by William “Duke” Smither
“There is no Negro (Black) problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own constitution…” (Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, a.k.a., “Frederick Douglass,” Abolitionist, Diplomat & Writer, b.1818 – d.1895)
Once again, Black History Month (2015) is front-and-center. For some folk, with all of its reverence, glory and gore, chock-full of falsehoods, sprinkling of lies and distortions- masquerading as “truth”- these 28, sometimes 29, days in the year have become an annual mental excursion, like an African Safari, tippy toeing through the painful landscapes of however we define our past and shape our future.
They’ve become wanderings into an often warmed-over rehash of Eurocentric fables and myths of the inaccurate accountings of accomplishments and behavior of the world’s darker-skinned brethren from Coastal and Central Africa. Incredulously, it’s also the month which seems to bring about the goofy clamoring for a commensurate “White History Month,” aside from the 11-month point-of-view psychosis historically stoked by the fires of “white privilege,” within the astute observations of Pan-Africanists W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey.
On the flip-side, for others, more qualitative and quantitative research analysis has surfaced in recent years, morphing into higher levels of enlightenment, from the scholarly investigations and collaborative efforts of various historians, sociologists, linguists, paleoanthropologists, cultural anthropologists, archeologists and geologists. From their sifting through the sands of time, the undeniable links to Ancient Nubia and the Sudan, Egypt and Sub-Saharan Africa now weave more sensible patterns of assumptions and genetic reconstructions. It’s a premise entangled within the Origin of Man and Cradle of Civilization theories, delivered from the womb of East Africa, some 200,000-plus years ago.
These become the tangible nuggets of straight stuff buried within the reams of “missing pages” and “foot notes” to America’s classroom history books. In my opinion, they are more respectful and factual of the legacy bequeathed by our ancestors.
Chaos in Mandingoland
Such are the roots of the African-American, long before the scholarly research of Dr. Chancellor Williams (“The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race From 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D.,” Third World Press, Chicago, Ill., 1987), Dr. John Hope Franklin (“From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans,” Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, New York, NY, 1980), Drs. Philip Curtin, Steven Feierman, Leonard Thompson & Jan Vansina (“AFRICAN HISTORY: From Earliest Times to Independence, Longman Publishing, London and New York, 1995), and many others seeking the truth and charting the demise of the greatness of Africa.
These were merely a few of the scholars I’ve studied over the years, classroom and independent study, who traced significant portions of Ancient Africa’s journey from the Kingdom of the Kush, the Pyramids of Giza and Great Ethiopian Kings and Queens of Africa to the social chaos and cultural collapse of great African Kingdoms, like ancient Mali (a.k.a, “Mandingoland”) and Timbuktu, following the Portuguese invasions of Africa, as well as the marauding Arab hordes and Jaga warriors (African mercenaries). Mali remains in the news, today, regarding the efforts of African and French forces fighting to repel the incursions of al-Qaeda-linked militants, similar to the African continent’s hostile invasions, centuries earlier.
These invading hordes, armies and mercenaries launched a systematic assault and destruction of a culture on the African continent and its people- in effect, a “holocaust,” pure and simple. In the end, slavery, once the instrument of Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, Portugal, Spain and Great Britain to enslave militarily weaker enemies, now became confined to blacks and a new brand of bondage. This peculiar brand focuses on color, surfaced within the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It was launched from the bowels of Angola, the Congo and other regions of Africa, rich in sugar cane, diamonds, silver and gold, as well as the “Black Gold” (free labor) of slavery.
Yet, Mali is in the news once again, not for its glorious past, but for some of the same reasons it’s glorious past began to crumble: overpopulation, invading armies, internal political struggles and poverty. It is similar to the marked decline in other great African Kingdoms, like Songhai and Ghana, before the systematic rape and ravishing of the African continent and its gold-and-ivory rich civilizations.
For many Americans, the beginnings of Black, Negro and/or African-American History merely began with the arrival of 20 “Negroes” at Jamestown, Virginia in August, 1619, on a Dutch Man-O’-War. According to various archives, they were likely the Bantu-speaking Africans stolen in a high-seas raid from the Portuguese merchant-slave ship, the San Juan Bautista, traveling from coastal Luanda, Angola, in West Africa, to Vera Cruz on the Gulf of Mexico. Four years later, they began showing up in the U.S. Census counts as “indentured servants,” some being assigned land, before blacks could not own property, along with the whites who completed their indenture.
For others, Black History, especially the annals of the culturally and resource rich Ancient African past, predates the “African Holocaust” and Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, stemming from the greed, lust and other sins of countries like Portugal, Spain, England, France and Holland. But, this newfound twist on human bondage, based on the race and color of those enslaved, became the basis of Black slavery and Apartheid- A La “Jim Crow”– in America. This included the profound corresponding economic benefit- known as “Black Gold”– to plantation slavery, as well as the nation.
Power in Psychology
Unfortunately, beyond the whitewashed history of black people in America, and the cooked-up notion that black and brown people were never in the western hemisphere until the Middle Passage, many Americans simply stopped looking for any genetic bonds between African-Americans and Africans or Egyptians, due to the difficulty of wading through the ugly quagmire of slavery where the bloodlines of African-Americans become murky, at best.
