Ideas about Africans’ supposed lack of history and culture were used to justify the enslavement of millions in the New World, writes Henry Louis Gates
Writing in 1965, distinguished British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper argued against the idea that black people in Africa had their own history: “There is only the history of the Europeans in Africa,” he declared. “The rest is largely darkness.” History, he continued, “is essentially a form of movement, and purposive movement too,” which in his view Africans lacked.
Trevor-Roper was echoing an idea that goes back at least to the early 19th century. But it wasn’t always this way. When the young Prince Cosimo de Medici (1590-1621) was being tutored to become the Duke of Tuscany – about the time that Shakespeare was writing Hamlet – he was asked to memorise a “summary of world leaders” that included Álvaro II, the King of Kongo, along with the Mutapa Empire and the mythical “Prester John” of Ethiopia. Soon, however, even that level of knowledge about African history would be rare.
Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that ideas about Africans and their supposed lack of history and culture were used to justify the enslavement of millions of Africans throughout the New World, especially during the 19th century when sugar production was reaching a zenith in Cuba and cotton was making growers and manufacturers rich.
What is surprising is that these ideas persisted well into the 20th century, among white and black Americans alike.
When I was growing up in the 1950s, Africa was the shadow that both framed and stalked the existence of every African-American. For some of us, such as Paul Cuffee and Marcus Garvey, it was a place to venerate, to escape the horrors of slavery. For so many others of us, however, it was a place to run away from.
After all, scholars such as the sociologist E Franklin Frazier insisted that the horrors of bondage and the trans-Atlantic crossing had severed any meaningful cultural or religious links between black folks on either side of the ocean, when in fact enslaved Africans brought with them their religious beliefs, music and ways of seeing the world.
When I was a child, one of few insults between black people more devastating than the “* -word” was to be called “a black African”. Far too many of us had been brainwashed into believing that the darkness of the skin of the stereotypical African on stage and screen reflected the darkness of the cultural and intellectual soul of an entire continent of people, the continent of our ancestors.
Almost all African-Americans descend from black people who managed, somehow, to survive the Middle Passage and the soul-crushing ordeal of slavery. My oldest ancestor in the Gates line is a woman named Jane Gates, born in 1819.
She was a shadow, too. I first saw her portrait in 1960, when I was 10. Unlike her mixed-race descendants, she looked “African”, we thought, so that’s how we referred to her: Jane Gates, the African.
I used to wonder where she had come from, and who her people were. Later I would learn that Jane couldn’t have been born in Africa, since the slave trade to America ended in 1808. But her grandparents could have been, and probably left the continent from the Gambia River or just north of Congo. Only DNA can tell me more. Her tightly wound hair and those high cheekbones were all of Africa that had been left behind for her great-great-grandchildren to ponder.
Where were your people born, Jane Gates, the African?
It was hard enough in the 1950s to wrap one’s head around the slave experience, outside of shaping signifiers such as Gone With the Wind and Disney’s Song of the South. But Africa and its Africans?
Who could imagine more about Africa than “Tarzan”? Except for the relatively few African-Americans who saw through such racist fictions of Africa, drawn upon to devalue their humanity and justify their relegation to second-class citizenship – people such as Garvey, Henry Highland Garnet, Martin R Delany, WEB Du Bois, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou – far too many of us felt that “Africa” was something of an embarrassment. Richard Wright, the great novelist, published a book titled Black Power in 1954 about feeling that way.
That began to change for me sometime around 1960, the year that 17 European colonies became independent African countries, following Sudan in 1956 and Ghana in 1957. I was in the fifth grade by the time these countries were born, with arresting names such as Togo, Madagascar and Somalia. Our geography teacher hung a map of the world listing recent events in front of the blackboard every Monday. Africa was all over it.
That’s how my love affair with Africa began. I memorised the names of the new countries and the names of their leaders, and exotic-sounding city names: Dar es Salaam and Mogadishu, Dakar and Kinshasa. Then we read an incredible story, perhaps from Reader’s Digest, about a boy who walked across the equator. I wanted to cross the equator, too.
So many students of my generation at Yale were introduced to African art and culture through a wildly popular course taught by eminent art historian Robert Farris Thompson. Studying these things in the womb of the black cultural nationalism of the late ’60s and early ’70s made the appeal of Africa irresistible. So, when opportunity knocked, I answered the door.
The door that opened Africa to me was an imaginative gap-year programme at Yale. It sent 12 students to work (not study) in a developing country between sophomore and junior years. I ended up working in an Anglican mission hospital in Kilimatinde, a village in the middle of Tanzania. I arrived in August 1970. Several months later, I would hitch-hike across the equator with a recent Harvard graduate, Lawrence Biddle Weeks, ending up in Kinshasa before flying to Lagos, then on to Accra, to visit Du Bois’s grave.
Two years later, I would find myself in the Cambridge University classroom of the great Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, slowly falling in love with the idea that I might become a professor of African studies.
African history is replete with riveting stories that refute centuries of stereotypes about black people and show our shared humanity: our common ancestor, Mitochondrial Eve, 200000 years ago; the out-migration of our anatomically modern Homo sapien great-grandparents 50000 to 80000 years ago; the still-magical Nile River kingdom of Egypt and its rival Kush around 3000BC; and Emperor Menelik II’s heroic stand on the plains of Adwa on March 1, 1896, when, blessed by a replica of the ark of the covenant, he soundly defeated an Italian army.
African history is an encounter with “kings and queens and bishops, too”, as the song says, including a black queen of Meroe who defeated the Romans in 24BC, then confiscated and buried a statue of Augustus Caesar before her throne so her subjects could gleefully walk on his head. The third nation in the world to convert to Christianity was Ethiopia, in 350AD.
How many of us know that the Sahara was a trading highway or that the ruler of Great Zimbabwe, in the late Middle Ages, dined off porcelain plates made in China?
Africa, contrary to myths of isolation and stagnation, has been embedded in the world and the world embedded in Africa.
There was nothing empty or blank about it except the wilful forgetting by the Western world, after the onset of the slave trade, of Africa’s long and fascinating history.
Though not very likely, I like to think that Jane Gates’s grandmother would have passed down even one of these many riveting stories, and eventually it would have been passed down to me.
Our challenge today is to ensure that more and more stories like these become a central part of the school curriculum, as well as the stuff of documentaries and the mythologies of Hollywood, so that they will never be lost again.
* Gates jr hosts the PBS series Africa’s Great Civilizations and is director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.