What the hell is History good for anyway? I mean really? Well I suppose the answer depends on what you use History for.
Napoleon Bonaparte called it a set of lies mutually agreed upon, which is a very important point to consider when studying how the West has used ‘history’ as a weapon, as they set about imposing themselves on advanced and simple societies much older than theirs.
Nothing much has changed since the 16th century in that regard; the West still arrogates unto itself the right to impose its ways, values, world-views and notions of superiority—all based on an interconnected set of lies, half-truths, manufactured narratives, appropriated technologies and forms of knowledge production. And, like back in the Age of ‘Discovery’, they found ways to get key natives to internalise those narratives.
I really had no intention of reading the contentious piece that so flippantly dismisses Aiyegoro Ome, Dr Eric Williams’ thesis [on capitalism and slavery] and implicitly African-centered history. I’ve long since written off the writer for not having much relevance, credibility or intellectual honesty—although his treatment of organised religion and mine are almost identical.
There are some writers who are as consistent in their trivialising of decolonial counter-narratives as they are in their acceptance of Eurocentric academia with its many pretensions that have become canon law.
In the very short piece, for instance, the way in which the writer made the claim that the hallmarks “which underlie the progress of all advanced societies and groups, [was] capitalism, individualism and the scientific method” was textbook Eurocentrism.
This came from a man whose own ancestry traces back to a sub-continent where a civilisation along the Indus Valley flourished when much of Europe had not produced much of significance or for that matter had even come into history.
Furthermore, that simple phrase contains so much from which one can learn. Let’s set aside the fact that many ancient advanced civilisations were not capitalist. They observed mostly collectivist, co-operative philosophies as opposed to competitive individualistic ones; and yet were advanced societies.
There’s the arrogant implied message that the scientific method applies only to what exists in Western methodology. Apparently, many advancements in medicine in Africa and Asia (including studies of the pulse, the role of the medulla oblongata, contraceptives) before there was a Europe and the fact that other advancements (such as smallpox vaccine and successful child delivery by Caesarean section) were developed when the influence of Christianity railed against it in Europe; well all this was just dumb luck.
So ignore, then, the works of another dismissed scholar Professor Ivan Van Sertima as well as Charles S Finch MD.
Ignore too that the calendar we use today was used in Africa along the Nile Valley as well as in the Americas before there was a Europe to speak about, and that the Dogon of Mali accurately plotted the course and trajectory of an invisible star (Sirius B) when Western scientists didn’t even know about it.
All that was clearly because, as one racist researcher, Professor Robert Temple, asserted, aliens came to earth and showed them.
Perfectly plausible, eh? Why didn’t they show Europeans though? (Even in the mid-1980s, they couldn’t confirm much of what the Dogons had said about that star).
Similar findings were made about stone formations in Kenya that corresponded to other star constellations. Much of this—and the festive rituals that the Africans danced to commemorate them—had to do with the changing of the seasons, which in my unschooled opinion was important to understand in the interest of food production.
Now there is a strong case for critiquing the way African centered history is often taught. I personally have little patience with histories that just serve to excuse a defeatist dependency mindset or inactive and pathological behaviours—as opposed to understanding the root causes of that inaction and pathological behaviours.
This is not to diminish certain issues now being addressed such as collective trauma that passes down through generations.
On the other hand, the ‘we were kings and queens’ narrative is also a major part of the problem. That’s not history, that’s hubris—and a Eurocentric strain of it too because it assumes that leadership, power and authority as it is defined in the West was universal.
In fact, in many pre-colonised African cultures the major economic and political decisions were made by the councils-of-elders and women’s guilds, who often held final veto power even after the monarch and councils-of-elders made their rulings.
Even in Pharaonic Egypt—as researchers like Theophile Obenga illustrate—the real power lay in the priests/priestesses, not the pharaoh who was more of a philosopher king. Across in West Africa, nations like the Igbos didn’t even have chiefs but had what Ifi Amadiume called decentralised political systems—as opposed to the Western-minded academics who, cemented in ideas of singular authority figures, call these ‘chiefless’ states.
