Who can truly explain the African roots of millions of Americans? For centuries manipulative portrayal of these roots was a tool of white supremacy. While arguing that “benevolent” slavery lifted “savages” up out of the “dark continent,” whites ignored, appropriated, and distorted truth. Being white, I write this blog both in acknowledgement of this truth and in gratitude for the work of Black writers on which I rely.
No single voice speaks for all Black people. But Malcolm X spoke for many when he decried insulting white depictions of Africa that wounded the psyche of Blacks: “We didn’t want anybody telling us anything about Africa, much less calling us Africans. In hating Africa and in hating the Africans, we ended up hating ourselves, without even realizing it. Because you can’t hate the roots of a tree and not hate the tree.” On top of self-hatred is piled 400 years of trauma embodied viscerally in bodies of people of color.
Historian Lerone Bennett writes about how anthropology helped reclaim the pride of ancestry. He points to the 1974 discovery of “Lucy,” the remains of a hominin who walked African land 3.2 million years ago. This, along with previous discoveries, led to Africa being called “the cradle of civilization.” While anthropological discoveries and debates continue, Bennett sees here an important source of black pride.
Bennett writes of the glory of the empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay, and holds up Timbuktu, a flourishing Saharan cultural center of 100,000 people – traders, scholars, trades people, and warriors. European dignitaries customarily greeted Africans nobles and representatives as equals, allies and partners. Millenniums ago, Homer and Herodotus praised Ethiopian leaders. Our current form of racist bigotry is relatively new.
Even after the slave trade began damaging Africa’s cultural prestige, the skill, muscle and wisdom of African people strengthened the western world. While it’s odd to call stolen goods “gifts,” as does Bennett, white America benefited from African agricultural techniques, folklore, rhythms, music, courage, resiliency and integrity. In the words of historian Kenneth Stampp, our nation has grown stronger due to the “subtle expressions of…spirit no less than the daring thrusts for liberty” of those most oppressed.
Today our nation must learn our African roots from those who embody them. It is the only path toward a deeper understanding of who we are. As Bennett writes, it is “impossible to understand white America…without some understanding of Africa’s gift to the New World.”
Lesson #5: Many early European attitudes toward Africa were admiring and respectful.
Lesson #6: White supremacy has distorted the truth about Africa.
Lesson #7: “Gifts” from Africa, “the cradle of civilization,” to America are numerous.
Further recommended reading about gifts from Africa and anthropological appreciation:
Africa’s Gift to America: The Afro-American in the Making and Saving of the United States, originally published in 1959 by Joel Augustus Rogers, a prolific Jamaican-American journalist and historian, who lived through some of most horrific resurgence of lynching and the Klan, highlighted the contributions of Blacks to the United States.
Afrotopia: Roots of African-American Popular History, by Wilson Jeremiah Moses, offers an academic exploration of Afrocentrism since the eighteenth-century and various popular mythologies.
Next blog: The Creation of Chattel Slavery
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About this project:
This particular year-long commitment – which I am calling “400 Years” – is aimed mainly at people like me: people who identify as white, accept that racism gives them privileges, and want to confront systemic racism more consistently and constructively. Of course anyone can support the project, but my main hope is to encourage self-identifying whites who want to increase their efforts to confront racism and deconstruct white supremacy. I don’t intend on spending time trying to convince people who resist anti-racism activism. I want to help those who want to practice anti-racism to do it more often and more effectively.
This project will focus mainly on how racism in the United States has hurt Africans and their descendants. While non-whites from Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East are often brutal victims of racism, I have been taught most by victims who happen to be black.
So when white people wanting to be more active in anti-racism ask me, “Where do I start?”, I often say, “Start with the history. People of color have already shared their wisdom in countless writings from slave narratives to peer reviewed articles to award winning historical works.” The weight of 400 years of race-based oppression fuels my commitment. Perhaps it will help you with your own efforts to deconstruct white supremacy.