Profiles | 13 May 2021

Graduate Profile: Christian Alvarado, History of Consciousness Doctoral Student


Christian Alvarado is a PhD student in the History of Consciousness Department at UC Santa Cruz, with a designated emphasis in Critical Race and Ethnic Studies (CRES). His research focuses on the history and historiography of the Mau Mau uprising in colonial Kenya, locating it within broader currents of political, cultural, and historical thought. More broadly, he is interested in the history of colonialism, neocolonialism, and the historical imagination. He was recently awarded the Hayden V. White Fellowship in Historical and Cultural Theory for Summer 2021. In May, THI spoke with Alvarado about his research and dissertation project, his experience with the Hayden White Archives, and how his work is informed by Hayden White’s groundbreaking interdisciplinary scholarship.  

Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Christian, and congratulations on being awarded the Hayden V. White Fellowship in Historical and Cultural Theory.  What an incredible honor!  What does it mean to you to be awarded this fellowship?

Thank you! It is a profound honor, indeed, and I’m thrilled to have been selected. Hayden White’s work and intellectual orientation have had an enormous influence on me, and it means a lot to be supported by a fellowship in his memory. Historical and cultural theory, the areas of study that this fellowship aims to bolster, really capture what my work and research are all about. It’s absolutely amazing to be a part of his legacy in this way and to be playing some small part in continuing the History of Consciousness Department’s engagement with the lines of inquiry his scholarship was so influential in establishing.

Before we get into the details of your fellowship, could you explain your research and work in broad terms for us?  How would you describe your dissertation project?  What are you exploring in it and what kinds of contributions is your project making to the fields you’re working in? 

My research examines the history and legacy of what is most widely known as the “Mau Mau Uprising” in Kenya, in which a mass group of rebels waged guerilla warfare against the British colonial regime throughout the 1950s. It is commonly understood as a key event in the postwar “era of decolonization” in Africa. The heart of my research, though, is the contemporary and subsequent significance of Mau Mau in parts of Africa outside of Kenya and across different European imperial frameworks. In the mid-20th century, anticolonial movements like Mau Mau were never only important at their point of origin. So, rather than studying the history of the movement or an event called “Mau Mau” that is conventionally limited to Kenya, my dissertation (tentatively titled “‘The Storm in Kenya: Mau Mau and Systems of Thought”) explores the ways in which colonial and anticolonial actors and movements across Africa and Europe understood Mau Mau in relation to their own projects and struggles. For example, colonial and anticolonial forces in Zanzibar, South Africa, Ireland, Guinea-Bissau, and many other places deployed Mau Mau as a sort of analogy, although to very different ends.

Understanding these connections necessarily means working across disciplines—history, of course, but also literature, political theory, religious studies, critical theory, and African studies. 

One way I explore this broader understanding of the movement is by examining how Mau Mau was put to work within colonial and anticolonial discourses; specifically, I look at its embeddedness in how various groups came to understand concepts such as “racism,” “blackness,” “terrorism,” “Africanity,” and even history itself. For example, Mau Mau was evoked in the characterization of groups as different as the Black Panthers, the Irish Republican Army, and Zanzibari revolutionaries, particularly in how they were placed under the umbrella of “terrorism.” We can also see imaginings of Mau Mau as “harbingers of decolonization” and a manifestation of a broader “African nationality,” such as in Rastafarian thought in Jamaica and in the liberation movements in “Portuguese Africa” during the 1960s and 70s. Understanding these connections necessarily means working across disciplines—history, of course, but also literature, political theory, religious studies, critical theory, and African studies. 

That’s really interesting, especially how you’re articulating Mau Mau as a nodal point that connects out to all of these other movements. Your broader conceptual point about how Mau Mau influenced structures of thought and consciousness is very compelling, too. Would you say that this is what your project zeroes in on–Mau Mau as embedded in both colonial and anticolonial consciousness? And could you say more about how you got to this argument, or how you arrived at this point of your project? 

Of course. I’ll begin with the last part of your question first. An earlier version of my project focused on how anticolonial movements in Africa were given form through historical narratives about them as they became embedded in schooling systems, especially how they were expressed through the grammar of gender. In the case of Mau Mau, for example, post-independence narratives in Kenya often served as a way of romanticizing and celebrating Kenyan masculinity. When I first began developing this project, Mau Mau was going to be one “case” that I looked at, but, as I began working with sources, I realized pretty quickly that narratives about it were connected to all sorts of different conversations: about terrorism, revolution, Black liberation, what was or was not “African,” political economy, the nature of civilization, and any number of other things. After a time, I really saw no way through this thicket, and, rather than attempt to force one, I decided to make this dense space itself the line of inquiry. The many discourses that are inalienable from the very idea of Mau Mau became the preoccupation of the project, especially as they emerged in other parts of Africa. 

