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BLACK CONSCIOUSNESS AND THE
QUEST FOR TRUE HUMANITY
by Steve Biko
It is perhaps fitting to start off by examining the real reasons which make it necessary for us to think collectively about
a problem we never created. In doing so, I do not wish to appear to be unnecessarily concerning myself with the White
people in this country, but I sincerely believe that in order to get to the right answer, we must ask the right questions; we
have to find out what went wrong where and when; we have to find out whether our position is a deliberate creation by God
or an artificial fabrication of the truth by power-hungry people whose motive is authority, security, wealth and comfort. In
other words the “Black Consciousness” approach would be irrelevant in a colourless and non-exploitative egalitarian society.
It is relevant here because we believe that the anomalous situation we f i n d ourselves in is deliberately man-made for the
reasons mentioned.
There is no doubt that the colour question in South African
politics was originally introduced for economic motives.
The leaders of the White community had t o create some
kind of barrier between Blacks and Whites such that the
Whites could enjoy privilege at the expense of Blacks and
still feel free t o give a moral explanation for the obvious
exploitation that pricked even the hardest of White
consciences. However, tradition has it that whenever a
group of people has tasted the lovely fruits of wealth,
security and prestige they begin t o f i n d it more comfortable
t o believe in the obvious lie and t o accept it as in fact quite
normal that they alone are entitled t o privilege. In order to
believe this seriously, they need t o convince themselves of
all the arguments that support the lie. It is, therefore, not
surprising that in South Africa, after generations of
exploitation. White people on the whole have come t o
believe in the inferiority of the Black man, so much so
that while originally the race problem was an offshoot
of the economic greed exhibited by White people, it has
now become a serious problem on its own. White people
now despise Black people, not because they need t o
reinforce their attitude and therefore justify their position
of privilege but simply because they actually believe that
Black is inferior and bad. This is the basis upon which
Whites are working in this country. This is what shows
South Africa to be a racist society.
INSTITUTIONALISED
The racism we meet is not only on an individual basis; it is
also institutionalised to make it look like the South African
way of life. Although of late there is a feeble attempt to
gloss over the overt racist elements in the system, it is still
true that the system derives its nourishment from the
existence of anti-Black attitudes in the society. T o make
the lie live even longer, Blacks have t o be denied any
chance of accidentally proving their equality to the White
man.
It is for this reason that there is job reservation, lack of
training in skilled w o r k , and a tight orbit around professional possibilities for Blacks. Stupidly enough, the system
turns back t o say that Blacks are inferior because they have
no economists, no engineers, etc. even in spite of the fact
that they make it impossible for Blacks t o acquire these
skills.
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T o give some kind of authenticity to their lie and to show
the righteousness of their claim, Whites have further worked
out detailed schemes t o ‘solve’ the racial situation in this
country. Thus, a pseudo-parliament has been created for
‘Coloureds’ and several ‘independent Bantu states’ are in
the process of being set up. So independent and ‘ l u c k y ‘
are they that they do not have t o spend a cent on their
defence because they have nothing to fear from White
South Africa who will always come t o their assistance
in times of need. One can of course see the arrogance of
Whites and their contempt for Blacks even in their wellconsidered modern schemes for subjugation.
SWART G E V A A R
The overall success of the White power structure has been
managing to bind the Whites together in defence of the
status quo. By skilfully playing on that imaginary bogey —
“swart gevaar” — they have managed t o convince even the
die-hard liberals that there is something t o fear in the event
of the Black man assuming his rightful place at the helm of
the South African ship. Thus after years of silence we are
able t o hear the familiar voice of Dr. Alan Paton shouting
from as far away as London — “perhaps apartheid is w o r t h
a t r y ” . ‘ A t whose expense, Dr. Paton? ‘, asks an intelligent
Black journalist. Hence Whites in general reinforce each
other even though they allow some moderate disagreements
on the subjugation schemes.
DO NOT QUESTION
There is no doubt that they do not question the validity
of White values. They see nothing anomalous in the fact
that they alone are arguing about the future of 17 million
Blacks — in a land which is the natural backyard of the
Black people. A l l proposals for change emanating f r o m
the Black world are viewed w i t h great indignation. Even
the so-called Opposition has the cheek to tell the Coloured
people that they are asking for t o o much. A journalist
from a ” l i b e r a l ” newspaper like the “Sunday Times”
describes a Black student — w h o is only speaking the t r u t h
as a militant, impatient young man.
It is not enough for Whites t o be on the offensive. So
immersed are they in prejudice that they do not believe
that Blacks can formulate their thoughts w i t h o u t White
guidance and trusteeship. Thus, even those Whites who see
a lot wrong w i t h the system make it their business t o
control the response of the Blacks t o the provocation.
No one is suggesting that it is not the business of Whites
of liberal opinion t o oppose what is wrong. However, to
us it appears as too much of a coincidence that liberals —
few as they are — should not only be determining the
modus operandi of those Blacks w h o oppose the system
but also leading it, in spite of their involvement in the
system.
T o us it looks as if, in fact, their role spells out the totality
of the White power structure – the fact that though Whites
are our problem it is still other Whites w h o want t o tell
us how t o deal w i t h that problem. They do so by creating
all sorts of red herrings across our path. They tell us that
the situation is a class struggle rather than a race one. Let
them go t o van Tonder in the Free State and tell him this.
We believe we know what the problem is and w i l l stick by
our findings.
FALSE C O A L I T I O N
I want t o go a little bit deep in this discussion because I
feel it is about time we killed this false political coalition
between Blacks and Whites as long as it is set up on a
wrong analysis of our situation. I want to kill it for another
reason also — that it forms at present the greatest
stumbling block t o our unity. It dangles before freedomhungry Blacks promises of a great future for which no one
seems t o be particularly working in these groups.
The basic problem in South Africa has been analysed by
liberalWhites t o be apartheid. They argue that in order
t o oppose it we have t o f o r m non-racial groups. Between
these t w o extremes, they claim, there lies the land of
milk and honey for which we are working. The thesis,
the antithesis and the synthesis have been mentioned
by some great philosophers as the cardinal points around
which any social revolution revolves. For the liberals,
the thesis is apartheid, the antithesis is non-racialism and
the synthesis very feebly defined.
They want t o tell the Blacks that the integration they see
is the solution to the ideal society. Black Consciousness
defines the situation differently. The thesis is in fact a
strong White racism and therefore, ipso facto, the antithesis t o this must be a strong solidarity amongst the
Blacks on whom this racism seeks t o prey. Out of these
t w o situations we can therefore hope t o reach some kind
of balance — a true humanity where power politics will
have no place. This analysis spells out the difference
between the old and new approaches more than any more
words can show. The failure of the liberals is in fact
that their antithesis is already a watered-down version of
the t r u t h whose close proximity t o the thesis w i l l nullify
the purported balance.
This is the failure of the SPROCAS commissions t o make
any real headway, for they are already looking for an
‘alternative’ that shall be acceptable t o the White man.
Everybody in the commissions knows what is right but
all are looking for the most decent way of dodging the
responsibility of saying what is right.
DELIBERATE ACT
It is much more important for us Blacks to see this
difference than it is for Whites. We must learn to accept
that no group, however benevolent, can ever hand power
to the vanquished on a plate. We must accept that ‘the
limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those
whom they oppress’. As long as we go to Whitey begging
cap in hand for our own emancipation, we are giving him
further sanction to continue with his racist and oppressive
system. We must realise that our situation is not a mistake
on the part of Whites but a deliberate act and that no
amount of moral lectures will persuade the White man to
“correct” the situation. The system concedes nothing
without demand for it, formulates its very method of
operation on the basis that the ignorant will learn to know,
the child will grow into an adult and therefore demands
will begin to be made. It gears itself to resist demands in
whatever way it sees fit. When you refuse to make these
demands and choose to come to a round table to beg for
your deliverance, you are in fact calling for the contempt
of those who have power over you.
This is why we must reject the beggar tactics that are
being forced down our throat by those who wish t o
appease our cruel masters. This is where the SASO
message and cry becomes very relevant — B L A C K MAN,
YOU A R E ON YOUR OWN! ”
Shaka
The concept of integration, whose virtues are often
extolled in White liberal circles, is full of unquestioned
assumptions that embrace Whites’ values. It is a concept
long defined by Whites and never examined by Blacks.
It is based on the assumption that all is well w i t h the
system save for some degree of mismanagement at the top
by irrational conservatives. Even the people who argue for
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integration often forget t o veil it in its supposedly beautiful
cloth. They tell each other that, were it not for job
reservation, there w o u l d be a beautiful market t o exploit.
PEOPLE
They forget that they are talking about people. They see
