Missionaries and colonizers did Africa more harm than good. Today, despite all the growing evidences to the contrary, the denial of Africa’s contributions to world civilization continues to persist at the highest social and academic levels, writes Alem Asres.
Countee Cullen is one of the leading African American poets. He is an author, scholar and a leading figure during the Harlem Renaissance. Cullen wrote this above poem asking “What is Africa to me”?
What is Africa to me?
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black,
Women from whose loins I sprang,
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed,
From the scenes his father loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
Today, more than half-century later, I am compelled to ask, what is Africa to our world in general and to the people of African origin worldwide in particular? What is Africa to the children of African immigrants born and schooled in the Eurocentric educational system? As people of African origin everywhere, what is our view of Africa today? Have all students of European, Asian and African origin been taught the African contribution to the study of mathematics, arts, music, physics and medical sciences or have they been left to think that Africans remained dormant occupying space throughout human history?
To answer these and other nagging questions, and to ask our contemporary historians, poets and educators to collect and disseminate accurate and transformative information designed to empower all learners world-wide, we need to dig deep into the past and connect the findings from ancient and contemporary documents with the new discoveries taking place in Africa today. This article was published on the December 14th, 2008 issue of the Green Bay Press-Gazette under the title, Africa: The Hidden Source of Western Civilization. In re-submitting the same article with minor revision, I hope to enhance readers’ desire to engage in research and discoveries designed to closing our knowledge gap about Africa and the African contributions to our universe. I hope also that the readers will understand the purpose of this article and start collecting and sharing information about the continent and its peoples with friends and family.
Africa is the world’s second-largest and second most-populous continent, after Asia. Africa is diverse in topography, cultures, religion, and languages and has a fast growing population of more than one billion people. “The history of Africa was already old when Europe was born”. Africa is not a ‘new continent like America or Australia’. It is older than Europe, South and North America. Yet, Africa, with all its rich cultures and ancient civilizations, remain hidden from most of our children and us. Why the African contribution to world civilization, in all areas of human endeavor, is not taught in most of the western institutions of higher education, and why people of African origin have been and continue to be treated in some western country as sub-humans, should drive fair and just-minded people to examine the reasons closely and discuss those reasons openly and freely.
Upon objective examination, we are discovering that Africa has created great empires, and produced great kings, pharaohs, queens, educators, scientists, philosophers, poets, religious leaders and warriors. In addition, Africa has built advanced civilization prior to European missionaries, slave merchants and colonialists set their foot on the continent. A quick glance at recent history shows that the continent has produced leaders like Ramses of Egypt, Tewodros and Menelik of Ethiopia, Mahdi of Sudan, Sundiata Keita of Mail, Askia of Songhai, and the unforgettable Chaka Zulu—whom one European writer described as a “warrior king with the heart of a tiger, the military skill of Caesar and Napoleon; the organizing skill of Alexander the Great; the determination of Bismarck and the destructive force of Attila”. The pyramids in Egypt, 109-feet-tall obelisks carved out of single solid rocks erected during the Axumite Empire in Ethiopia, the ruins of numerous castles and cities found throughout Africa, all testify to the presence of advanced civilization before the rise of the Greco-Roman civilization and the coming of Europeans to the continent. Today, with the unearthing of the oldest hominids, Africa is regarded by the scientific community as the cradle of humankind. Therefore, in my opinion, Africa can declare proudly, “I am the mother of all civilizations,” and Africans can standup with their heads held high, and say: “We are proud members of the human race.”
Greek and Roman historians never denied the existence of advanced civilization in Africa or the source of their own civilization. It is the slave merchants and racists of our time who continue to deny the contributions made by Africans to the rest of the world. As matter of fact, ancient Greek and Roman scholars and classical writers spoke about African civilization, and admitted that there was active exchange of scholarly works between them and Africans, especially Egyptians. We are told that Plato, who is credited with laying the philosophical foundation of western civilization, studied under an Egyptian priest. History also tells us that following his conquest of Egypt, Alexander the Great handed over the Egyptian library to Aristotle. Aristotle translated the Egyptian Mystery System and used it as the foundation in developing various social and scientific theories as well as political philosophies for which he has been credited by the West.
As for the source of Greco-Roman civilization, Sir Arthur John Evans, famous British archaeologist, tells us that “all civilization came to Greece from Egypt,” and the Greek historian Herodotus declared, “This civilization was Negroid,” meaning African. A famous French traveler and writer, Count Volney, was quoted to have said, “To think that a race of black men who are today our slaves and the object of our contempt are the same one to whom we owe our arts, sciences and even the very use of speech”. JA Rogers wrote: “The African people, who became slaves in United States, have been many things in history—good and bad. They have ruled great nations and they have destroyed great nations. They are profoundly human and have played every role in the human drama, from saint to buffoon. Slavery does not represent the sum total of their history”. Disregarding all records, David Hume, Friedrich Hegel and Thomas Jefferson, with contempt for Africa and African people, set the wheels for the systematic denial of African contribution to the world civilization and for the degradation of African people in motion. They left the gates wide open for white supremacist theoreticians. According to George G. James, had it not been for these men “the African Continent would have had a different reputation, and would have enjoyed a status of respect among the nations of the world. This unfortunate position of the African Continent and its peoples appears to be the result of misrepresentation upon which the structure of race prejudice has been built, i.e. the historical world opinion that the African Continent is backward, that its people are backward, and that their civilization is also backward”.
