Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.(iWN file photo)

By Jomo Sanga Thomas*

(“Plain Talk”, Feb. 7, 2020)

(This piece was first published February 2006)

“You will have to be a damn fool to embrace an island and disown and abandon the African continent.” Historian John Henrik Clarke.

February is Black History Month, but our celebration of all things African should be all year round. Black history is front and centre in my life. During my college years, I was referred to as a race man. Even now many describe me as racist. My simple response is that Black/African people can be prejudiced, but we can never be racist. We simply do not have the institutional and organisational power to systematically engage in racism.

Africans on the continent or in the diaspora know of everyone else except ourselves. To free ourselves of mental slavery, our task must be to teach ourselves and our children about the glorious African past.

The biggest problem that Africanists and nationalists have with Black History Month (and black history in general) is that, far too often, it begins with the enslavement and the dreaded middle passage.

At least 70,000 years ago, deep in South Africa, traces of modern men and women have been found. In 2002, in the Blombos caves of South Africa, the earliest abstract art was discovered. In Africa, traces of migration routes, art and civilisation take us all the way through the Nubian kingdoms that began 7,000 years ago. During that time, millions of Africans lived and died before the idea of the trans-Atlantic slave trade would come into being.

Thousands of years before slavery in the ‘new world’, African kingdoms like the Axum Empire ruled. Other rich civilizations like the Mali or Songhai empires have so much to tell that they alone could fill Black History Month.

Hundreds of years before Columbus stumbled on the Caribbean, Mana Musa, whose kingdom dominated West Africa, was the richest man alive. Adjusted for inflation, his wealth is estimated to have been more than $400 billion. When he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, he flooded the places he passed with an abundance of gold. Of course, this means he oversaw a complex economy with a rich culture – all overlooked in most basic retellings of black history.

In the 1500s, Leo Africanus wrote of Timbuktu that its king “hath always 3,000 horsemen … (and) a great store of doctors, judges, priests and other learned men, that are bountifully maintained at the king’s cost and charges.”

Yes, Chatoyer, Fedon, Nani, Boukman, Dessalines, Toussaint and Harriet Tubman are heroic and deserve to be highlighted, but the history of black people did not begin with their courageous efforts.

The problem with starting Black History Month off with slavery goes much deeper. It is a formative, emotional, psychological mistake to introduce the history of black people with them as subjugated, enslaved peoples. Yes, it is simply inaccurate, but it actually does damage – not just to young black children, but to all children, when they are given the distinct impression that black people began as inferior subjects.

The earliest white people that young students of all races learn about are world travellers, inventors, and American presidents like Christopher Columbus, Ben Franklin, and George Washington. From there, students are likely to learn about Michelangelo, Mozart, or Galileo. They may learn about Abe Lincoln, but (white) history never begins or ends with horror or pain.

Of course, the trans-Atlantic slave trade is an important piece in the total history of the African Diaspora, but starting off with it strikes me as a suspicious form of white supremacy. When young white students first see that historical heroes who look like them were the glorious leaders of the world and that the first black people they learn about were owned like property and lived as mindless slaves picking tobacco, cotton and sugar, what impact do you think that has on their worldview?

To get a clearer liberating view of African history, we need to go way back, almost to the beginning of time. We have started Black History Month off in pre-historic South Africa or in early African Kingdoms to show the true depth and breadth and beauty of blackness or we start off in present-day and work ourselves backward, introducing children first to healthy, relevant, modern examples of black leaders before we move through slavery then back to Africa. Either way, Black History Month must never begin or end with slavery.

Here are some facts we need to know: Mathematics: The invention of mathematics is placed firmly in African prehistory. The oldest known possibly mathematical object is the Lebombo bone, which was discovered in the Lebombo Mountains of Swaziland and dated to approximately 35,000 B.C. Many of the math concepts that are learned in school today were also developed in Africa. Over 35,000 years ago, Ancient Egyptians scripted textbooks about math that included division and multiplication of fractions and geometric formulas to calculate the area and volume of shapes.

Medicine: Many treatments used today in modern medicine were first employed in Africa centuries ago.  The earliest known surgery was performed in Egypt around 2750 B.C. Medical procedures performed in ancient Africa before they were performed in Europe include vaccination, autopsy, limb traction and broken bone setting, bullet removal, brain surgery, skin grafting, filling of dental cavities, installation of false teeth, what is now known as Caesarean sections and anaesthesia.