Blacks as extensions of brooms and additional leverages to
some complicated industrial machine. This is White man’s
integration – an integration based on exploitative values in
a society in which the Whites have already cut out their
position somewhere at the top of the pyramid. It is an
integration in which Black will compete w i t h Black, using
each other as stepping stones up a steep ladder leading
them t o white values. It is an integration in which the
Black man will have t o prove himself in terms of these
values before meriting acceptance and ultimate assimilation.
It is an integration in which the poor will grow poorer
and the rich richer in a country where the poor has always
been Black. No one wants t o be reminded that it is the
indigenous people w h o are poor and exploited in the land
of their birth. These are concepts which the Black
consciousness approach wishes to eradicate from the Black
man’s mind before our society is driven to chaos by
irresponsible people from Coca-cola and hamburger
cultural backgrounds.
What is Black Consciousness? In essence this is an
attitude of mind and a way of life. St is the most positive
call to emanate from the Black world for a long time.
Its unadulterated quintessence is the realisation by the
Black man of the need t o rally together w i t h his brothers
around the cause of their oppression — the blackness of
their skin — and to operate as a group in order to rid
themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual
servitude. It is based on a self-examination which has
ultimately led them to believe that by seeking to run
away f r o m themselves and to emulate the White man
they are insulting the intelSigence of whoever created
them Black.
GROUP PRIDE
The philosophy of Black consciousness, therefore expresses
group pride and the determination by Blacks to rise and
attain the envisaged self. Freedom is the ability to define
one’s self, possibilities and limitations held back, not by the
power of other people over y o u , but by your relationship
to God and to natural surroundings. On his own therefore
the Black man wishes to explore his surroundings and to
test his possibilities, in other words to make real his freedom
by whatever means he deems fit. A t the heart of this kind
of thinking is the realisation by Blacks that the most
potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of
the oppressed.
If one is free at heart, no human-made chains can bind one
to servitude; but if one’s mind is so effectively manipulated
and controlled by the oppressor as to make the oppressed
believe that he is a liability to the White man, then there
will be nothing the oppressed can do to scare his powerful
masters.
Hence thinking along lines of Black consciousness makes
the Black man see himself as a being, entire in himself. It
makes him less dependant and more free to express his
manhood. A t the end of it all, he cannot tolerate attempts
by anybody t o dwarf the significance of his manhood.
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In order that Black consciousness can be used to advantage
as a philosophy to apply t o people in a position like ours,
a number of points have t o be observed. As people existing
in a continuous struggle for t r u t h , we have to examine and
question old concepts, values and systems. Having found
the right answers we shall then work for consciousness
amongst all people to make it possible for us to proceed towards these answers. In the process towards the answers we
have to evolve our own schemes, forms and strategies to
suit the need and situation, all the time keeping in mind our
fundamental beliefs and values.
BATTERED
In all aspects of Black-White relationship both in the past
and at present we see a constant tendency by Whites to
depict an inferior status t o what is Black. Our culture,
our history and in fact all aspects of the Black man’s life
have been battered nearly out of shape in the great
collision between the indigenous values and the Anglo-Boer
culture.
The first people to come and relate to Blacks in a human
way in this country were the missionaries. These people
were brought to the vanguard of the colonisation movement
to “civilise and educate” the savages and to introduce t o
them the Christian message. The religion they brought
was a highly suspicious religion quite foreign to the Black
indigenous people. African religion, in its essence, was
not radically different from Christianity. We believed in
one God. We had our own community of saints through
whom we related t o our God. We did not find it compatible
w i t h our way of life to worship God in isolation from the
various aspects of our lives. Hence worship was not a
specialised function that found expression once a week
in a secluded building.
Instead, it featured in our wars, in our beer-drinking, in our
customs in general. Whenever Africans drank, they would
first relate to God by giving a portion of their beer away
in a token of thanks. When anything went wrong at home
they would offer sacrifices t o appease God and t o atone
for their sins. There was no hell in our religion. We believed
in the inherent goodness of man — hence we took it for
granted that all people on death joined the community of
saints and therefore merited our respect.
“V-^
ON ARIES
It was the missionaries who confused the people w i t h
their new religion. They scared our people w i t h stories of
hell. They painted their God as a demanding God who
wanted worship ” o r else . . . .” People had to discard their
clothes and their customs in order to be accepted in this
new religion. Knowing how religious the African people
were, the missionaries stepped up their terrorist campaign
on the emotions of the people w i t h their detailed accounts
of eternal burning, the gnashing of teeth and grinding of
bone. By some strange and twisted logic, they argued that
theirs was a scientific religion and ours a superstition – al!
this in spite of the biological discrepancy which is at the
base of their religion.
This cold and cruel religion was strange to the indigenous
people and caused frequent strife between ( the converted
and the “pagans”, for the former, having imbibed the false
values f r o m White society, were taught to ridicule and
despise those who defended the truism of their indigenous
religion. With the ultimate acceptance of the Western
religion down went our cultural values!
While not wishing to question the basic t r u t h at the heart
of the Christian message, I wish t o state that there is a
very strong case for a re-examination of Christianity.
Christianity has proved to be a very adaptable religion
which does not seek t o supplement existing orders but —
like any universal t r u t h – to find application w i t h i n a
particular situation. More than anybody else the
missionaries knew that not all they did was essential to
the spread of the message.
But the basic intention went much further than merely
spreading the word. Their arrogance and their monopoly
on t r u t h , beauty and moral judgment taught them to
despise native customs and traditions and to seek to infuse
into these societies their own new values. This then sets
out the case for Black theology. While not wishing t o
discuss Black Theology at length, let it suffice to say it
seeks t o relate God and Christ once more t o the Black
man and t o his daily problems.
It wants to describe Christ as a fighting God and not a
passive God who allows a lie to exist unchallenged. It
grapples w i t h existential problems and does not claim to
be a theology of absolutes. It seeks t o bring back God
t o the Black man and t o the truth and reality of his
situation. This is an important aspect of Black consciousness,
for quite a large proportion of Black people in this country
are Christians still swimming in the mire of confusion —
the aftermath of the missionary approach. It is the duty
therefore of all Black priests and ministers of religion to
take upon themselves the task of saving Christianity, by
adopting the Black Theology approach and thereby
uniting once more the Black man t o his God.
EDUCATION
Then too a long look should be taken at the educational
system given t o Blacks. The same tension situation was
found as early ago as the arrival of the missionaries.
Children were taught, under the pretext of hygiene, good
manners, etiquette and other such vague concepts, t o
despise their mode of upbringing at home and t o question
values and customs prevalent in their society. The result
was the expected one — children and parents saw life
differently and the former lost respect for the latter.
Mow in the African society it is a cardinal sin for a child
to lose respect for his parent. Yet how can one prevent
the loss of respect between child and parent when the
child is taught by his know-all White tutors to disregard
his family teachings? How can one resist losing respect
for his tradition when in school his whole cultural
background is summed up in one word — barbarism?
Thus we can immediately see the logic of bringing in the
missionaries to the forefront of the colonisation process.
Whenever one succeeds in making a group of people
accept a foreign concept in which he is an expert, he
creates out of them perpetual students whose progress
in that particular field can only be evaluated by him
and on w h o m the student shall constantly rely for
guidance and promotion. In being forced t o accept
the Anglo-Boer culture, the Blacks have allowed themselves
to be at the mercy of the White man and to have him as
their eternal supervisor. Only he can tell us how good
our performance is and instinctively all of us are at pains
t o please this powerful, know-all master. This is what
Black Consciousness seeks to eradicate.
Hintsa
DISTORTS THE PAST
As one Black writer says, colonialism is never satisfied
w i t h having the native in its grip but, by some strange
logic, it turns t o his past and disfigures and distorts it.
Hence, the history of the Black man in this country is the
most disappointing history t o read about. It is merely
presented as a long lamentation of repeated defeats.
The Xhosas were thieves who went to war for stolen
property. The Boers never provoked the Xhosas but
merely went on “punitive expeditions” to teach the
thieves a lesson.
Heroes like Makana w h o were essentially revolutionaries
are painted as superstitious trouble-makers who told the
people lies about bullets turning into water. Great
nation builders like Shaka are cruel tyrants w h o
frequently attacked smaller tribes for no reason except
for some sadistic purposes. Not only is there no
objectivity in the history taught us but frequently there
is an appalling misrepresentation of facts that is sickening
even t o the uninformed student.
Thus a lot of attention has to be paid t o our history if
