The woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.” (From Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Bible)
Over the years, the profound intellect and profuse efforts within the nature of many black women have often reminded me how ridiculous, costly and counterproductive it has been for societies to assume or suggest that women ought to adopt certain roles of subservience and meekness, when playing on the various chessboards of life. The idea is as silly to me as the assorted myths of the docile slave or plantation sambo mentality, in the Antebellum South.
Within this backdrop, I’m reminded of the African Warrior Queen assignments from my graduate studies classes in Ancient African History, many years ago, at Virginia State University. One instructor in particular, a young African-American woman, a doctoral student and protégé of Dr. John Hope Franklin, opened my eyes and turned new pages to the matrilineal influences of West and North African cultures- influences which focused on the female lines of ancestry. Especially interesting were the associated exploits of women warriors, buried deep within the Euro-Asia flavored history of Africa- far outside of the mental boundaries and book bindings of conventional classroom history teachings.
In my opinion, excavating the reasons behind these particular missing pages of World History is as important to understanding black culture in the United States, as unearthing the missing pages of our ancestral cousins across the Atlantic. It’s significant to the appreciation and understanding of the potent inclinations for liberty which flows through our veins, like some abstract antennae for injustice attached to our collective brains, or consciousness.
The Chessboard Queen
I often ponder the complexity of the associated whys and wherefores, when playing the ancestral game of chess- a game where the “Queen” piece is among the most powerful on the chessboard. She’s also the only woman on the 64-square, checkerboard battlefield.
Some historians suggest that the game’s “Queen” piece stems from the ancient influences of a 15th Century Spanish female ruler, Isabelle of Castile. Today, its evolution of power in the game can be seen within the strategic moves which bring about multiple “Queens” via the promotions of the lowly “Pawn.”
In some African-American versions of the game, you might even hear the “Queen” referred to using the taboo B-word. It’s a reference in honor- not disrespect- of her awesome power. House-rules in other African-American homes include allowing black pieces to move first, rather than the traditional white. Surely, some folk might suggest that this represents some twisted race-related form of psychological compensation. But, that would be their issue, not mine.
Frankly, in our home, I have viewed the game as a good exercise in conceptualizing the empowerment of women- in any society- contrary to many sad myths of subservience and submission. When I prepare to launch the moxie and prestige of the game’s black “Queen,” the great African Warrior Queens and women warriors of Africa often come to mind. It’s a gentle reminder that there are many stories yet to share with our children, now adults, and their children, as well.
Personally, as early as my high school years, I recall the term “Amazon” being used to describe an eerily beautiful, drop-dead-gorgeous sista whose confident attitude and elegant strut exuded the quiet grace of womanhood sought by many women across the multi-cultural landscape of our nation. And, at times, I felt the term could be used to express the interesting dichotomy associated with the cunning, dignity and omnipotence of the chessboard “Queen.” Similarly, it might also apply to the various dimensions of warrior women of ancient Africa and the Mediterranean Basin.
According to legend, and my studies, there was a tribe of warrior women, called “Amazons,” who cut off their right breasts in order to become better marksmen with the bow and arrow. Their militarism was similar to the fierce cavalry fighting units of ancient Iranian armies. This also corresponded to the semi-mythical women who found cities in the ancient Aegean and Anatolia regions of the Mediterranean (near Turkey). According to the Ionians (Greeks), the term “Amazon” is the derivative of an Iranian word which simply means “people fighting together.”
Eurocentric legends suggest that “Amazon” women were white. But, historic findings are clear that the earliest “Amazons” came from The Land of the Blacks, in Libya. In the ancient West African Kingdom of Dahomey (Republic of Benin), an all-woman military unit surfaced in the Fon people, during the 17th Century, lasting until the end of the 19th Century. Originally formed as elephant hunters, some were priestesses and royal bodyguards of the king.
