The History the Slaveholders Wanted Us to Forget

tags: slavery

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the host of the PBS series “Africa’s Great Civilizations” and director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Writing in 1965, the distinguished British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper argued against the idea that black people in Africa had their own history: “There is only the history of the Europeans in Africa,” he declared. “The rest is largely darkness.” History, he continued, “is essentially a form of movement, and purposive movement too,” which in his view Africans lacked.

Trevor-Roper was echoing an idea that goes back at least to the early 19th century. But it wasn’t always this way. When the young Prince Cosimo de Medici (1590-1621) was being tutored to become the Duke of Tuscany — about the time that Shakespeare was writing “Hamlet” — he was asked to memorize a “summary of world leaders” that included Álvaro II, the King of Kongo, along with the Mutapa Empire and the mythical “Prester John” of Ethiopia. Soon, however, even that level of knowledge about African history would be rare.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that ideas about Africans and their supposed lack of history and culture were used to justify the enslavement of millions of Africans throughout the New World, especially during the 19th century when sugar production was reaching a zenith in Cuba and cotton was making growers and manufacturers rich. What is surprising is that these ideas persisted well into the 20th century, among white and black Americans alike.

When I was growing up in the 1950s, Africa was the shadow that both framed and stalked the existence of every African-American. For some of us, such as Paul Cuffee and Marcus Garvey, it was a place to venerate, a place to escape the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow. For so many others of us, however, it was a place to run away from. After all, scholars such as the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier insisted that the horrors of bondage and the trans-Atlantic crossing had severed any meaningful cultural or religious links between black folks on either side of the ocean, when in fact enslaved Africans brought with them their religious beliefs, music and ways of seeing the world.

When I was a child, one of few insults between black people more devastating than the “n-word” was to be called “a black African.” Far too many of us had been brainwashed into believing that the darkness of the skin of the stereotypical African on stage and screen reflected the darkness of the cultural and intellectual soul of an entire continent of people, the continent of our ancestors. ...

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