we as Blacks want t o aid each other in our coming into
consciousness. We have t o rewrite our history and
produce in it the heroes that formed the core of our
resistance to the White invaders. More has to be revealed
and stress has t o be laid on the successful nation-building
attempts by people like Shaka, Moshoeshoe, Hintsa. These
are areas calling for intense research work to provide some
desperately-needed missing link. It w o u l d be too naive of
us t o expect our conquerers t o write unbiased histories
about us anyway. We have t o destroy the m y t h that our
history starts in 1652.
Our culture must be defined in concrete terms. We must
relate the past t o the present and demonstrate a historical
evolution of the modern Black man. There is a tendency
for people to think of our culture as a static culture that
was arrested in 1652 and has never developed since. The
” r e t u r n t o the bush” concept seems t o suggest that we have
nothing t o boast about except loins, sex and drink. We
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are aware that when colonisation sets in, it devours the
indigenous culture and leaves behind it a bastardised
culture that may thrive at the pace and rate allowed it
by the dominant culture. But nevertheless we also have
to realise that the basic tenets of our culture have
succeeded t o a great extent in withstanding the process of
bastardisation and that even at this moment we can still
demonstrate that we enjoy Man for himself. Ours is a
true Man-centred society whose sacred tradition is that
of sharing.
back into community development programmes. We should
examine more closely such lines as the ” b u y Black”
campaign once suggested in Johannesburg and to establish
our own banks for the benefit of the community.
Organisational development amongst Blacks has only been
low because we allowed it. Now that we are aware we are
on our o w n , it is more than a duty for us to fulfill these
needs.
INVOLVEMENT
H U M A N RELATIONSHIPS
We must reject, as we have been doing, the individualistic
cold approach to life that is the corner stone of the AngloBoer culture. We must seek to restore to the Black man
in general the great stress we used to lay on human
relationships, the high regard for people, their property
and for life in general; to dwarf the triumph of technology
over man and to reduce the materialistic element that is
slowly creeping into our society.
These are essential features of our Black culture to which
we must cling. The term Black culture above all implies the
freedom by us to innovate w i t h o u t recourse to White values.
This innovation is part of the natural development of any
culture. A culture is essentially the society’s composite
answer to the varied problems of life. We are experiencing
new problems by the day and whatever we do adds to the
richness of our cultural heritage as long as it has Man as its
centre. The adoption of Black Theatre and drama is one
such important innovation which we need to encourage
and to develop. Our love for music and rhythm must be
made to assume some relevance even in this present day.
COLONISED
Being part of an exploitative society in which very often
we are direct objects of exploitation, we need to evolve
strategy to our economic situation. We are aware of the
fact that the Blacks are still colonised even w i t h i n the
borders of South Africa. Their cheap labour has helped
to make South Africa what it is today. Our money from
the townships takes a one-way street t o White shops and
White banks and all we do in our lives is to pay to the
White man.
Capitalist exploitation tendencies coupled with the overt
arrogance of White racism have conspired against us. Thus
now in South Africa it is very expensive to be poor. It is
the poor people who stay furthest from town and therefore
have to spend more money on transport to come and
work for White people; it is the poor people who use
uneconomic and inconvenient fuel like paraffin and coal
because of refusal of the White man to instal electricity
in Black areas; it is the poor people who are governed by
many ill-defined restrictive laws and therefore have to
spend money on fines for “technical” offences; it is the
poor people who have no hospitals and are therefore
exposed to the exorbitant charges from private doctors;
it is the poor people who use untarred roads and therefore
experience the greatest wear and tear on commodities like
shoes; it is the poor people who have to pay for their
children’s books while Whites get them free. Of course it is
the Black people who are poor.
Needless to say therefore we need t o take another look
at how best to use our economic power, little as it seems.
We must seriously examine the possibilities of establishing
business co-operatives whose interests shall be ploughed
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The last step in Black Consciousness is to broaden the
base of our operation. One of the basic tenets of Black
Consciousness is totality of involvement. By this we mean
that all Blacks must sit as one big unit and no fragmentation
and distraction f r o m the main stream of events must be
allowed. Hence we must resist the attempts by the
protagonists of “separate development” to fragment our
approach. We are oppressed not as individuals, not as Zulus,
Xhosas, Vendas or Indians. We are oppressed because we
are Black. We must use that very concept t o unite ourselves
and to respond as a cohesive group. We must cling to each
other w i t h a tenacity that must shock the perpetrators of
evil.
Our preparedness to take upon ourselves the cudgels of the
struggle will see us through. Ne must completely remove
from our vocabulary the concept of fear. T r u t h must
triumph ultimately over evil. The White man has always
nourished his greed on this basic fear that manifests
itself in the Black community. Special branch agents will
not turn the lie into truth and one must ignore them. In
a real bid for change we have to take off our coats, be
prepared to lose our comfort and security, our jobs, and
our positions of prestige, our families; for just as it is
true that “leadership and security are basically
incompatible”, it may well be true that a struggle w i t h o u t
casualties is not w o r t h its salt. We must ultimately accept
that prophetic cry by Black students “Black man, you
are on your own! ”
‘,,.*
Some will charge that we are racist but let us not take
heed, for these people are using exactly the values we
reject. We do not have the power to subjugate anyone.
We are merely responding to provocation in the most
realistic way. Racism not only implies exclusion of one
race by another — it always presupposes that the exclusion
is for the purposes of subjugation. Blacks have had enough
experience as objects of racism not to wish to reverse the
tables. While it may be relevant now to talk about Black in
relation to White, we must not make this our preoccupation
for it can be a negative exercise. As we proceed more
towards the achievement of our goals let us talk more
about ourselves and our struggle and less about Whites.
We have set out on a quest for true humanity and
somewhere in the distant horizon we can see the glittering
prize. Let us march forth w i t h courage and determination,
drawing strength from our common plight and our
brotherhood. In time we shall be in a position to bestow
upon South Africa the greatest gift possible — a more
human face.
(This article is reprinted
from the SASO
Newsletter)
Africa and World History – A Problematic Relationship
*Hyperlinks, unless noted as optional, will take you directly to unit material available via the
web
The first Africa problem in world history is that world history can and has been written without
Africa. That story goes something like this: Historical progress left Africa behind, and therefore,
it matters only as a place that needs to catch up or as a place that receives pity and help. Africa
has thus not shaped the world; at best, it can be shaped by others. But it will never drive
change in other parts of the world because it cannot do so within Africa (the narrative goes).
Kenyan scholars Nanjola Nyabola summarizes this as “Africa for beginners.” She points out that
being a beginning – and thus coming with all those qualities of beginning: no experience, no
knowledge – is good enough for making claims about what Africa supposedly is. As Nanjola puts
it, Africa is best understood through what it is not by people who know little about its places,
peoples, cultures, economies, etc.
The second problematic in world history is that many in the West/Global North are taught
expect that Africa won’t/can’t catch up. Indeed, students in this part of the world are generally
told Africa is stuck because it’s always been stuck. In this framework, inasmuch as professional
historians study Africa, it is a study of deviations and pathologies – of things that could have
been but will never likely be.
Nanjola describes this as a “negative” approach to Africa. This is not negative versus positive,
but rather a situation in which individuals from other places approach African places looking
not for what they are but for what the traveler thinks is missing based upon expectations from
their homes. This, Nanjola concludes, keeps engagements with Africa and Africans as complex
from occurring. What supposedly isn’t there becomes the start and the end.
This first unit is about these problems. It introduces you to the idea of “Africa” in world history
(we could also say, “world” history because it tends to be Western navel-gazing), and it will
seek to change what this word means. Africa, of course, is a continent that is often called, a
country, as a TED Talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Ndichie points out. It’s
geographically huge (seriously, just Google: Africa True Size). And it is a place associated with a
certain set of meanings about race, culture, economic development, and political dysfunction.
According to Adichie, it’s a place where “single stories” are enough: where one African dictator
means all African politics are corrupt; where one example of political violence means all African
life is defined by conflict and death. It’s certainly not what the Kenyan band, Sauti Sol, considers
it: a place “to live and die.”
If you grew up in a similar context to me in the United States, this should all sound familiar. As
the Kenyan essayist Binyavanga Wainaina illustrates in his punchy essay, “How to Write About
Africa,” these meanings are so widely known and accepted by Westerners who write about
Africa that they have become ridiculously formulaic. Wainaina’s list is not that long, and yet he
captures most of the stereotypes about “Africa” in two-and-half pages.
