A Swahili proverb says “A false story has seven endings.” Part of why attempts to bypass our African origins rely on the mythical is because they negate the empirical. Such tales accentuate the implausible because the plausible is so apparent.
The violent birth of European modernity, established as it was atop the dispossession of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans, would prove so devastating that even today some descendants of the latter flee from memory of this terror into the lunacy of denialism.
Recently on Twitter (that bastion of civil, intellectual discourse) a user posted that many of us had been duped into believing that we are African descendants due to the machinations of two European intellectuals, Franz Boas and Melville J. Herskovits. This statement was a part of a larger conversation about the idea that African Americans are really indigenous to the Americas. While I am loathe to engage in such non-sensical discussions, I decided to briefly weigh in with a few simple remarks.
Of course one is entitled to their cherished familial narratives, but do note that families make all sorts of dubious genealogical claims. Richard White writes about the the differences between history and memory in his book Remembering Ahanagran. I have found a number of grotesque errors in my own family “history”, errors that defy empirical verification.
Secondly, the idea that enslaved Blacks were African is not an idea that had to wait for Franz Boas (1858) or Melville J. Herskovits (1895) to be born. Many African Americans in the 18th and 19th Century knew of their African origins and took great pride in them. Martin Delany knew of his African origins. So too did Paul Cuffee and Harriet Tubman. For this generation of African Americans, the memory of Africa was fresh and undeniable. Further, they named their institutions after Africa: African Lodge, African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Free Schools, and so forth. Our 18th and 19th Century ancestors were not confused about who they were. Nor was such knowledge derived from “theories” of Western-trained academics.
In fact, narratives like these persist into the present-day and is the subject of books like Wendy Wilson-Fall’s Memories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black Atlantic which notes how the memory of Madagascar, or more specifically Malagasy ancestry has been retained by African American families. I actually know people for whom such a narrative exists. I also have Malagasy ancestry, but my confirmation came via DNA testing. Kwasi Konadu’s Akan Pioneers: African Histories, Diasporic Experiences explores the cultural legacy of the Akan in this hemisphere. The Igbo Diaspora in the Era of the Slave Trade by Douglas B. Chambers discusses the Igbo in the US and the Caribbean. This is just a short sample, there are other texts that discuss the Kongo and Yorùbá in the Americas.
Lastly, when one considers that the average African descendant in the US has been in here for nine or ten generations, and that this means having 510 or 1,022 genetic ancestors. I find that narratives of being native and not African generally rely on the story of a single ancestor, rather than the hundreds or more to which one owes one ancestry. Genealogical research is arduous and relies on empirical evidence. Not sole narratives, as even these are subject to critique and verification.
A person posed the following question: Since most of our ancestry derives from West Africa, why does African history always focus on Ancient Egypt?
My response: I don’t think that African history only focuses on Egypt (Kemet), however the focus on Egypt among African Americans goes back to the 19th Century, wherein its grand legacy was seen as a means of redeeming the false notion that Africa was devoid of history and that Africans had never created a great civilization. If we were to survey the historiography of 19th and mid-20th Century African American intellectuals, we do see a significant focus on Egypt, but there were also a fair number of intellectuals writing about other, later civilizations; consider for instance Du Bois’s groundbreaking texts The Negro and Black Folks Then and Now, as well as Carter G. Woodson’s The African Background Outlined. All of these texts offer a fairly balanced treatment of Black history.
To be sure, there are critiques to be made of a “lop-sided” focus on Egypt, particularly if such a study does not alleviate our often impoverished knowledge of the rest of Africa. Many argue that as Diasporan Africans, we should be more acquainted with the history of West and Central Africa. I agree with this, but also add that it is important to understand African history as a continuum that spans from ancient Egypt and Nubia to the present day.
The problem is that many of us know so little about who we are as a people, that we seek refuge in the desert. Those of us who understand the importance of an African worldview must show that the desert is a wasteland, not a safe haven, and lead our people to an oasis instead.
Many of us exist as signifiers of what is often a forgotten or ignored past. As Cynthia Dillard asserts, in this era forgetfulness is encouraged. Loss of historical knowledge augments the malleability of human beings, enabling those with power to forge them into whatever material they desire. Some of us have suggested that such is not to be the fate of the descendants of the enslaved and the colonized. Herein, history becomes, as Anderson Thompson says, “a heavy weapon in the battle for freedom”.
I am unafraid. I face the future certain that it will be daunting, certain that this species’ fate is imperiled, certain that my community is in the midst of a confluence of crises. I did not arrive at an awareness of these crises lately. I have lived with this consciousness for decades.
Nothing (save change) is inevitable. Entire planets are being born while others are being annihilated at this very moment. Species rise and fall. Nations come into being, some reaching their developmental apex, while others fade–becoming footnotes of history. Change is the only universal constant. Change is experienced as pleasant and unpleasant, but it is inevitable. I accept and embrace this reality.
However my acceptance of this is not the only basis of my lack of fear. I am unafraid because I know that humans make and remake society. I know that people, if sufficiently determined, if endowed with the faculty of intelligence and powers of imagination can accomplish great things. I know that this potential holds the power to create change advantageous to our survival, sufficient to alleviate crises. Thus, I remain open to the possibility that we will resolve to bend fate to our wills.