When I say that Mau Mau was (and is) embedded in colonial and anticolonial consciousness, what I am referring to are the ways it became attached to a constellation of the sorts of ideas mentioned above. I view these as having played an enormous role in shaping what we might call the “historical consciousness of decolonization”—a paradigm of thought inhabited in the postwar era by both those interested in preserving the imperial status quo and those aiming to overthrow it. I’m not so much interested in examining the “inaccuracies” of how Mau Mau has been discussed and understood (which is a conventional way that historians have taken this issue up); instead, I’m trying to think about how different framings of it can show us how webs of colonial and anticolonial thinking and consciousness emerge. Through discussions of Mau Mau, we can see the contours of the political, military, and economic processes of decolonization and neocolonialism in Africa by understanding its place in the minds of those who participated in these realms.

Great! How are you going to build on this research this summer? What part of your project will you be working on during your fellowship and what are you hoping to accomplish?

Over the coming months, I’ll be locating, reading, and translating Lusophone, Francophone, and Kiswahili sources, quite painstaking and time-intensive work that really wouldn’t be possible without this fellowship. These sources include a variety of things, such as contemporary newspapers, anticolonial treatises, the records of colonial intelligence agencies, and even untranslated historical work produced both in Africa and Europe. A methodological staple of my approach is rooted in Hayden White’s argument that the work of professional historians always harbors a literary characterso understanding how non-Anglophone traditions of scholarship have written about and narrativized Mau Mau is critical for the broader aims of my project. Provided that international travel will be possible in the near future, I’m also planning a research trip to the Portuguese National Archives in Lisbon, which house the archives of the Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado (PIDE), a secret police that operated domestically and abroad during the final decades of the formal Portuguese empire when the liberation struggles in Guinea-Bissau, Angola, Mozambique, and Cabo Verde took place. 

Over the coming months, I’ll be locating, reading, and translating Lusophone, Francophone, and Kiswahili sources, quite painstaking and time-intensive work that really wouldn’t be possible without this fellowship.

Visiting this archive, much of which was generated during the period of the Emergency in Kenya, will help me understand how an imperial state like Antonio Salazar’s Portugal (often thought of as very different from the British Empire) understood Mau Mau. This is crucial for my project because, from what I’ve been able to see thus far, Salazar’s regime deployed the figure of Mau Mau to contend that anticolonial movements that challenged the Portuguese state were part of a broader, Continental manifestation of barbarity, terrorism, and destruction. This argument was a key part of attempting to craft European solidarity against such movements in the waning days of formal empire, and it has parallels in how the South African apartheid state and the Rhodesians crafted propaganda about the threat of potential “Mau Maus” in their territories. This analogy was effective because, in imagining a “decolonized Africa,” the heart of European concerns was the preservation of the extractive infrastructures established under colonial rule. Mau Mau was understood as fundamentally threatening to such interests, and white powers viewed anything like it as something that must necessarily be eliminated. Up to now, I’ve largely only been able to access a handful of digitized sources and Salazar’s own writings, so getting a glimpse into the wealth of non-digitized materials in Lisbon will go a long way toward giving me a clearer picture of Mau Mau’s role in the Portuguese imperial imagination—and how the anticolonial movements that fought against the Portuguese understood it as well.

This is not your first Hayden White fellowship. You were a Fellow at the Center for Archival Research and Training (CART) in 2019-20, working with the Hayden White papers at the University Library. What kind of work did you do in the Hayden White Archive and how did it influence your thinking and dissertation project?  What did you learn, or take away, from this experience?

Being a CART fellow was an incredible experience. Along with fellow History of Consciousness student Patrick King, I helped to process White’s papers. What this meant in practice was that we took a huge array of loosely organized materials (both physical and digital), organized them into coherent categories, indexed countless different files, and assembled them into a bonafide “archival collection.” These items ranged from early drafts of classic works, lesson plans, professional correspondence, and vast pages of notes. It was a terrific experience, and, in many ways, it was when I began thinking much more deeply about my own project in relation to his work. Prior to that, I had, of course, read some of his most well-known material—Metahistory and Tropics of Discourse come to mind—but the experience of simultaneously being so deeply engaged with his personal papers and working on the first major pieces of my dissertation project produced a much more profound relationship to his thought. I found myself jotting down plenty of notes about my own research as I sorted through all kinds of interesting conversations and lines of thought. In addition to the correspondence that introduced me to the warm, challenging, and humorous side of the man himself, I was also working closely with lesser-known aspects of his work, along with unfinished projects and half-articulated ideas, that showed me the expansive way that White’s mind operated and completely changed my understanding of historical thinking. I began seeing the operation of historical consciousness everywhere, and at a magnitude I hadn’t before. His notes in the margins of random National Geographic magazines, clippings about the conspiracy theory du jour, and the seemingly endless translations of his works are things that still stick with me. 