Consider this feat: Here is a place that is about 5 times the size of the United States with nearly
1 billion people, and an essayist can sum up 200 years of Western writing about the continent
in about 500 words. Which is to say: the proverbial bar is set low in Western writing about
Africa.
Why? And where did this particular idea of Africa as a homogeneous, primitive, backward place
come from?
It may surprise some of you to read that these ideas of African backwardness are relatively
new. When a Catalan cartographer drew a world atlas in 1375, he included Mansa Musa,
emperor of the Trans-Saharan kingdom, Mali. Musa is easy to pick out. He’s being carried, and
he is holding a golden nugget above his head. The image is a representation of Musa’s
pilgrammage to Mecca in which his caravan carried so much gold that its stopover in Cairo led
to the devaluation of currency in southern Europe.
In contrast to much of what Westerners learn about Africa and Africans in past centuries, here
is a 14th century leader who is known widely due to his kingdom’s economic power. This is not
the image of Africa’s ancient past that we expect. The same disconnect between expectations
and reality occurred when colonial explorers saw stone architecture at Great Zimbabwe. They
concluded that Africans were not able to create permanent structures, and therefore, stone
architecture must come from outside of the continent. We’ll see examples of these on screen in
the next two units (look for them in the documentaries, “Empires of Gold” and “Cities”).
The famed Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, provides a good description of this process in his
essay, “Africa’s Tarnished Name.” His argument is that Africa’s name had to be tarnished by
something. For Achebe, this occurs between the end of the slave trade at the beginning of the
1800s and the acceleration of European exploration of Africa during the rest of the century. He
picks on Joseph Conrad, whose novel, The Heart of Darkness, helped popularize the idea that
Africans were sub-human “savages.” Achebe’s critique of Conrad is really interesting: it’s not
only that Conrad wrote terrible African history, but that he wildly misrepresented European
history by describing the Congo as an unknown place. Simply not true, Achebe charges. The
Kingdom of Kongo, the Vatican, and Portugal had a relationship for centuries. (This is not
mandatory, but you can see an example of these communications here.)
You may be thinking: Who cares? What are the stakes of authoritative history telling? In this
case, telling false histories about both Africa and Europe helped justify colonial rule and the
ideologies of white supremacy that defended them for at least a century. As I said in unit one,
though it went mostly unnoticed, Dylann Roof wore a flag a Rhodesian flag on his jacket in a
Facebook profile. South Africa and Rhodesia were linked through shared apartheid policies and
through false histories that said Africans and people of color had nothing to offer in the past
and now. (Optional news story.)
But Achebe wants you to recognize something else as well. He ends with a strange story about
a documentary in which an African immigrant is giving birth in a British hospital and is being
assisted by white nurses and doctors. Why, Achebe wants us to ask, do we accept as natural
that white doctors should help Africans? Why can’t it be the other way around?
Achebe has already given you his answer in the essay’s title. He’s not only concerned that
expectations of African as set apart or not quite fully human have not gone away in our world,
but also that they are reproduced unconsciously even among those who are not intending to be
racist. In other words, it’s one thing to say we’ve moved on from the past and quite another to
tell stories and think of the present and the future in a ways that make a clean break from
colonial pasts and the expectations that colonial ideologies create. Such unconscious racism, he
concludes, can only be defeated if we tell new stories about the past, moving beyond what
Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.”
What do we do with this invented Africa? In this course, we learn how to identify its elements
and critique its moves. At this point in the course, I want you to see how representations of
Africa’s deep past are simply wrong; the evidence tells a different story (and one that absolutely
explodes the white supremacist histories that drove colonization). This will be important for our
units on colonialism.
For now, we’ll challenge these representation by dipping our toes into Africa’s deep past (as we
do in the next unit). To warm up for that, we have readings that show the complexity and
advancements of Africa’s deep past.
World Histories
World histories are metanarratives, or narratives that attempt to explain the most important
events in world history. This unit assess two ways of excluding Africa from the mainstream of
human history.
First, Africa doesn’t count in most world histories because many world historians don’t expect
them to count.
The practice of writing world histories began between the late-1800s and early-1900s, a time at
which Europeans justified rule over Africa (and certainly, a time at which segregation was
defended in our own country). At this point, world history was self-serving project that
attempted to explain why some societies rose and others did not. For example, the West rose
because of scientific and technological advances, while almost nothing is said about the role of
slaves from Africa in Western economic growth. Conversely, Africa’s discovery of iron was
considered a “borrow” from another civilization because of prevailing ideas of what Africans
could do were so low.
The second problem in world history is what I call, “Africa used to be good but fell behind”
narrative. A good example is Diamond’s, “How Africa Became Black,” a chapter from his bestselling book, Guns, Germs, and Steel.
The main point of Diamond’s work is that societies endowed with natural resources and good
climates advance while the rest do not. This, he claims, is what kept Africa from the types of
industrialization that created economic and political power in the West. If and when they
escape from the limitations of a harsh climate, there is nothing biologically inferior, he asserts
(rightly, of course, but for the wrong reason) that keeps Africans from joining the rest of the
world. Diamond’s story is shot through with myriad problems we do not have time to cover in
this unit. Indeed, many of his themes pertain to our units on slavery and colonialism.
Let me focus on one of his biggest errors from a historian’s perspective: for a society to be
included in world historical narratives it must achieve certain forms of economic, technological,
and political power. Africa, for Diamond, “became black” because it did not achieve what
Europe or the United States did between the late-1700s and the near present.
It’s difficult to overstate how big of a historical sin this is. Assuming that our present society
represent the apex of world historical civilizational is pompous given how many society altering
events are unforeseen. But even worse is that Diamond makes little to no effort to understand
these societies on their own terms. Put differently, the past is useless unless it leads to a
particular industrial present or future. This means that the only things from Africa’s deep past
that matter are those that make Western industrial change plausible. The rest gets bracketed
out.
Easy Solutions to this Problem …
Geez, Dr. Grace, sounds like you hate world histories … and Diamond? Ummm … when done
well, I love world history. Diamond is a trained biologist, and I’m sure he’s great at that. I’d be a
lousy biology author, I’m sure.
If Diamond and other metanarratives are part of Adichie’s “single story,” then what?
Easy, we look at sources written by Africans and by those who have approached the continent’s
societies with nuance and empathy. And so that’s what we do in this unit through a variety of
primary and secondary sources.
The satirical piece by the late Kenyan essayist, Binyavanga Wainaina, straddles that line
between primary and secondary source. As we use it here, it is primary source: it provides us a
way to see how an African intellectual took on the way others write about Africa. Keep in mind:
it’s totally satirical. This is a list of all of the failures of writers who have defined Africa as an
abject place since the mid-1800s. Here, the solution is simple: don’t fall into this pattern. Feel
free to combine it with another primary source, the music video by Sauti Sol, in a primary
source analysis.
Both speak to the ways that Africans do and have taken ownership of their own lives. They are
evidence that that is where others should always begin an analysis.
In this unit, they provide evidence brick-by-brick that stereotypes about Africa as weak,
homogenous, or backward have no standing.
I wonder: what is the biggest surprise about early Africa from this unit?
Unit 5: African Slavery and African Identities in the Atlantic World
This unit on slavery is usually the most difficult for students in this class. That’s the case not
because the material is difficult, but because a very particular history of slavery – including what
it is and is not – has perhaps been the most misrepresented aspect of U.S. history. Slavery marks
the beginning of a national narrative of sin: Descendants of Africa were not only denied rights
for the first century of our national history, but then had to continually fight for equality through
much of the twentieth-century. As descendants of Africa, slaves counted as 3/5 of a full human
not because they were considered almost human, but so that states with huge slave populations
gained more representation in Washington D.C.
There is no question that is a huge part of our past and that its afterlives touch our current
political debates. Some high school textbooks in use today describe slavery as “migration,” not
as forced migration that ends with forced labor, dehumanization, and possible death. Consider
this: it is only this summer (I originally wrote this in 2019) that plaques on Columbia’s USC
campus will officially recognize the university’s role in slavery. Interestingly, the plaques talk
about the “contribution” of the enslaved to our university, not of the university’s complicity in
enslavement.
More than any other topic, histories of slavery requiring a back-and-forth that we’ll carry out
through discussions and through my blog and GroupMe, if needed.
Approach this as a process: it’s okay to be confused, angry … whatever. It’s also ok if you need
to step back. Just let me know. Conversely, if you want more material. Please let me know.
To provide a tad bit of structure, let me give a couple takeaways:

