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.
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