David Hume, Scottish philosopher and advocate of colonialism saw Africans “to be naturally inferior to the whites…there never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white…no ingenious manufacturers amongst them, no arts, and no sciences.” For Friedrich Hegel even Egypt is a “geographical anomalies culturally part of the greater narrative of western civilization. Africa doesn’t have a history of its own, and certainly doesn’t play a part in the history of the World”. To Thomas Jefferson, second largest slave owner in America, “blacks are inherently inferior to whites both in body and mind, and thus incapable creating civilization”. Roger tells us even as slaves, “Africans were major contributors to the making of the New World, and they did not come culturally empty-handed. Many of the Africans brought to the New World such skills as ironworking, leatherworking, and carpentry.”
Today, we are discovering that the sons and daughters of former slaves have and continue to contribute from dustpan to satellite dish and from laborsaving to life saving devices to America and the rest of the world. However, by accepting, repeating and practicing what white supremacist theoreticians such as Hume, Hegel and Jefferson advanced public and private institutions of higher education have been trying to make the world believe that Africans have not contributed anything to our world even to this day. Moreover, on assumption-based race theories, the Supreme Court of the United States, instituted not only the “Separate but Equal” doctrine, but treated African-Americans and by extension people of African-origin as “three fifth” of a person until the Brown decision of 1954.
The three men named above, who have never set their foot on the continent, were responsible for the removal of Africans from the human family and for the promotion white supremacy in the United States. They helped to advance and perpetuate systematic denial of pre-colonial African civilization and the degradation of Africans and thus giving rise for colonization of the continent and for the continuation of slave trades. With the colonization of North America by the British, demand for slave labor and the dehumanization of people of African origin began to be intensified. Colonizers and slave masters enjoyed oppressing, exploiting, dehumanizing and disempowering their victims.
Maya Angelou, a celebrated African-American poet, articulated eloquently what Africa meant to her and thus to all of us this way: “Africa to me…is more than a glamorous fact. It is a historical truth. No man can know where he is going unless he knows exactly where he has been and exactly how he arrived at his present place”. Knowledge of the past is essential to navigating the present and to paving the road for the future. Imagine how difficult it would be to plan for your future without the knowledge of your past. Imagine also what it would mean to the children of African origin who are born, raised and schooled in the West and told that their ancestors were an uncivilized bunch of savages without culture and civilization.
The continued denial of the African role in the development of Western Civilization by most of our educators and institutions of higher education compelled George GM James to declare: “The so-called Greek Philosophy is stolen Egyptian philosophy” and “all the praise and honors given to the Greeks and Romans by western writers belong to the people of North Africa, and therefore to the African Continent.” The purpose of this article is not to insist that our scholars and our institutions of higher education replace the Greco-Roman heritage with the African heritage or replace Eurocentric-based knowledge with an Afrocentric one, but to call for just and equitable education – education designed to reconstruct a new transformative and bias-free history of our universe. I am asking all historians and textbook writers as well as institutions of higher education worldwide, to stop denying and/or marginalizing African contribution to western civilization.
It is very clear that there has been a deliberate and systematic destruction of African cultures and the records that speak of African civilization. This destruction started with the first invaders of Africa and every invader thereafter. Missionaries and colonizers did Africa more harm than good. Today, despite all the growing evidences to the contrary, the denial of Africa’s contributions to world civilization continues to persist at the highest social and academic levels. Most western scholars are still bent on negating Africa’s contribution to the study of science, mathematics, medicine, arts, laws and religion.
If we expect our children and grandchildren to embrace and respect both African and western civilizations equally, we must call for the reconstruction of new world history designed to empowering everyone worldwide. If we want to prepare our youth for global citizenship, we need to re-examine with an open mind and recognize that Africans have and continue to play key role in the social, economic and political life our world. We need to empower all children with self-knowledge and help them reject race theory advanced by Hume, Hegel and Jefferson. To that end, we must reject the continued dehumanization of Africans by peaceful means at our disposal. I call upon all Africans worldwide, to claim and own their good, bad and ugly past as they move toward building a brighter and more promising feature for their children and grandchildren.
Ed.’s Note: Alem Asres (PhD), (former Alemayehu Wondemagegnehu) earned his Doctor of Philosophy in Social Foundations of Education with emphasis on Comparative and Multicultural Education from the University of Maryland, College Park. He received his MA degree in Urban Sociology and Urban Planning from Howard University, Washington DC, and his BA in Political Science with emphasis in International Relations, from the University of Maryland, College Park. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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