Back to the Future: Discovering African History, One Like at A Time

Photograph of dancing couple from

It all started to make sense when I spotted my uncle’s image on Tumblr.

On a platform laden with irreverent pop-culture gifs and memes, I had stumbled upon a link to the past, and this was no ordinary URL. It was an old photograph on a Tumblr celebrating vintage African history — a literal souvenir of an ‘uncle’s’ 1980s wedding.

Much has been said about social media’s role in addressing current socio-political issues, but it is also used to unravel the stories of African history. The impact of such imagery is powerful because until recently it was not shared through the annals of digital media. Africans are reclaiming the historical narrative and translating it to their audience by modern means. However, this isn’t a simple shift to an online arena. It’s a delicate retelling through the digital medium, a strong reminder that the historical is personal.

Forget your traditional textbooks and documentaries. These African history lessons forgo the usual methods of communication, for something much more relevant — your timeline. In between the typical scrolling images from Saturday’s shenanigans, accounts like @historicalnigeria, @goldcoastghana_ and @HistoryKe offer followers a chance to view African history as part of their everyday experience. History, then, is not an anomalous voyage into the past, but a vivid peek into the what was. It makes it easier to envisage the 1970s excitement about certain Black Star players when it’s interspersed by discussions of the Premier League with your friends. The past becomes present, evoking an empathetic understanding which is made possible by merging present and historical timelines.

Online profiles like @africanarchives, @africarealstory and The Vintage Africa Project have made African nostalgia even more accessible. Just like how Mad Men & Downton Abbey have served to revive a love of historic Western aesthetics and culture, these profiles share the same ideals, from an African perspective. While TV audience marvel at the styles of Joan Holloway and Lady Mary, followers can just as easily fawn over the trends on display in a picture from a 1960s party in Congo. Initiatives such as The Nana Project detail the first-hand accounts of Ghanaians, telling their unique stories alongside old photos. These unearthed images serve to recapture the missing pieces of the stories, those little tidbits that make those tales richer, clearer. This is not a romanticised view alone, but it is a perspective that allows for a romanticism that isn’t shown often.

To share is a personal act. Whether it’s done in support, disagreement, or to inform, the amplification of African historical images is inextricably tied to the individual. History points to the past and addresses our present. The curated sharing of these moments points to both the sharer and viewer. It’s an invitation to what was, through our modern way of sharing experiences. It’s a voyage from the future, into the past — nostalgia and all.

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