Home / View Point / Guest Columns / Claude’s Comments: The truth about Africa, Africans, their diaspora and their depiction in western media

Claude’s Comments: The truth about Africa, Africans, their diaspora and their depiction in western media

The description of “African countries” and their diaspora in Haiti as “shitholes” goes way beyond the racist vulgarity of a decadent American President. It is merely a kind of sordid culmination of centuries of disparagement of Africans and Africa in the interest of western capitalism and white supremacy.

But how did we arrive at this low point?

Photo: An African land grab.
(Copyright Polyp)

Eurocentric pedagogical canon credits the Greeks with the intellectual foundation of western civilization, simply because they were the first to put the intellectual legacy of Ancient Egypt (Kemet) into the public domain. Up to the time of Alexander’s conquest of Egypt in 332 BCE, the transmission of Kemetic knowledge was so controlled that we know it as “The Mystery System.”

The Greek conquerors systematically collected and translated this vast body of knowledge (in science, arts, medicine, mathematics, philosophy, religion, etc.), making Alexandria the intellectual capital of the ancient world. It was also in Alexandria that the Old Testament  (Hebrew Torah) was translated into Greek—the first European translation—but nobody has credited the Greeks with its original authorship.

Although the ancient Greeks, including Aristotle, acknowledged their intellectual debt to Kemet, this fact was lost to the wider world after the phased destruction of the Library of Alexandria (from 48 BCE to 642 AD). This debt is also fully substantiated by the various extant books housed mainly in European repositories, such as the Rhind Papyrus and the Kahun Papyrus—the very ones that the Greeks translated (and plagiarised) 2000 years ago.

Fast forward to the 14th century. Arabs and European cartographers were proud to uphold Mansa Musa, Emperor of Mali, as the wealthiest, most powerful king of his day. He is the most distinctive figure on the first Catalan map of the world, seated on a golden throne with a golden sceptre in his left hand and a golden disc in his right.

Photo: Mansa Musa, the 14th century Malian emperor, is believed to be the richest man who ever lived.

At that time, Mali’s University of Sankore was one of Islam’s greatest centres of higher learning in several disciplines, including science, religion, medicine and law. The recently unearthed Timbuktu manuscripts attest to this golden era.

Just one century after Musa’s reign, however, Europeans began changing the image of sub-Saharan Africa to a place worthy only of exploitation. Consider, for example, the edict (Bull) of Pope Nicholas V (1455) issued at the very dawn of Europe’s Atlantic slave trade, labelling sub-Saharan Africans as “children of Satan,” fit only for slavery.

The demonisation continued despite the occasional pushback by white and black intellectuals, such as Frenchman philosopher-historian, Constantin de Chasseboeuf (Comte de Volney) and African Americans Alexander Young, David Walker and Alexander Everett.

In his Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt (1787), Volney admitted that his first impression of Ancient Egyptians had been that they were “mulatto types.” Then he saw the Great Sphinx and confessed, “Its appearance gave me the key to the riddle.”

Falling back on ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Volney concluded: “The Ancient Egyptians were true Negroes of the same type as all native-born Africans.” Volney was confounded by Europe’s degradation of Africans in America: “A race of men now rejected from society for their sable skin and frizzled hair.” The first scientific studies, undertaken at the time of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt (1798), confirmed Volney’s conclusions.

Photo: The Great Sphinx of Giza is believed to have been built by ancient Egyptians during the period of 2558–2532 BC.

Shocked, white supremacists reacted with intellectual warfare against Africa. One of the first tactics was the branding of Africa as the “dark continent”. Dark in this sense had nothing to do with melanin: this was cultural-intellectual demonology. In 1830, German philosopher-historian, Frederick WG Hegel added some clarity in describing Africa as “a-historical,” in order to justify France’s first military invasion of the continent.

The “dark continent” epithet was the most enduring caricature of Africa. As late as 1963, for example, in making the case for the continued exclusion of African history from Oxford University’s curricula, Britain’s eminent historian Hugh Trevor Roper explicitly stated: “Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of Europe in Africa. The rest is largely darkness.”

Darkness, naturally, cannot be the subject of history.

Americans were also heavily engaged in pioneering the early negation of Africa’s contribution to world history. Americans George Gliddon, Samuel Morton and Josiah Nott are well known to students of the history of 19th Century scientific racism.

By World War 1, Americans had definitely taken the lead in the systematic disparagement of Africa. No tool was more powerful than film.

Photo: Tarzan (left) takes Chief Mbonga hostage during a scene in the 2016 movie.

The 1914 Hollywood film, Tarzan of the Apes, was adapted from Edgar Burroughs’ recently published book of the same name. From the late 1920s, the Tarzan film series successfully crossed over from the silent into the “talking” movies era but they continued to portray Africa as a continent of jungle peoples in need of rescue by white colonisers.