As part of the CART fellowship Patrick and I put together an exhibit called “Archival Research as Penance,” which was a phrase that White had scribbled hastily on a manila folder in the collection. As a “Historian of Consciousness,” I think about that a lot, and, in a way, this offhand comment really captures the relation I have to my more formal background in History. “Returning to the source,” or whatever version of it archival bodies represent, is both what makes the historical discipline a powerful force of change and something nevertheless tethered to our current structures of consciousness. I think that the idea that archival research is a kind of penance, something both to be done as an act of overcoming worldly sins and also a problematic disciplinary assumption, expresses quite well the tension I’ve felt as someone with a historical background doing a PhD in HistCon (and it’s a good encapsulation of White’s sense of humor, too!).

Hayden White’s scholarly contributions and innovations were many and various, but he was particularly interested in historicizing and theorizing the interrelated character of what we conventionally understand as discrete disciplinary categories, such as literature and history, as well as separate categories of thought, such as fact and fiction. For example, we could point to his focus on the literary character of historical narrative in “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” or the overlapping forms and aims of discourse among historians and fiction writers in “The Fictions of Factual Representation.” I’m wondering about the role of this kind of interdisciplinarity in your own work, and, as you touched on before, how your work is informed by Hayden White’s scholarship and legacy. 

I’m glad you asked this, because I think I’ve been sort of dancing around these questions in some of my previous answers. As I’ve mentioned above, a lot of my work deals with the ways that ideas about Mau Mau were shaped by broader intellectual and political currents. Disciplinary thought is a huge part of this. The ways in which Mau Mau has been rendered into an historical event, a coherent movement, and a foundational anticolonial struggle in Africa was in some part a matter of its interpretation within disciplinary frameworks. Among other disciplines, Mau Mau’s refraction through the theoretical prisms of anthropology, history, and psychology fundamentally shaped how it was understood by both scholars and popular audiences across the world. For example, it was partly in relation to Mau Mau that the problem of “detribalized Africans” (usually young men who were residing in urban areas and thus viewed as “disconnected” from their “tribal structures”) took on a flavor that positioned them as latently criminal and violent. This grew out of a fundamentally anthropological and sociological analysis, and such intellectual formations served as a terrain upon which the sorts of analogical and figural connections I study influenced how decolonization in Africa was both lived contemporaneously and understood subsequently. When we’re talking about imaginings of Africa, its peoples, or its movements, historicizing the disciplines is crucial if we are interested in making plain the structure of the tropes at play. 

One of the most common ways the colonial authorities understood Mau Mau (and indeed the possibility that it might “spread” to other colonies) was as a sort of psychic break initiated by the conditions of modernity. Even in this one idea, we can see how the temporal and psychological dimensions of anthropological thought are at play. This was often more nuanced than thinking about the Mau Mau as “primitive” (though this was common in colonial discourse as well), but also had to do with the shifting contours of an increasingly self-reflexive anthropology that was preoccupied with understanding difference and change. In Western thought, descriptions of Africa and Africans have historically worked from latent arguments about history, insofar as it operates from a consciousness of “historical differences” between different parts of humanity. I see the root of this as a product of, and investment in, the historical consciousness of Western Civilization itself, which seems deeply lodged into so many of these sorts of discourses as both a point of chauvinistic pride and a self-validating moral economy.

Mau Mau remains an enormous part of what White calls the “practical past” for those struggling against (and propping up) systems of oppression in Kenya, across Africa, and beyond.

In sum, I think that one way to describe my work is that it is a study of the historical consciousness of Mau Mau, or its location within different forms of historical consciousness. The work of professional historians studying Mau Mau is not exempt from this, and the parts of White’s work that speak to the relationship between historical and literary forms of knowing point toward the power of narrative contained in contestations of its significance, meaning, or character. Mau Mau remains an enormous part of what White calls the “practical past” for those struggling against oppression in Kenya, across Africa, and beyond. To borrow a phrase from the historian and former political prisoner Maina wa Kinyatti, it is an “unfinished revolution” that continues to be given new meaning and life today, and it remains an integral component of the historical consciousness of colonialism and decolonization in Africa.

The Hayden V. White Endowment in Historical and Cultural Theory, supports teaching, conferences, lectures, camaraderie, and mentoring related to historical and cultural theory. This year, this support includes the Hayden V. White Fellowship in Historical and Cultural Theory.