The story of the Atlantic Slave Trade must start with the recognition of African
power. Lindsay drives this point home. This is also Howard French’s point in Born in
Blackness – and thus the reason we start there.

The free/enslaved dichotomy is not all that helpful for understanding African slavery
in a historical context, as Konadu points out

There were forms of social mobility within African slavery, though it was definitely a
state of vulnerability, as we see in Bakari’s “Of Slavery”

The idea that the enslaved/enslaver or patron/client relationship is based upon
reciprocity never goes away. The enslaved never gave in to the idea that they
deserved nothing; many enslavers in Africa did not want to risk rebellion. That’s the
reason you do not see me talk about slaves and masters. Instead I use the terms,
enslaved and enslaver to drive both of these points home.

Africans did not enslave their brothers and sisters or “their own.” If you put this in
your papers or final projects, expect to lose lots of points. Saying so requires we
adopt an idea of Africa as monolithic and that we ignore the particular identities we
have worked against to this point in the course.

African identities were not lost in the middle passage, but rather provided tools for
rebuilding relationships and dignity. More than any other element of this unit, this
basic fact provides important evidence for writing against the white supremacist ideas
about blackness that came out of the slave trade.

Over about 350 years, at least 12.5 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic.
Scholars estimate about the same died en route to the Atlantic for a total of 25 million
affected. The intra-African slave trade across the Sahara and into the Indian Ocean is
estimated around 10-12 million.

