method, the more inconsistencies she found. She was starting to uncover atrocities through oral interviews with former British colonial officers and Kikuyu camp survivors, but the British documents she read made no mention of them. Despite the destruction of official records by the British as they withdrew from Kenya in 1963, Elkins discovered through her interviews that the British used vicious interrogation techniques, beatings, and torture to root out the participants in the rebellion. The British also forced the imprisoned Kikuyu to work on public-works projects, such as road-building.
In attempting to halt the uprising, says Elkins, the government interrogated and interned 1 million people in detention camps, where more than 100,000 died during the eight-year campaign against the Kikuyu. Elkins ultimately turned her Harvard dissertation into a book, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, published by Henry Holt in January.
“If you turned it upside down and said that, instead of rehabilitation, the British promoted systemized violence [to quell the rebellion], it all made sense. I had a definite ‘aha moment,’” says Elkins, who majored in history at Princeton and wrote her thesis on the changing social roles of Kikuyu women.
As a young historian faced with the challenge of demonstrating that the abuses were not cases of poor judgment but an organized pattern of violence, Elkins initially panicked. But to prove her new hypothesis, she learned Swahili and Kikuyu and over the course of a decade conducted hundreds of interviews with elderly Kikuyu who had survived the camps. “I drank a lot of milky sweet tea and petted a lot of cows,” she says, to gain the trust of people who had never before told anyone about their experiences at the hands of the British, because of pain and shame and because Kenya’s leaders chose silence for the sake of unity. By official decree Kenyans were to forgive and forget the past.
Now an assistant professor of history at Harvard, Elkins is the first to admit that tackling the thorny issue head-on in her first academic book was a bold move. “Not only are British historians uncomfortable with something inherently critical of their imperial past,” Elkins says, “but any major revision in a field ... makes people uncomfortable.”
Kathryn Beaumont ’96 is a PAW contributor and lives in Cambridge, Mass.
Dizzy: The Life and Times of John Birks Gillespie — DONALD L. MAGGIN ’48 (Harper Entertainment). In this biography of innovative jazz great Dizzy Gillespie, the author chronicles the trumpeter’s life from the racist South of his youth in the 1920s through his emergence as a 20th-century jazz giant and one of the primary creators of the bebop and Afro-Cuban jazz revolutions. Maggin also wrote Stan Getz: A Life in Jazz (1996).
Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch: Essays on Race and Sexuality — DWIGHT A. McBRIDE ’90 (New York University). In this collection of essays that deal with life as a black, gay man, the author explores various topics, including pornography, the role of African-American studies in higher education, and the way hair and clothing guidelines for employees of Abercrombie & Fitch discriminate against people of color. McBride is chairman of the African-American studies department at Northwestern University.
Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents — ELAINE SHOWALTER (University of Pennsylvania). The author looks at the ways novels about the academy have charted changes in the university and society since 1950. Through her readings of dozens of novels, Showalter, who admits a fondness for the genre, explores the world she has inhabited as a professor of English literature. She is professor emeritus of English at Princeton.