In his article, “Racism and Stereotypes: how the Tarzan dynamic still infiltrates cinema,” Tony Warner shows that, in the seminal 1914 Apes film, Tarzan unabashedly introduces himself to Jane thus: “This is the House of Tarzan, the killer of beasts and many black men.”

Tarzan films were among the package of cultural tools in the deepening of Anglo-American cultural imperialism in the Caribbean and Africa during the 1930s and 1940s. Warner explains that British authorities deployed Tarzan films to blunt the spread of black consciousness and incipient nationalism unleashed by Marcus Garvey.

They “hired mobile cinemas” to reach deep into the rural areas. The key objective was to sell the propaganda of Africa as “a ‘dark continent’ full of savages,” thus planting the subliminal desire for perpetual colonial rule by “civilized” whites.

We know all too well how these images were re-packaged in Caribbean calypso. Sparrow’s “Congo Man” is the most obscene but definitely not the only one of its kind, subscribing, sometimes unwittingly, to the negative stereotyping of Africa and African peoples.

Photo: Children at an orphanage in Africa.
(Copyright Foreignpolicy)

Complimenting the Tarzan saga was the Safari film genre, which depicted Africa as a wilderness playground of rich, white adventurers and black porters and guides.

Supremacist comic books were almost as powerful as film. In 1934, Lee Falk launched what would become a genre of comic books dedicated to consolidating the cognitive fraud of white-over brown-over black.

The first book, Mandrake the Magician, featured ultra-faithful Lothar, a black Prince, but functioning as nothing higher than a bouncer for his master. Two years later, Falk launched The Phantom, featuring the same duality: a white overlord in a fictional African country and a faithful (subservient) black Guran of the Pygmies, the Phantom’s loyal subjects.

The Phantom, as “the ghost who walks, the man who cannot die,” was consistent with the imperialist view of indefinite rule in Africa. Similarly, the Pygmies of the Phantom’s kingdom were a microcosm of colonial Africans, who should welcome white rule as a gateway to civilisation, provided they proved their loyalty through subservience.

Television completed what film started. Indeed, it is almost amusing how the liberal media freely thrashed Donald Trump’s most recent, racist outburst. The degrading imagery of Africa, however, is a success story of the liberal media, from decades of identifying Africa almost exclusively with disease, refugee camps, famine, internecine wars and fly-ridden children with puffy, gas-filled bellies in the most depressing rural environments.

Photo: Mandrake the Magician (left) and his assistant Lothar were the main characters of Lee Falk’s famous cartoon series.

As far as the imperialist liberal media have been concerned, Africa has no cities!

If Africa is a shithole continent, European colonisers made it so. This fact is best understood by comparing the backwardness of four decades of intense colonisation with the pre-colonial situation as well as the rapid strides in industry, education, healthcare and rural and urban infrastructure made during the first ten years of re-independence.

The image of Africa as a place that only sold slaves and imported European trash is false. I will highlight only a few cases in pre-colonial Hausaland, now northern Nigeria, a major target of US hostile immigration policy.

Studies by Marion Johnson and Paul Lovejoy among others establish that, in the early 1800s, the Hausa town of Egga supported about 200 looms weaving cloths produced from local and imported fibres, including silk (of local and foreign origin). British explorer McGregor Laird described the industrial town of Zagoshi in Nupe as “the Manchester of this part of Africa.”

In one of the very latest studies on the subject, Trade in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond (2018), David Mattingly and Franca Cole describe Kano, another Hausa commercial centre up to the 19th Century, as “a great centre of cotton production, exporting a range of garments and dyed textile to Timbuktu and other parts of the Sub-Saharan zone, as well as to Saharan centres such as Ghat and Ghadamis.” Other Kano manufactures included ironware, hides and leather sandals and bags.

Photo: Africa’s industrial history.

As had previously occurred in India, European colonisation destroyed these indigenous industries and trading relations. Instead, they created dependency on European manufactures while enforcing trade only with the colonial power. Colonialism did not take Africa out of “darkness;” rather, it threw large swathes of the continent into underdevelopment, despite its immense wealth.

The US needs Africa more than Africa needs the US. For example, Silicon Valley (as well as many of China’s high-tech industrial complexes in Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Zhangjiang) will experience massive bankruptcy without Africa’s coltan (70% of global production). Ironically, the chief source of this mineral, the Democratic Republic of Congo, is deliberately afflicted with foreign-orchestrated anarchy in order to facilitate inexpensive exploitation of this precious resource.

The imperialist/racist media’s standard image of Africa makes it easy to engage in self-delusion. African migrants to the US are at the top of the class in tertiary education: Nigerians, with the highest African migration to the US, are correspondingly the highest academically qualified of all migrants to the US.

Furthermore, in 2015, some 39% of sub-Saharan Africans in the US had bachelor’s degrees and higher, compared to 29% of the entire foreign-born population in the US and 31% of the US-born population.