As Rebecca Hall shows in Wake, such numbers come to use through a system that
thoroughly commodified humans. The main reason I assign Hall is because Wake so
brilliantly takes the archival records those numbers come from and turns them into a
different story.

The opposite of enslavement – whether freedom or security – is not monopolized by
Europe or white settlers in European colonies. This is the reason we read the short
section from Rudolph Ware. It shows that ideas of abolition were already in West
Africa – a place heavily impacted by the slave trade – at least at the time such ideas
started to circulate in Europe, if not much earlier.
Dichotomies and Historical Definitions
In an American context, it is perfectly acceptable to approach slavery as the opposite of freedom.
Indeed, architects of the American legal system put laws in place to ensure that was the case.
However, this divide between slavery and freedom does not work for much of African history.
Instead of the binary, enslaved/free, it is perhaps better to think about the difference between
autonomy and dependence.
What is autonomy? As we use it today, it’s a really misleading term. It suggests we can have full
citizenship and social protection on our own or at least away from a lot of institutional
apparatuses. But as many of you know, full citizens in our country can call themselves that
because of institutions that, in time of trouble, will back them up through legal codes produced
by institutions and enshrined in national documents. In other words, the idea of the free,
autonomous subject rests upon various institutions and things that allow this to happen. (And in
much of our national history, keep full citizenship away from minorities, whether women, people
of color, or migrants.) Which is to say: autonomy (or freedom if you like) requires attachments.
Which brings us to dependence: This has become a politically sensitive term recently—used
most often to vilify people who need assistance—but as it is used historically, it simply means
that people tend to create relational webs in case bad stuff happens, including: famine, war,
economic downturn, political instability, etc. Such relationships are especially important for
lower classes for whom instability may occur more often. In this sense, dependence is a means of
social security and planning that anticipates unknown events.
We’ve gone through those terms because dependence is key to understanding African histories
of slavery on their own terms. For most of Africa’s history, slavery was present, but it was a
different form of subservience than the chattel (or ownership system in which the enslaved were
property) form found in the Americas by the 17th and 18th centuries. Don’t misread this: slavery
was most often a low status born of insecurity or crisis, but – and this is a big but – the enslaved
could also be socially mobile, and in some cases, they had status.
How and why? Let’s start at the bottom. If a famine occurs, a homestead can migrate to a nearby
society and pledge their labor in return for food and political security (remember the opening
paragraph of “Of Slavery” from our previous section). They obviously don’t do this freely, but
the ability to become the dependent of a patron was nevertheless an important option during
times of insecurity. It could be the difference between life and death. Now, this homestead has a
lower status and works for the community they’ve pledged themselves to, but not all the time.
They may have to give a certain amount of their harvest – or work on elites’ farms during
planting and harvest – but they’d also likely have opportunities to sell their own produce and
keep much of their earnings. In many cases, they could also intermarry without the type of
stigma found in the Atlantic world.
Now let’s assume a famine has hit a group that has iron working knowledge and that is known
for their skills as warriors. Because they have desirable skills, this group may be able to attain a
degree of status and power within their receiving society. Why, you ask, does the receiving
society want them?
Because land was plentiful in most African societies, the ability to produce came down to what
scholars call, “wealth in people.” If you have a lot of hands that can labor and minds that can
thing – and hands that can make iron – then your society becomes more secure regardless of the
origins of this skill and labor. This doesn’t mean rulers would accept anyone, but there was a
general incentive to create relationships of reciprocity and to collect wealth in people and thus in
knowledge.
Again, slavery is still most often denigrated status, but not one that is completely denigrated as in
chattel slavery in the U.S. To put this combination of mobility and dependence in perspective,
think back to “Of Slavery” from our last unit:

An enslaved individual on the Swahili coast will, in most cases, die as an enslaved
individual. But seven generations later her or his offspring could become free

Or a case that probably struck you as strange: A sorcerer from another community is
accused of murder. That sorcerer is given a choice of death or enslavement. This
sorcerer might choose enslavement not just to escape death, but also because
sorcerers possess expert knowledge that a community may need in the future. The
aggrieved community thinks the same way: maybe we’ll need this individual in the
future.

You probably read suria as a form of enslavement intimately tied to the loss of one’s
bodily autonomy. In most cases, that is true, but with important caveats: 1. She has
standing and status in the household. When she travels in a caravan, other enslaved
individuals hold umbrellas to shade her from the sun; 2. Her children are not only
free, but likely elite (being that they’re born into an enslaving family).

Enslaved individuals who go on caravans, albeit with permission of those who
enslaved them (who receive a portion of their earnings), get to keep much of their
earnings.

Finally, Islam linked manumission to piety for enslavers who were also Muslim.
To reiterate, this doesn’t make slavery any more desirable. But the details do matter here. How,
you ask: Well, if you’re a first generation enslaved individual in a Swahili town, you may remain
enslaved. But six generations later, your family will be freeborn. We have to be careful to not
romanticize a suria’s agency, but having freeborn children families of status is important. And
converting to Islam, though no guarantee of manumission, was a way to make claims upon your
humanity and dignity.
The Transformation of Slavery
The above form of slavery was common throughout Africa until the end of the 1600s. At that
point, increased demand for slavery, particularly on the West and West-Central Coasts of Africa,
extended enslaving frontiers to new places. I need to say two things here:
1. This increased demand came from colonies in the new world and stemmed from at least three
sources:
A. The death (some label, genocide) of indigenous communities who performed manual
labor;
B. The belief that African bodies were uniquely suited to laboring in tropical climates (as
well as the notion that European bodies were not). Slavery was even justified spiritually
by claiming that conversion to Christianity at least saved the souls of Africans even if it
destroyed their bodies (we’ll take scientific racism on directly in the next unit);
C. The recognition, as “The Language You Cry In” shows, that Africans had skill that
could be transferred to the world.
2. Increased enslavement did not lead African communities to sell their brothers and sisters, as
Konadu, Lindsay, and others show. To suggest that Africans enslaved their own, as some want to
insist, is to turn Africa into all-encompassing category that ignores all of the complexities we’ve
worked through in our first three units.
So what happened? Most commonly, those sold are what scholars sometimes call, “surplus
people.” “Surplus people” are those that most social classes never see, think about rarely, or
simply do not value. Our own society has surplus people who live on the streets, who live in
penitentiaries, who are immigrants, etc. If and when hardship comes to these groups, it’s rarely,
if ever, front page news. (To be clear, I don’t consider any of these groups “surplus,” but am
rather creating a historical analogy.) So when equivalent groups could bring forms of material
wealth to a community, selling them to European traders was not all that controversial at first. In
fact, some political leaders found it to be a useful way to deal with politically dissidents. It was
win-win for them: you get rid of trouble and get access to goods.
The Atlantic slave trade also gave rulers a convenient tool for dealing with challenges to their
rule. Far from selling their own, they could bring resources into a community while dealing with
individuals/groups whom they thought could undercut their own legitimacy/rule. In other words,
the slave trade provided a tool for rulers to consolidate their power. As you may guess, this only
worked temporarily.
As demand grew in the New World, so did shipments. Here’s how numbers break down by
century (Keep in mind there is a link to watch this on a website):
1450 – 1600
409,000 enslaved
1601 – 1700
1,348,000 enslaved
1701 – 1800
6,090,000 enslaved
1801 – 1900
3,466,000 enslaved
When you watch the interactive map on the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, pay close
attention to the 1700s. This is when a process called the “transformation of slavery” occurred.
The transformation has at least six elements to consider. I’ve bolded the bullets I really want you
to get:

The redefinition of slavery. Instead of some form of reciprocity and
opportunities for social mobility, most enslaved individuals on central and West
African coasts were treated as chattel – or commodities. In other words, it’s
similar to American plantation slavery.

