[Black History Month]
Rosie Douglas with the late Walter Rodney. Photo: Verso Books website.
Excerpted from “The Groundings With My Brothers,” by Walter Rodney (1969).
Every human society has a history and a form of culture, and this includes Africa. Africans in the West have been deliberately kept ignorant of African achievements by the white men for centuries. The purpose of their policy was to build up a picture of a barbarous Africa, so that we Africans who had been removed from our homes and made into slaves would be afraid to admit even to ourselves that we were Africans. In the West Indies, names like “Bungo” and “Quashie”, which refer to Africans, are names which most black people hate, and our knowledge of Africa is got from reading Tarzan comic books.
We are the only group in the world who deny ourselves, preferring to be known as “Negroes” rather than Africans. In order to know ourselves we must learn about African history and culture. This is one of the most important steps towards creating unity among Africans at home and abroad.
Africa is the home of mankind. The human being came into existence on the African continent nearly 2 million years ago; and human society and culture reached great heights in Africa before the white man arrived. We must learn something about the following African kingdoms and empires.
On the River Nile, there was Egypt and Meroe (Sudan),. These kingdoms flourished on earth before the birth of Christ, and Egypt in particular is recognized as having contributed greatly to the modern world. It huge pyramids and sculptures are still considered as wonders, and mankind has never re-discovered some of the technical skills which the Egyptians possessed, such as the art of preserving the dead body. Europeans have long refused to accept the simple geographical fact that ancient Egypt (like modern Egypt) was an African country, and even though some of its culture came from Asia, its achievements must go to the credit of Africa.
Meroe produced a culture very similar to Egypt, and also ruled over Egypt for a long period. The Egyptians were Africans of a light complexion, while the people of Meroe were dark skinned. In ancient Ethiopia, there was the kingdom of Axum, forerunner to the Ethiopian kingdom. The written language of Axum was called Ge’ez, and it is still used within the Ethiopian church today. Axum, along with other parts of ancient Ethiopia, is famous for its architecture, especially its tall and finely carved stone pillars and its churches carved out of solid rock.
In West Africa, some of the most powerful political states in Africa began to develop some 1,500 years ago, and their period of greatness lasted for more than 1,200 years. These kingdoms bore the names of Ghana, Mali, Songhai and Kanem; and they all arose near the great Niger River. They were noted for their agricultural production, their learning and their commerce, especially in gold. These states also encouraged the religion of Islam (while Ethiopia, of course, was the centre of Christianity).
Apart from the states of Egypt, Meroe, Axum, Ghana, Mali, Songhai and Kanem, which have already been mentioned, there were many others in different parts of Africa which achieved greatness before the arrival of the white man and before we were snatched away as slaves.
On the West African coast, the states of Benin and Oyo were famous; in Central Africa we can take as examples Kongo and Monomotapa (Zimbabwe); and in East Africa two of the oldest kingdoms were those of Bunyoro and Uganda. All of these are strange names because we have never been taught anything about them. If we want to call ourselves conscious Africans, then we must know the map of Africa, we must remember the names of these great African states, and we must find out as much as possible about them. However, the majority of Africans lived in small societies, and these must also be seriously studied. Sometimes, it is felt that only in large political states can one find civilization and culture, but this is wrong, and in the great political states of Europe and America today, many human values have been destroyed; while even the smallest African village was a place for the development and the protection of the Individual.
Certain things were outstanding in the African way of life, whether in a large or small society. These distinctive things in the African way of life amount to African culture. Among the principles of African culture the following are to be noted: hospitality, respect (especially to elders), importance of the woman (especially in cases of inheritance ), humane treatment of law-breakers, spiritual reflection, common use of the land, constant employment of music (especially drums), and bright colors. Some of these principles are found in many different human societies, but very few are encouraged in the present white capitalist world. Even in Africa itself, European slave trading and colonization have destroyed many aspects of African culture. But culture is not a dead thing, nor does it always remain the same. It belongs to living people and is therefore developing. If we, the blacks in the West, accept ourselves as African, we can make a contribution to the development of African culture, helping to free it from European imperialism.
What we need is confident in ourselves, so that as blacks and Africans we can be conscious, united, independent and creative. A knowledge of African achievement in art, education, religion, politics, agriculture and the mining of metals can help us gain the necessary confidence which has been removed by slavery and colonialism.
Marcus Garvey always preached the value of African history and culture. He wrote that “for many years white propagandists have been printing tons of literature to impress scattered Ethiopia, especially that portion within their civilization, with the idea that Africa is a despised place, inhabited by savages and cannibals, where no civilized human being should go.” After dismissing that propaganda as completely false, Garvey continued: “The power and the sway we once held passed away, but now in the twentieth century we are about to see a return of it in the rebuilding of Africa; yes, a new civilization, a new culture, shall spring up from among our people.”