For many years, while raising our own family, I often told our children what my parents and grandparents shared with me, that African-Americans were a spiritually strong and culturally rich people who came from royalty, kings, queens and mighty warriors long before the humiliations and denigrations within the “peculiar” Atlantic Slave Trade. Many times, those conversations were punctuated just the way my mother used to end certain life lessons with me, after my dad had died. She would simply say that, regardless of our humble circumstances and meager means, I could still be anything- “a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g,” she’d often emphasize– that I wanted to be in life, if I only set my mind on the objective.
Of course, being raised in the segregated, “Jim Crow” South, on the cusp of school desegregation, during the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Brown Decision” (Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 1954), what I saw around me didn’t always square with what she was telling me. For example, it was still “suicide” for a black woman to get arrested and placed in jail; elderly blacks still seemed to whisper and bow their heads when talking to whites; and, lopsided chain-gang justice was still around.
Genetic Strands of Strength
Yet, I always knew that the 20 so-called “Negroes,” who arrived at Jamestown, Virginia nearly 400 years ago, spoke something other than the “King’s English” or the language of the street and the black idioms we were taught, as part of our “survival skill,” while growing up in the “Jim Crow” South. It was the kind of stuff used to avoid
the wrath of racist police and jails, the silly hi-jinks of the pea-brain Klan, but to earn the respect of white classroom teachers, fellow students and athletes. It was all reinforced under the monitored guidance of the black church, during school desegregation years and the Civil Rights Movement.
It reminded me of what it must have been like for the waves of new arrivals to America’s shores- African slaves- without the benefit of speaking the “King’s English” and even without the legal status as an “immigrant,” but arriving by ships just the same, while communicating within the complex progression of dialects among themselves. Linguists recorded that some 45 distinct language groups arrived on the slave ships, during the Atlantic Slave Trade. The way I saw it, these captives had to be spiritually and physically strong to survive the horrible stench and hellish conditions of the slave ships, as well as creatively adaptive and highly intelligent enough to deal with the newfound rigors and risks of simply communicating among themselves.
According to historical slave records, the 10 most prominent language groupings were from: (1) the Akan people (Twi-Fante/ Akan languages and dialects, from Ghana), (2) the Chamba people (Leko and Leko-Nimbari languages and dialects, from Cameroon), (3) Gbe speakers (Fon, Adja, Ewe, Mina, Togo languages and dialects, from Ghana, Togo & Benin), (4) the Igbo people (Igboid, Ika, Ekpeye languages and dialects, from Nigeria), (5) the Mande people (Madinka, Manding, Ligbi, Madingo, Malinke, Soninke languages and other dialects, from Upper Guinea), (6) the Makua people (Bantu, Zulu, Swahili, Portuguese languages and dialects, from Mozambique), (7) the Mbundu people (West-Bantu, Kimbundu, Portuguese languages and dialects, from Angola), (8) the Wolof people (Wolof, Fulani, Serer, French, English, Arabic languages and dialects, from Senegal and the Gambia), (9) the Yoruba people (Edee Yoruba, Oyo, Ibadan, Yoruboid languages and dialects, from Nigeria, and (10) the BaKongo or Kongo people (Kongo, Lingala, French, Portuguese, Bantu, Kikongo languages and dialects, from Angola and the Republic of Congo)
Ancestral Wisdom & Elusive Truths
When the storm clouds of life would circle in my own life, I’ve often imagined how my ancestors survived the angst and horrors of the “Middle Passage,” as well as the strength and will to survive the first days and weeks after arriving in this strange land where, like themselves, the indigenous Native Americans were under cultural assault and battery from the colonial exploitation of European exiles and adventurists.
From spending most of my summers in farming life with my grandparents in Ohio, coupled with worship and work experience with the nearby Dutch and German farming community, I could sense the things which helped form real unity in the Christian community, minus the counter-productive focus on race. Meshing my black religious life beginnings in Kentucky, under my activist Baptist minister dad, with the often conflicting experiences, under my devout Pentecostal Evangelist grandmother, gave me new perspectives of possibilities when people earnestly worshiped and worked together in harmony. In fact, later in life, I often told our own kids that this nation’s racial issues would never go away, until people of various races began to worship together. I stand by that idea today, although I continue to worship in the unique oratory and gospel music environs of mostly black religious services, while appreciating the philosophical merit and occassional context of Black liberation theology.
Similarly, the influence of certain professors in college, after my years of overseas military experiences, taught me what it meant to be able to cross over into other belief systems and cultural experiences and, then, come back with an even greater appreciation for your own. They included a Jewish world history professor, a white religious studies professor, trained for many years as a Buddhist Monk in Japan, and a black graduate student instructor of Ancient African History who had been under the tutelage of history professors, Drs. John Hope Franklin and Edgar Allan Toppin.
Within this backdrop, I was able to face many of my own prejudices, preconceptions and misconceptions regarding the study of history. Like many religious, political and racial assumptions, I’ve learned that it takes quite a bit of effort to sort out the real stories of the past, since they’re often mired in the slimy soils and dingy waters of fiction, fantasy and fallacy.
For me, Black History Month is an opportunity, not only for reaching back to see how far we’ve come, but for seeing how far we, as a “Pluralistic Society,” still have to go. If the history of black people in the western hemisphere had been commensurate with the “White History” months already in existence, then “our” Declaration of Independence might have been more accurate by saying, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”
But, within the caustic political climate shadowing this nation’s African-American president, coupled with a conspiratorial and corrupt system of justice- with liberty and justice for some, not for all- our nation’s “truths” are still elusive.
And, in my opinion, the need for Black History Month endures…
“Backstreet Djeli” w.d.s
Reprint from 2013 post