In addition to export markets, secondary domestic slave markets were needed to
supplement exporting efforts. Put differently, to grow food and provide transport for
the Atlantic slave trade, a regional slave economy was needed as well.

Scholars call this a “slave mode of production.” It means that most things a society
needs cannot or do not get produced without labor from enslaved individuals. Before
the 1700s, a “slave mode of production” would have been incredibly rare in Africa
(and likely found only in European colonies in the New World). By the mid-1700s,
this mode of production had spread to many coastal African economies as well.

European demand drove this increased, but Africans produced the slaves. In part, this
occurred because Europeans had little clue where to go. More important, however, is
that control over bodies – and over definitions of who was and was not a slave – were
an integral part of political power. African polities were politically strong and would
not concede this important decision to others.

For this unit, perhaps the most important element is that vulnerability spread
geographically and by social class. In the 1600s, most enslaved individuals taken
to the America’s were not core parts of the societies in which they lived. But by
the mid-1700s, all social classes were one famine or political upheaval away from
possible enslavement. This period of heightened insecurity lasted at least 200
years. During that time, some 8 million enslaved people crossed the Atlantic.
Likely, an equivalent died before ever getting on a boat.

The experience of enslavement during this time went something like this: 1. Whether
through capture, famine, or political disagreement, a group of enslaved individuals is
marched to the coast into a structure called a “fort.” 2. This is where Europeans reside
with the blessing of local political leaders. And it is where enslaved individuals are
inspected, where they kept in cage-like barracks called barracoons, and it is where
they are sold to a European buyer or ship captain. They are branded for identification
and for insurance purposes. 3. They then spend several weeks below deck in chains as
they cross the Atlantic. If an enslaved person gets sick, s/he is thrown overboard in
order to protect the rest of the shipment (as you may notice, they are very much
considered cargo, not human). Though incredibly vulnerable themselves, shipments
of enslaved individuals are insured to protect investors. 4. Once at a port, they are
sold.
You can read firsthand accounts of each of these steps here:
http://recoveredhistories.org/storiesintroduction.php. It’s optional, though.
Legitimate/Illegitimate Slavery – Social Morality During the “Transformation”
This didn’t mean communities accepted slavery as a desirable norm. Far from it, many fought to
protect or distance their communities from encroaching slave frontiers. But protecting one’s
community theoretically (or philosophically) and doing so practically, were two different things.
For example, the Balanta of Guinea Bissau moved to a naturally protected area in lowland
mangrove swamps. But to continue rice production and to construct walled barriers, they needed
iron. Purchasing iron was most easily done with the enslaved. So elders sent young men far away
to capture the enslaved before selling them for iron on coastal markets. They raided far away so
that they did not destabilize nearby communities – thus bringing their own families nearer to
slavery. And they engaged in slavery in order to get items best purchased on markets that were
tied to slavery, not so that they could become rich and powerful.
The Balanta offer a good lesson for students: within the historical context of slavery, the
choice was rarely between slavery or not. It was about minimizing the impact of the trade on
one’s community or about redefining what slavery and/or dependency meant.
Doing the latter – defining the nature of slavery/bondage/dependency – came down to definitions
of legitimate vs. illegitimate slavery. This likely sounds odd to you, but go back to our first
heading about the problem between the enslaved/free dichotomy. Pre-transformation definitions
of African slavery not only rested upon some understanding of reciprocity between
enslaver/owner and slaves, but also dictated how the enslaved could and could not be captured.
In one case in what is now Nigeria, two young men were captured in a war fabricated by the
British. According to local custom, the two boys argued, they could not be considered enslaved.
They then took their case to a British court and won their freedom.
I know this distinction may seem really subtle, if not meaningless, to you. But for those in
precarious positions – or for those who knew they could become vulnerable – they were
important details. A distinction between legitimate/illegitimate capture could be the difference
between slavery and not slavery. And the existence of reciprocity between enslaver and enslaved
– instead of complete ownership and a subsequent sale – meant the enslaved had far more
opportunities to make claims on betterment from the enslavers.
And so, old frameworks about social reciprocity provided a language for aggrieved communities
to critique the status quo. In many cases, it did nothing. But its existence shows that Africans did
not take the growth of enslavement passively.
African Identities in the Atlantic
I’ll be brief here because much of this material is more accessible. Until recently, most scholars
assumed that the horrors of enslavement meant the enslaved either did not want to or could not
replicate their African identities in the New World. Part of this theory relied upon an assumption
that Africans sold “their own” into slavery, therefore those sold had no desire to replicate social,
cultural, or religious norms from their homes.
“The Language You Cry In,” Gomez’s Reversing Sail, “Musical Passages,” and “Onesiumus,”
challenge these ideas in some detail. Let me mention two points quickly.
First, the presence of particular African identities in the New World generally depended upon the
demographics of enslavement. Some shipments had “crowds” of enslaved drawn from various
origins and thus lacking some of the commonalities necessary to “remake Africa” in the
Americas. Others came in groups, whether from the same place, having the same ethnicity, or
speaking a similar language. They had a critical mass for remaking African cultures in a new
place.
Second, this returns us to a key point of our class: the notion that African things are somehow
weaker or less desirable in world history. In both cases, we see that the enslaved considered their
identities useful and relevant and used them to remake life as much as possible under slavery in
the New World.
Why does that matter? A key justification for slavery in the New World was that life in Africa
was so bad, so primitive, so hand-to-mouth that anything, even slavery, could be considered
progress. And yet, we have enslaved individuals making what later became known as the banjo;
we have expert rice planters; we have expert healers known for their ability to cure small poxes;
we have rebellions anchored in social and military organizations from Central Africa.
In other words, there’s no better way to take on that white supremacist narrative about Africa and
slavery then to dwell on what the enslaved brought with them.
Legacies
The Lisa Lindsay “Epilogue” is optional, but it provides a powerful close to this unit. Our society
is still shaped by debates about slavery, its end, and its aftermath. And so getting the details right
still matters. If you’re not convinced, check this out:
https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/13/politics/confederate-book-us-government-union-memberscongress-office/index.html.
Unit 6: The 1800s: Africa and Europe / Abolition and/as
Colonialism
FOR WESTERN AUDIENCES, UNDERSTANDING THE 1800S MAY BE THE MOST IMPORTANT THING THEY CAN DO TO
BEGIN TO UNDERSTAND A FRICAN HISTORY ON ITS OWN TERMS .
Why? Because it’s the time period when misinformation about Africa became standard, or to use
Chinua Achebe’s phrase, the period when Africa’s name became “tarnished.” Keep in mind that
the term, “Africa,” as it is used today, is largely an external construction of a place, a people, and
their worth that first emerges during slavery. During the 1800s, “Africa” takes on many of the
meanings we associate with it today: “dark,”1 helpless, vacant, and primitive. In this unit, we’ll
get to see how contemporary stereotypes invent “Africa.” In other words, we’re back at day one