And that’s why the study of de-Westernised history (and sociology) is so important. In this case, what we are talking about is not so much African history as it is the removed and falsified pages of world history. That these historical themes have been erased or falsified should have been a clue as to the importance of decolonial history. But of course Westernised academia isn’t always big on uncomfortable details; it’s about a manufactured narrative to create a certain aura.
It’s truly astounding how African-centered history is frequently trivialised as feel-good myths but the ‘ol Kev’ eh say the same thing about Western history. So we hear that Western civilisation traces its roots to Ancient Greece and Rome, and see the Greeks being depicted as white or near white in any number of movies and documentaries and learn nothing of the findings of Dr Sarah Bond.
She is only one of the scholars who can point to the cosmopolitan nature of Ancient Greece and that most of them weren’t white anyway.
Additionally, there’s next to no acknowledgement that Greek culture was profoundly shaped by Egypt; and in any case the ancient Egyptians, like ancient Sumerians, are presented as, yep, white or near white.
To tell you how insidious it gets, on Teen Titans Go!—a popular children’s cartoon—in at least one episode the Egyptians are depicted as white and authoritarian.
“Capitalism and Slavery” and African history are unimportant apparently but Western history teaches you to glorify people like Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama, Prince Henry the Navigator, James Cook, Captain Hawkins and Walter Raleigh, so as to fire your imagination and emulate their spirit of adventure—and implicitly, their racist rationales.
This is part of solidifying the narrative that global trade and exploration only began with the West. But with an African-centered curriculum, you will come across books like Van Sertima’s “Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern” which may inspire you to connect dots to books like “Before European Hegemony” and so learn of the commercial connections between Africa and Asia via the Indian Ocean.
You may discover that longitudinal coordinates were known and plotted while in Europe, up to the 1750s, encyclopaedias were saying that longitude was ‘undiscoverable’.
You may learn that in Africa, high carbon iron smelting was developed long before it did in Europe. More importantly given the reality of global warming, you will also learn that the process was less damaging to the environment—as Dr Van Sertima said in a lecture, “they used less wood and charcoal than the Europeans because they had less wood and charcoal; Africa has less jungle than any other continent comparable with its land space.”
Such knowledge may encourage our economists and engineers to pursue development in a more environmentally friendly way than if they follow the madness coming out of Koch Industries, BP, Shell or Gulf and Western whose success stories were facilitated by the murder of labour leaders and environmental activists.
Why “Capitalism and Slavery” is so reviled in some quarters is because it almost completely dismisses one of the main hubristic claims advanced in mainstream Western academia and politics, as they struggle to continue determining the direction of global politics and economics.
And that threatened Western claims that their systems were and are benevolent and humanistic and were driven principally by those impulses. Books like Williams’ own see through that.
Indeed, abolitionists like William Wilberforce—and Bartholome de las Casas before him—campaigned against enslavement and brutal exploitation but retained elitist, racist assumptions that could not accept the humanity of black and brown people.
Their liberal racism lives on today in the US Democratic Party, WASP feminist organisations and the UN.
Modifications of that same myth are employed today when World War I and II are brought up to convey the idea that Western democracy and UN treaties—or a firm military response—are what’s required to bring about global peace in the face of supposedly growing existential threats from Islamic radicalism and Russia.
Indeed another popular myth, that the US War of Independence was spurred primarily by the colonists’ love of freedom and fought to break away from British tyranny, has been discredited by historians like Gerald Horne.
His book “Counter-Revolution of 1776” points out that that war was fought mainly because the settler colonists were worried that the moves to end slavery would disrupt their money-making ventures.
And Howard Zinn tells us another story omitted from that romanticised myth: that there were mass revolts among the working class white soldiers in George Washington’s army, who realised that the war had almost nothing to do with alleviating their conditions.
Meanwhile, World War I was planned since the 19th century to curtail Germany’s expanding economic power and the same goes for World War II. In this same war, Western history tells us that Winston Churchill stood firm and inspired the people to rally against the Nazi menace with ‘chain-up’ speeches like “We shall fight on the beaches…”
Except that Churchill—in addition to being deeply racist, an arch imperialist with a major drinking problem—did not personally record the speech until, for posterity, nine years later.