Records show that warrior women were also found among the Hausa people, Africans who used a widely spoken language related to Arabic, Berber and Hebrew, but different from the nearby Fula language of the Fulani and Fulbe. It was the Fulbe who often raided the fierce Nupe women warriors for cattle and slaves, according to historians.
The Warrior Queens
There were several famous warrior queens (like Queen Candace of Ethiopia, 332 B.C. and Queen Nefertiti of Kemet, of Ancient Egypt’s Land of the Blacks, c. 1370 B.C. – c. 1330 B.C.). But, the one which stood out the most for me, from past research assignments, was the “Amazon Queen of Matamba West Africa” (Angola)- Queen Anna Nzinga (circa 1581 – 1663). From what I recall, I’m certain that she’d be labeled with the taboo B-word, today.
Queen Nzinga was a no-nonsense, leader who aggressively waged war against ruthless, slave-hunting Europeans. According to the Encyclopedia of World Biography, she was known for her astute diplomatic skills and tactical military vision and resisting Portuguese invasions and slave raids for 30 years. She was also a skilled negotiator who allied herself with the Dutch, pitting them against the Portuguese. She fought for a free Angola until she died at age 82. Afterwards, the Portuguese regained control. Her ferocious combat skills, fearless attitude and cunning political savvy were legendary. At the time, she was probably the most prolifically documented Warrior Queen within my research constraints.
During the report project, her courage and intelligence reminded me of someone who enjoyed the mental gymnastics of a good game of chess, instinctively knowing that the Queen is most powerful when the enemy King is most vulnerable. That’s when the “Queen” piece, in chess, combining the power moves of the “Rook” and the “Bishop” along the rank and files, as well as the diagonals, strikes like a Cobra, executing her strategic “checks,” until the enemy “King” is emasculated and/or defeated.
My research indicated that before Nzinga became Queen, she once demonstrated her keen negotiating skills in a meeting with the Portuguese governor, based in Luanda, as a representative of the Ndongo (Mbundu speaking people of SE Africa). The meeting has been famously documented within a sketch by a Dutch artist. As the story goes, a ploy unfolded to make Nzinga stand to remind her of her “inferior” status. However, Nzinga simply signaled for one of her maids to fall on her hands and knees, to provide a seat for her.
Sitting at that level, Nzinga was able to successfully negotiate, as an equal, and convinced the Portuguese to recognize Ndongo as an independent monarchy. She later allowed herself to be baptized by the Catholic Church, reasoning that it would open her country to advanced science and technology. A year after the famous Luanda meeting, she was named Governor of Luanda, for the Portuguese, holding the position for three years. She succeeded her assassinated brother (Mbandi) as Queen of the Ndongo Kingdom, in 1623.
As queen, Nzinga declared all of Angola a free country, until the Portuguese later attacked, deposing her, as she escaped to the land of Matamba. But, she formed another alliance with the Jaga (Kasanje Kingdom of ancient Angola), married their chief, conquered the Matamba people, establishing the state of Matamba, and declared herself as Queen of the Matamba. She later organized a resistance army of Portuguese-trained mercenaries and hand-selected African soldiers who infiltrated the Portuguese armies.
Reportedly, Queen Nzinga enjoyed fighting and often dressed as a man. Biographical data documents her being remembered most for never accepting Portuguese sovereignty and holding back the Portuguese invasions into the interior of Southwest Africa. By her wits, daring and boldness, she ruled until 1663 and is remembered as “the greatest military strategist ever to confront the armed forces of Portugal.” She was always willing to fight alongside her warriors as equals in battle, for peace and a free Angola. And, long after my graduate studies exploration, I still admire her moxie and foxy street-smarts, especially when playing the ancient game called “chess.”
Perhaps, just perhaps, the exploits of the African Warrior Queen(s) might be another tool which you can use to increase the understanding of the richness of the missing links to African-American or black culture- or, even the game of chess- for your children and grandchildren. At least, that’s my take within this particular Black History Month 2012.
“Backstreet Djeli” w.d.s.