– working through stereotypes about Africa – but getting to see them develop in real historical
time.
The 1800s bring together a number of historical processes that play critical roles in contemporary
history. We’ll look at three very closely: slavery, & abolition; the denial of African sovereignty;
and constructions of race, including both biological and sociocultural discourses.
Slavery and Abolition
Ships transported some 6 million slaves across the Atlantic in the 1700s, and though there were
some signs that the slave trade would slow, what is perhaps more astonishing is that during the
1800s, a period of abolition, an additional 3.5 million slaves arrived in the New World.
As Lisa Lindsay argued last unit, we should not denigrate efforts to end slavery nor associate
them exclusively with whit abolitionists (as sometimes happens in histories of Africa).The end of
slavery and the slave trade was a long shot in the 1780s and caused quite a bit of debate within
European societies about what constituted slavery and how to end it. In this intro course, we
won’t go into these distinctions very much. But just to give one example from west-central
Africa, the British defined slavery as the absence of the freedom to move from one place of work
to another, whereas the Portuguese defined it as the absence of what we might call social
services. Though both nations agreed that slavery was a problem, what it was and how to address
became an ongoing debate.
In practice, this meant that Europeans in Africa had a hard time dealing with slavery when it was
in front of them. You’ll see this in Abina and the Important Men. Indeed, this is one of the
reasons we read the book.
The Denial of African Sovereignty
The key theme in this unit is the denial of African sovereignty. Remember, slave production did
not occur with Europeans on horses and guns riding into an empty African landscape. Quite the
opposite, they relied on African political structures, some big and some small, for human cargo.
Not all societies partook in enslavement, but the larger point is that these social and political
1
I should add that this word plays dual-role. “Darkness” referred to race as well as to a perceived absence of social
progress.
structures existed in a way that the invention of “Africa” does not allow. Look at the map in the
Boahen chapter to get an idea of the extent of political complexity even after the effects of
slavery.
One of the main consequences of this misreading—by which I mean, seeing Africa as a blank
political canvas—is that colonial governments did not recognize what Africans expected of
them. Abina, for example, shows clear expectations about protection under law – remember our
previous theme about dependence – in ways that surprise an unprepared British magistrate.
According to Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani, colonial authorities saw Africans as
“subjects” to be rule over and to be imposed upon for their labor, not as “citizens” who had both
obligations and rights. As the “Africa for Africans” documents and Boahen chapters
demonstrate, the expectations that political structures create reciprocal relationships did not go
away; those expectations likely laid the foundation for the end of colonial rule from the
beginning even though it took eight decades to get there.
Constructions of Race: Biological and Socio-Cultural
Most of you are familiar with biological constructions or race, which are completely false
theories about the qualities of biological difference. These say that minute physical differences,
whether pigment of skin, face, shape, etc. can explain why some societies advance and others
don’t. Such theories are ridiculous not only because of an absence of supporting evidence, but
also because they rely upon myopic definitions of what constitutes progress and stagnation.
When scholars say that race is a social construct, they are not saying it’s not real, but rather that
belief in racial difference (as defined above) stems from social and political processes. In other
words, it’s not natural, as some claim. African history is a really great place to see this. As
Boahen points out, European traders in Africa did not think that Africans were anything other
than equal and competent humans until the late-1700s and 1800s. The idea that Africa would be
a place inhabited by biological inferiors had to be invented, and that came largely between the
late-seventeenth and early-nineteenth century.
The form of race students are less familiar with is socio-cultural, which is different than saying
race is a social construct. By the 1870s, the type of scientific racism that shapes many
contemporary and historical conversations had been completely debunked scientifically (even
though it continued to shape science, politics, economy, society, etc. See the Lost White Tribe
book recommendation above).
What is important is that the absence of biological proof did not lead to equality (or even a
reversal of pursuing arguments that presented Africans and others as lesser). Instead,
proponents of European rule over Africans shifted justifications of difference onto social
and cultural factors. Because Africans did not have a European Enlightenment, scientific and
religious cultures, and political structures, Africans were behind Europe and need the latter’s
help, such proponents said. This is one of the reasons I include the STEM unit so early; it
debunks this argument from the get-go.
This focus on social and cultural advancements allowed Europeans to place Africans outside of
human history without explicitly talking about race as biological difference. As we’ll see in
future units, this does not mean that biological ideas about race disappeared from the minds of
colonialists, but rather that cultural ideologies of progress provided cover for what amounted to
racial politics. If this sounds familiar to you, it should. It’s the same logic that justified racial
separation in both South Africa and the U.S. south.
Christianity, Ideology, and Civilization
A quick note on the way Africans saw new ideas and beliefs. As the primary sources in the
“Africa for Africans” scan show – and reminder: you need only read one of the entries – there
are any number of African reactions to external ideas, whether European Christianity, European
Science, European schooling, etc.
What’s critical to understand is that many Africans were willing to engage with new ideas but
refuted the idea that engaging with new ideas meant losing their sovereignty or accepting
colonialists’ ideas about African inferiority.
Why does that matter?
Circling back to discussions of race above (particularly as a socio-cultural phenomenon),
defenders of colonialism and enslavement have asserted that, despite all of the violence and
death of those historical phenomena, the delivery of modernity to those who did not have it
somehow justifies the indefensible (enslavement and colonialism). Showing Africans’ own
cultures of modernity and cosmopolitanism, as well as the way they picked through, picked
apart, and selectively appropriated things from elsewhere, helps debunk the ideas at the heart of
“Africa’s tarnished name.”
Empire was not inevitable … Thinking with Black Panther (?)
That’s why I think this period is so important. Sometimes, historians approach this period as if
there were no off-ramps for empire/colonial rule. But in the readings, you’ll see Africans assert
their sovereignty and point out that the brand of civilization Europeans brought was, in most
cases, not civil/civilized at all.
Some who promoted empire in Africa argue(d) that it failed because Africa was a uniquely
difficult place to colonize: it had resistant, “primitive,” people and difficult environments to
subdue, they claim. This not only echoes justifications for the slave trade—that Africa was so
bad, anything was better than an Africa left to Africans—but also ignores critiques of the project
from the beginning by individuals who identified its contradictions and evils.
We see this argument in two arguments by historians from West Africa (one from Ghana and the
other from Nigeria). Adu Boahen’s article argues that Africans were surprised by colonialism
because they never had a sense of inferiority. In this sense, they saw European colonialism as a
betrayal. Moses Ochonu builds on this idea by asking us to think about African strength during
this period instead of defeatism. He argues that the movie, “Black Panther,” visualizes something
that we often don’t assume, but which reflects historical sources: African strength and dogged
resistance against imperialism.

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