The desire to return to times when one stood on ground of greater surety, the past, is more a reflection of the unresolved tension in facing the ever unfolding future than it is a true reflection of the past’s illusory certainty.
I just watched The Birth of a Nation with a local rites-of-passage program that I help to coordinate. The film is quite riveting. I did not watch it expecting a historically accurate rendition of the life of Nat Turner. I expected it to do what I have seen similar films accomplish such as Malcolm X, Panther, Quilombo, Besouro, and so on–that is to offer a depiction of historical events based only partially on the documented history, while providing a generous degree of creative embellishments. One benefit that films like this offer are that they often provide a basis for communal dialog. In this sense this film has not disappointed.
As it relates to the plot, the film does a great job of capturing the depth to which Africans struggled to sustain their humanity within a monstrous system. The beauty, complexity, and tragedy of African life during the period was captured in ways that were deeply compelling. The dramatization of the fictionalized Nat Turner moving from being a child possibly destined for war, to learning how to read, to his growing disillusionment within the institution of enslavement, to his ultimate choice to take up arms against it was wonderfully dramatized. The depiction of this particular journey is augmented via the clear struggle of Nate Parker’s Nat Turner between finding comfort and nominal acceptance within the barbarity of chattel enslavement or becoming a voice and instrument of his people’s deliverance. The emotive dimension of armed struggle as a process of not only the exacting of vengeance, but asserting one’s collective right to self-determination was captured in ways that unfolded rather vividly.
The film employed a range of visual devices that captured the dynamic expression and retention of traditional African cultural practices in the Americas. Though the historical accuracy of these as it relates to the life of the historic Nat Turner is questionable, this portrayal is situated within the actuality of African spiritual, language, artisan, artistic, and cosmological retentions in the Americas. These depictions, particularly the ones of traditional African spirituality that intersect with the young Nat, are a reflection of the paths of the many other men and women who viewed enslavement as wholly illegitimate and intolerable, and as such resolved to confront and destroy it, whose works and deeds were often preceded by invocations of various African ancestors and divinities reflective of war and bravery.
Though their victories were incomplete, after all few victories were as complete as the Haitian revolution, they did serve to inspire subsequent generations. The names of these determined ancestors were spoken on the tongues of the living, giving resonance and relevance to their spirits among those who would follow in their footsteps. They, as Nat Turner, became more than martyrs for the cause of African redemption, they become symbols of backs unbent, minds not destroyed, and souls not broken. They became symbols of resistance. They illustrated the words of Fred Hampton, that “you can “kill a revolutionary, but you can never kill the revolution”. Their ascension to the realm of symbolic representation made them immortal. Thus their works, their deeds still stir the imagination. They remain exemplars of ancestral instruction.
This is not a perfect film. But it is one that may yet keep the thought and spirit of African liberation in our hearts and minds. The historic Nat Turner was compelled to move against the dehumanization of his people by what he witnessed, what he knew to be true, and his faith that the struggle for justice would inevitably be rewarded by victory. His struggle existed in the liminal space between that which was improbable and that which was imperative. The improbable eradication of an intolerable reality was an imperative that he did not, could not ignore. All missteps aside, The Birth of a Nation makes this unequivocally clear. It reminds us of Nat Turner’s sacrifice and symbolic significance today. The historical Nat Turner’s legacy challenges us to both ask and answer “What future, if any, do African people have outside of the mandates of the oppressive system that began in chattel slavery, continued under state-sponsored racial subordination (Jim Crow), and on to the system of mass-incarceration today?”
Central to the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson was an on-going investigation of the context of terror visited upon Black bodies (Du Bos 2007a; Woodson 1990). For these scholars the assault upon African humanity was not merely a localized dilemma isolated to a marginal epoch of American history, rather it was a central process in the creation of America’s racialized social order, and beyond this, a key component in the modern global system wherein the humanity of African people was a secondary consideration to their utility as vehicles of or impediments to the acquisition of capital (Du Bois 2007b; Woodson 1990, 2004). Both Du Bois’s and Woodson’s work compels for us to look at the context of enslavement as a foundational moment in the erection of the contemporary power of the west. This process propelled the expansion and entrenchment of a domestic colonial project, in addition to fueling subsequent processes of conquest abroad. Within the domestic milieu, the political-economy of Black subordination via the system of state-sponsored racial subordination necessitated the implementation of an epistemic regime of terror (Du Bois 1978a, 1978b). This process has maintained a dual focus consisting of the oppression of Black bodies via instruments of coercive control, and the subjugation of Black minds via processes of mis-education (Du Bois 2002, Woodson 1990).
What must be asked is not whether this campaign has abated (it has not), but rather how a liberatory form of Black education might more effectively resist this assault? Du Bois and Woodson recognized that Black people, as ever, stand at the precipice, facing on one side a familiar tyranny and on the other a new world that exists just beyond the bounds of our knowing and the fruits of our unfettered social agency. As Du Bois queried in 1960, we must ask again, whither now and why (Du Bois 1973b)? Ultimately we must ponder to what extent has realization of liberation been obscured via the highly efficacious management of Black bodies and minds in the schools of America (Du Bois 1973a; Woodson 1933)?