Stephanie Newell, Professor of English at Yale University, came to this project, which explores the concept of “dirt” and how this idea is used and applied to people and spaces, in a rather indirect way, having read the memoirs and journals of merchant traders – particularly the white British traders who were writing about their visits to many of the African colonies. In observing the ways in which these traders discussed the people they encountered in West Africa, Newell notes that the traders cast these encounters as, unsurprisingly, binary. Obviously, the traders also brought their racial, class, and imperial perspectives to these memoirs of their travels. Newell shifts the narrative focus and the voices heard, centering the Histories of Dirt: Media and Urban Life in Colonial and Postcolonial Lagos
(Duke UP, 2019) in Nigeria, specifically, Lagos, since a broad part of the analysis is spotlighting how urban environments are particularly cast and imagined in context of dirt. There is also a comparative dimension in the research, since the initial project also included fieldwork and analysis in Nairobi, Kenya, and the overarching analysis of colonial and postcolonial urban history and culture in West Africa.
Newell, along with a team of researchers across a variety of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, explore this idea of “dirt” across the long 20th century. Histories of Dirt
explores these concepts in three distinct research areas, using different methodological approaches to not only understand the concepts, but also to recenter the voices and considerations of Lagosians themselves. The book traces the views and understandings of this idea and how it has contributed to “social and political life” in Lagos, but the basis for this understanding comes from different sources and different ways to capture public opinion over the course of more than 100 years. The initial basis for the analysis comes from the perspectives of the Lagosians in contrast to the writings and policies of the British colonists. These perspectives are derived from a variety of considerations, including how public health films were understood by the Lagosian populations in the early part of the 20th century. The colonial archives were also used – to excavate the perspectives of Lagosians as well. Newall explains that the research that focuses on the middle period of the 20th century came from a variety of newspapers that were owned and run by Nigerians and thus provided data and information from Lagosian perspectives, though there are also dynamics around class that come through this media-based data and information. The final section of research comes from focus group interviews with current residents of Lagos. By using a multi-method approach, Newall is able to keep the focus on the words and voices of the Lagosians themselves, teasing out the information from their perspectives, as opposed to having those voices mediated by colonizers or western commercial encounters. While the subtitle of this book might suggest that the study is narrow, the analysis and interpretation of this concept of dirt and how the idea and the terminology surrounding it are understood through different lenses and contexts makes this work important on a much broader scale. And because of the variety of data sources and analytical perspectives, this research is truly interdisciplinary in scope. Histories of Dirt
is a fascinating exploration and analysis and will be of interest to a wide array of scholars, researchers, and readers.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics
(University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America
(Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).