Points Bookshelf: “The African Roots of Marijuana” by Chris Duvall

Editor’s Note: Today’s book review comes from Nick Johnson. Johnson holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University and a master’s degree in American history from Colorado State University. A former freelance journalist in his home state of Illinois, Johnson now lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, and works as associate editor of the online Colorado Encyclopedia. He is the author of Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West.

Screenshot 2019-07-02 at 8.52.56 AMDespite a vast and ever-growing scholarly literature on cannabis, the African experience with the plant is too often glossed over or entirely neglected. One gets a sense of this reading some of Chris Duvall’s earlier work, including the global history Cannabis (2015). But in his most recent book, The African Roots of Marijuana (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), the geographer hammers this point home with an infallible rigor that should convince other cannabis scholars to more closely examine the biases reflected in their own work.

Duvall’s most pervasive and important argument in the book is that Europeans’ historic preference for hemp over drug cannabis was rooted in racist interpretations of cultural ecologies, and those interpretations became the foundation for much of what is known (or assumed) about the plant today. In Europe, where ecological conditions favored hemp, cannabis was known as the fiber-yielding plant of productive industrialists; in South Asia and Africa, where ecological conditions favored drug-producing cannabis, “the plant was valued principally to supply psychoactive drugs” (103). When nineteenth-century Europeans began traveling Africa under the oppressive shadow of colonialism, they saw the use of cannabis drugs as an unnatural corruption of the plant itself as well as an indicator of Africans’ supposed backwardness and inferiority (10-11). This perspective then became embedded in Western understandings of cannabis and remains lodged there today, despite a robust academic literature on the role of racism and colonialism in the development of scientific thought.

While some modern scholars are doubtlessly aware of the Euro-centric tilt in cannabis history, Duvall argues that these racist assumptions run farther into the present than many of us realize. For example, they have helped mold a modern cannabis literature in which “historians,” as well as botanists and other scholars, “have taken European hemp to be the archetypical cannabis” (38). Even though there is abundant evidence that THC production evolved naturally in cannabis (47), some scientists consider drug-producing cannabis as a human artifact or casually assert that “southern Aryans” and people from “sun-drenched areas” have an inherent affinity for cannabis drugs (41, 48). 

Duvall offers many other useful correctives in The African Roots of Marijuana, such as the fact that “[c]annabis smoking”—the most popular method of cannabis ingestion worldwide—“is ultimately an African innovation and contribution to world culture.” Indeed, Africans smoked cannabis in water pipes for hundreds of years before an American inventor received a patent for the “bong” in 1980 (57-8). Duvall’s extensive linguistic analysis of African cannabis terminology also yields the remarkable insight that “marijuana”—one of the most popular terms for cannabis drugs and often thought to be of Mexican origin—is derived from Central African languages (140). An Afro-centric focus also allows Duvall to more clearly map the plant’s clouded dispersal in the nineteenth-century Atlantic world, as he highlights the prominent role of recaptives (slaves who were “liberated” by European anti-slaving vessels and transferred to other colonial stations) in bringing the plant to various places in Africa and the Caribbean (146-49).

While racism certainly played a part in suppressing Africa’s cannabis history, Duvall is aware that the social class of users also had a role. As he previously argued in Cannabis, Duvall notes that the drug plant traversed Africa and, eventually, the Atlantic world with “laboring underclasses” (49) who often kept no journals and left no source material behind (162-65). Here again, the European bias against drug cannabis comes through, as archival records privilege hemp over drug cannabis. Duvall expertly overcomes this shortage by vigorously analyzing a limited written source base of European travelogues, engravings and records, and supplementing it with the work of linguists, archaeologists, geographers, historians, and botanists. His extensive notation of every major claim offers a model for other cannabis writers and scholars, even for those who prioritize documentation. 

The book does include some hard-to-follow passages that perhaps only linguists or archaeologists may appreciate. Duvall’s writing can hardly be called scintillating, but in general it is exceptionally clear and concise, especially for a book covering so much time, space and the complex cultural diffusion of a complicated plant. 

Overall, The African Roots of Marijuana is an impressive, book-length confirmation of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s now-weathered observation, “history is the fruit of power.” So is science. But while Duvall rightly criticizes historians, scientists, and other academics for their uncritical repetition of Euro-centric narratives, his book still offers a great example of why geographers, historians, and other professionally trained humanists need to keep writing about cannabis: these are the only people who can explain and contextualize the racist and colonialist assumptions baked into much of the most widely read literature on the plant. 

If humanities scholars can aggressively expose and correct these assumptions, like Duvall has done here, they may not be so readily reproduced in the sciences or the more public work of journalists, activists, grow guides, and the cannabis industry. The crossover is far from guaranteed, but at the very least, the academic literature on cannabis may never be the same after The African Roots of Marijuana

I certainly hope it is not.

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