Logically, if merit is the standard, Africans should be at the top of the list of preferred immigrants to the US. But eugenics functions on fear, not objective facts.

Photo: Former United States president Barack Obama is the son of a Kenyan immigrant.
(Courtesy UK Telegraph)

US national, strategic and economic interests depend considerably on African receptivity to US intelligence networks and military bases. Although articulated in reciprocal language, AFRICOM (US Africa Command), operating in 53 African countries, with Egypt under direct US Central Command, together with several military units of France and Britain, is actually engaged in ensuring that Africa remains faithful to Euro-American global hegemony objectives.

The liberal media have also set up the false image of Haiti as a basket case by constantly tagging it with the label, “the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.” Yet, immediately upon destroying the vilest system of chattel slavery in the Americas, Haitians, led by African-born Jean-Jacques Dessalines, set up the constitutional standards that would define progress and modernity up to the present day.

Despite America’s long-standing destabilisation and recolonizing policies toward Haiti, the latter currently contributes more to the US economy than the US to Haiti’s. If all Haitian-American first and second generation migrants are “taken out” of the US, as Trump recently ordered, the American healthcare system will immediately go into crisis, if not collapse.

Photo: United States president Donald Trump (left) greets supporters at a rally during his election campaign.
(Copyright Business Insider)

According to Anne Bernard, writing in The New York Times of 4 April, 2010, from Boston to Miami to California, the US currently benefits from several thousands of Haitian medical professional, “from surgeon down to health aide.”

Today, just short of eight years later, the numbers are much greater.

About Claudius Fergus

Claudius Fergus
Claudius Fergus is a retired Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at UWI’s St Augustine Campus who specialises in the abolition of British colonial slavery and its transatlantic slave trade. His major work on the subject is Revolutionary Emancipation: Slavery and Abolitionism in the British West Indies (2013). He has other extensive publications in peer-reviewed journals and edited books.

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28 comments

  1. We must all read King Leopold’s Ghost.

  2. I learned that it was called the Dark Continent because it was mysterious and the the last unreached expanse

  3. LoL. Lets keep it to economics and sociology. For peace sake. Historically ALL religions owned slaves. So to go there though its the reality would open up a can of worms that i’m sure mister Lasana Liburd would rather not open.
    I have a very radical view that ALL Africans from military men to scientists return to africa with their resources and rebuild africa wrest it from the evil grasp of the european neo imperialists and their african puppets. I know its easier said than done and also there would be ALL kinds of reasons why that is not the solution because as was articulated in the article trump and his racists can t even understand the massive change for the worst the american “way of life” would become without people from the shithole countries. So i say give them what they want.

  4. Excellent article and on point ,Africa has been raped of it’s resources for too and Haiti have been taken advantage for to long.

  5. I’m loving this series Lasana.

  6. Dr Fergus is right on. Hope to see more of her writing.

  7. Though I am highly appreciative of this series of historical analysis, I do notice that we are careful to avoid religion. I personally can make no sense of Trinidadian susceptibility to passing and prevailing religions after slavery.
    My uncle was a school principle on the Methodist circuit in Trinidad, and sang in the Methodist Church choir while simultaneously studying Law and Theology. He then retired to become a Pentecostal minister with an entirely Indian congregation having dug out a 50 capacity church in his Belmont basement.
    All that was still on the surface, because come Friday and Sunday evening he took on his African alter ego with tens of rituals and chants (probably recalling the pains of slavery) that he had standardised in rhythm, but still sounding authentic African.
    We turn to religions, with gusto, but in 2018, before the next colonizers arrive, they need be optimized to assist us with the fightback.

  8. Thanks Lasana Liburd for publishing these kinds of articles that substantially elevate the level of popular dicourse in this country. I hope that more academics will follow Dr. Fergus’ path and take the time to engage the masses.

  9. Pretty deafening silence with regards to the role of Christianity in all of this.

  10. Surprising that with this depth of information available to Trinidad, we don’t intensify to constructive solutions. We even almost argue in favour of maintaining ignorance. Haiti is the symbolic centre of our liberty, it is only left to us Caribbeans to define ourselves in Haiti terms.

    • It may be available, but that does not necessarily mean that it is taught widely in schools. In fact, I can name a number of schools, primary and secondary, that will *not* teach any of this unless given some sort of a directive.

    • Not just Trinidad, and not just schools A Corey Gilkes. I attended a post graduate Caribbean Studies university course in London 30 years ago where the level of misinformation caused a near riot in a lecture and the lecturer to be replaced. Theories on original American migration have even been superseded with the more thorough DNA based evidence.

    • I know it’s not just in Trinidad, Danny Holder, but, seeing as how this is the Caribbean, one would reasonably expect that there would be a different, more independent attitude. Of course, I have long since had that myth exploded, but still…..

  11. Another excellent read from the Doctor.