By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” Feb. 3, 2023)
“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 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 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, the earliest abstract art was discovered in the Blombos caves of South Africa. In Africa, traces of migration routes, art and civilisation take us 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 came into being.
Thousands of years before slavery in the ‘new world’, African kingdoms like the Axum Empire ruled. Other rich civilisations 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 wealthiest 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 deserves 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, and psychological mistake to introduce the history of black people with them as subjugated, enslaved people. Yes, it’s 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 will likely 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 essential piece in the entire history of the African Diaspora, but starting 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 enslaved people 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 proper depth and breadth, and beauty of blackness, or we start in present day and work ourselves backwards, 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 possible mathematical object is the Lebombo bone, 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 in calculating 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, hundreds of great cities in Zimbabwe and Mozambique were 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.
Mining of minerals: The oldest known mine on archaeological record is the “Lion Cave” in Swaziland, which radiocarbon dating shows to be about 43,000 years old. The gold mines of Nubia were among the most extensive in the world.
Apart from the foregoing, whether we are talking about metallurgy, navigation, astronomy, or art, African people were the pioneering trailer blazers on whose shoulders everyone else stands. As I have repeatedly said to our people, if we ever learn about our true history, we will fly.
This piece, with minor changes, was first published June 16, 2018.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former senator 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 [email protected].