It’s Black History Month in the US (Britain’s being in October) – a time set aside for furthering the understanding of African and diaspora history among the black population and, hopefully among non-blacks too. The history of the African diaspora being such a bizarre and brutal one, Black History Month was created to create strength and stability in a rootless, subjugated population. It’s a time to learn about the heroes of the diaspora, those whose actions created hope in people whose position was apparently hopeless. From Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of Haiti’s successful slave rebellion against the French, through the Jamaican Marcus Garvey who fostered the idea of a black return to Africa, to the civil rights heroes Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and beyond, diaspora history is the story of people overcoming enormous odds.
The era running roughly from the 1950s to the 1970s was a time of global black advancement, with African and black Caribbean states throwing off colonial rule while black Americans took huge steps forward. This movement created its own stories, which were used to raise black pride as a necessary part of putting right gross injustices. These Afrocentric ideas included much mythology, and many mistaken views of history, but played an essential political role nonetheless.
Prior to the rise of Afrocentric thinking, sub-Saharan African history had almost entirely been been written by non-blacks. With the exception of Ethiopia, literacy is a relatively new import to the region, first arriving in northern parts with the Arab Empire around a thousand years ago, and becoming more widespread as Europeans arrived in the past 500 years. The first written documentary of black Africa was done largely by white people viewing very strange and different cultures, and could never have been an accurate or balanced portrayal of African culture.
But Afrocentrism didn’t change that; it was a wishful view of Africa written largely by people who had never set foot on the continent. Its goal wasn’t accuracy, but to provide a counter-balance to white views of Africa and black people. The American descendants of slaves, existing as a minority in one of the world’s most brutally racist societies, understandably saw the world in a racial way; American politics have always been racial, and so the history of slavery and the slave trade was therefore rewritten in the same way, to suit black American sentiment: white people kidnapped Africans from their homeland and transported them to the Americas.
The slave trade however, was triangular: manufactured goods were taken to Africa; slaves were taken to the Americas; cotton and sugar were brought back to Europe. People became rich at all three points; the English cities of Bristol and Liverpool were build on slave trade money; equally, an African elite became wealthy by selling Africans. Many of today’s wealthy Africans descend from this same elite.
It’s estimated that when Europeans first arrived in West Africa, between one-third to two-thirds of the population were slaves. Even earlier, Arabic explorers who ventured south of the Sahara documented rich individuals owning hundreds of slaves. The first European involvement in the African slave trade was by the Portuguese, who bought slaves on the Slave Coast (Nigeria/Benin) and sold them to the Asante of the Gold Coast (Ghana) in exchange for gold.
When the British outlawed the slave trade, they didn’t just hurt European traders – even more, they damaged the West African economy, which was in large part based on slave exports. With demand diminished, prices fell and slave ownership rocketed within Africa. The 10 million or so slaves that were exported across the Atlantic represented a small percentage of the total number of Africans in slavery. The Afrocentric view either ignores this majority, or creates new myths: Afrocentric thinkers will often claim that slavery in Africa was a more civilised matter than what took place in the Americas; eye-witness reports of slaves being sacrificed, their blood spread in the fields, to appease gods, suggest otherwise. Afrocentric viewpoints write the majority of slaves out of history; to suit the political needs of black America, the stories of countless millions of Africans have been ignored.
Afrocentrism attacks other people’s stories too. Afrocentric thinkers find it convenient to claim that ancient Egypt, Africa’s first great civilisation, was a black one. This ignores the inconvenient reality that today’s Egyptians (and north Africans in general) aren’t black; to which the Afrocentric response is that the original Egyptians were somehow wiped out and replaced by Arabs, Turks or Greeks. As to when this enormous genocide supposedly took place, I’ve yet to hear a straight answer. It may seem harmless to allow people to maintain this mythology; yet it is an essentially racist one, denying the right of anyone who isn’t black to be an African. The black race is just one of several racial groups indigenous to Africa; Afrocentrics would write the others out of history, and deny modern Egyptians, Libyans, Tunisians their African identity.
The myths become more ludicrous. Some even stake a claim for black ownership of Israel/Palestine… as if the Palestinians didn’t already have enough problems. Some still talk about a black Jesus. The racist cult, the Nation of Islam states that white people are the invention of an ancient black scientist.
Afrocentric moronic myths date back decades, and have been debunked many times, yet every black history month sees them resurrected. Black History Month was supposed to be about black history. Africa isn’t served by the repetition of made-up tales; neither are black children benefited by being taught stories in place of history. Black Americans still have a mountain to climb to find equality in their own country, but angry, racist groups like the NoI or the New Black Panthers seem to serve little useful role any more. But things are changing: an economically resurgent Africa is finding its own voice, as African universities produce graduates in ever greater numbers. The diaspora itself is increasingly dominated by African migrants – Nigerians for example are among the most successful immigrant groups, both in the US and in Britain. Africa can now speak for itself, and as America’s global cultural impact is fading, so is black America’s.
In the US, despite the election of Obama, black people are still the victims of institutionalised racism. Since the civil rights movement made all races equal in law, new methods of “legal lynching” have been invented; the corrupt War on Drugs has been used to target black people, and the black prison population has rocketed in the past 20 years. A million black people are currently in US prisons. It’s understandable that Afrocentric myths find a fertile breeding ground in the US, but they do nothing to help understand Africa or its history. Afrocentric thinking has served its purpose – it’s time to consign it to the trash can of black history.