Architecture and Engineering: The African empire of Egypt developed a vast array of diverse structures and great architectural monuments along the Nile, among the largest and most famous of which are the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Great Sphinx of Giza. By the 12th century, there were hundreds of great cities in Zimbabwe and Mozambique made of massive stone complexes and huge castle-like compounds. In the 13th century, the empire of Mali boasted impressive cities, including Timbuktu, with grand palaces, mosques and universities unlike anything in Europe at that time.

*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. 

The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to news.iwitness@gmail.com.

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3 Comments

  1. Glad to learn JOMO, that you know a little of our African People’s glorious past and that you indeed know also that European civilisation, is but a recent thing, compared to Africa’s. I am therefore somewhat surprised that you saw it fitting to align yourself with the despotically autocratic “family dictatorship” that have been oppressing Vincentians of African heritage for near on twenty years.

    Moreover, a despotic family dictatorship that sought by it and its friends to espouse views of intellectual supremacy over the peoples of African descent! And what nonsensical utter twaddle such is!

    The politics of Colour, Race, and dominance and of African descended individuals’ developmental outcome here has, and for a very long time now, is truly unacceptable, and I am greatly disturbed, to observe, how it still plays out to such a large degree, in the minds and habits of so many Vincentian here, even to this day.

    What inertia indeed such overt oppression has brought upon some here, causing them to have behaviours more akin to that of children. Behaviours fostered and encouraged in some quarters.

    Indeed, for near on twenty years now, we have had a “one family autocratic dictatorship” in SVG, and during that near on twenty years, the descendants of the African slaves, have been driven to the brink. Largely locked out of commercial life and beholden to a usurper of power.

    Moreover, If we know something for certain now, it is this, that the much heralded Gonsalvesian economics, does not work, can never work, will never work and have brought us into yet another form of slavery. This slavery we have sure brought upon ourselves too since our numbers here are greater. Yet mental slavery have dominated all forms of actions on our part and even the very discourse we have.

    This much heralded Gonsalvesian economics does not work, because of its inherent contradiction. As we have seen, sooner or later, such governmental policies always runs out of money, thus causing an increase in swinging taxes, the creation of none-Jobs to hide the inherent contradictions while decimating the private sector. Only foreign Grant Aid could prolongs the failed system, and thus prevents its eventual collapse.

    In addition, the Gonsalvesian autocratic dictatorship has been all but slavery in another name for us. It has destroyed all majority Vincentian aspiration and have handed control of what little resource there was here in the country, into the hands of others, leaving many young Vincentians jobless and scrunting.

    Recently I have overheard it said, that in the latest Budget estimates, that a sum of EC$2mil, in Grant Funds is to be made available for young Business persons here, but what on earth will such a paltry sum do in such a wasteland as the SVG commercial life?

    The need is more like EC$200 mil, that is, just so as to even begin to put right the damage done so far here over these past twenty years with Gonsalves’s poor economic planning. And we all know what part nepotism and cronyism will thus play in this despotic family run administration. Funds not passing hands because of merit but because of connections to the regime.

    Bob Marley once sung of conflict between groups while the idea and continuance of Race supremacy existed, however that need not be so, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vPZydAotVOY

    And is it not rather ironic however, that the independence there asked for and achieved in both Zimbabwe and Angola, have both turned out to be so badly abused, in Africa. And what of us here in SVG?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCd5jn9As8g

    Moreover, it does appear that looting and plundering are the hallmarks of autocratic regimes!

    https://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/afp/article-7926117/Isabel-dos-Santoss-Portugal-funds-embezzled-Angola-prosecutor.html

    First with the Robert Mugabe autocratic dictatorship and alleged treasury plundering and likewise the Angolan President and his family’s nation looting!

    https://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/afp/article-7927501/Isabel-dos-Santos-graft-scandal-ups-stakes-Angola.html

    Nevertheless, knowledge of the middle passage for us, the descendants of those slaves who were abused in the past, is sure important for us. It is important so as to remind us of our past and for us to vow and pledge to fight for it never to happen again. Edmund Burke is quoted to have said “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

    And philosopher George Santayana “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Therefore, JOMO while agreeing with you that “Black history should never begin with slavery” it sure focuses the mind on our need for a true liberation narrative. It serves to remind us how we got here so defeated, exploited by the few and in a miserable state.

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  2. You so rite Jomo,until the lion writes the story the hunter will always be glorified.Apart from that we simply do not read sufficiently.This breeds this critical and dissenting views on issues.

    Reply

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