It also turns out that contrary to the myth of his steadfast bravery, he, knowing when most of the attacks were coming, was almost never in London during the nights of the Blitz.
African enslavement ended, like it began, for principally economic reasons and while Williams’ thesis has its limitations, his central argument has been built upon on both the British side and the US side of academia.
But is the topic of marriage dat did ketch mih dey. He had mih wondering how the actual f**k he write that “a low marriage rate” is responsible for the problems related to the African community in Trinidad. I expect that kind of rubbish to come from a pastor or an Akilah Holder. Is it possible that… he… converted to…?
Pffft, nah. It’s more likely that he sees it in the neoliberal capitalist model and the studies positing that it is more beneficial financially for people to be married. The human element, such as stress and emotions—which you’re sure to get in the Western marriage and social model—doesn’t factor for much in the market scheme of things.
Now this is not some wild advocacy of wanton promiscuity. This is just a call for us to look at our social and sexual relations through our own cultural eyes and for once not feel ashamed.
Marriage and relationships are too narrowly defined and the monogamous, male-headed model, while it works well for some, works horribly for others. It can not and should not be any kind of moral or societal benchmark—particularly given its misogynist beginnings as Augustine’s idea of how best to contain the ‘sin’ of sexual intercourse.
Our 19th and 20th century ancestors seemed to be a little more perceptive and pragmatic than we give them credit. They, both men and women, had a very ambiguous relationship with formal marriage in the Western sense, mostly opposed to it.
Many of them seemed to understand what it meant and no doubt this would be a been influenced by the way white women were often treated by white men. So it’s no surprise that many of the writings of the 19th century reflected Europeans’ exasperation with the way many African people resisted Western marriages.
There is a particularly heartbreaking story in Yseult Bridges’ book “Child of the Tropics” of how a labouring class family broke apart months after they were formally married on the insistence of Bridges’ mother, who would not permit them to continue in the harmonious common-law relationship they had enjoyed for years until they were found out.
Most analyses of marriage and the African household have relied on narrow, culturally biased Western ideas of marriage, particularly the marital model that emerged from industrialised Europe/Euro-America.
Racial/cultural double-standard was compounded when, as Sidney Mintz has shown, multiple divorces in modern Western societies are held up as examples of normal legally sanctioned institutions whereas African polygyny (and polyandry) and its spin-offs in the form of the combosse/keeper (see Vincent Tothilll’s “Trinidad Doctor’s Diary”) are considered dysfunctional or pathological.
Also ignored and/or trivialised by academics and public policies are the community-based support structures that were brought over from Africa that still existed and managed to survive in various forms until arguably the economic shifts that brought an increase in ‘barrel children’ in the 1980s.
But to connect this to our current crises means that the capitalist economic model will be brought into focus; and that’s an inconvenient topic many rather stay under wraps.
So it’s easier to snipe at African sexual behaviour; not the cultural, political and economic factors that derailed it. Demonisation has always been the easier option.
If we look at the early European travel writings, they already went with firm beliefs about ‘morality’ and sex. Influenced by Ancient Greece via Christian thought, a predominant view among the middle classes held that sex represented the baser, irrational, impulsive aspect of the Self. Any sort of behaviour that was sexual—or what the Europeans decided were sexual—meant that the entire culture was backward, primitive, incapable of rational thinking, potentially threatening and so had to be dominated and controlled.
Sigmund Freud was wrong about a lot of things. So too was Dr Williams, especially politically. But “Capitalism and Slavery” pretty much checks out and scholars like Prof Catherine Hall assembled a team who have built on his research.
The trivialising of African-centered and decolonial history is partly connected to the neoliberal capitalist ideology in which the only things of importance are that which pertains to the all-important market.
This partly accounts for how, even in predominantly Euro-American schools, History and other Humanities subjects are slowly being reduced or removed. We’d be making a fatal error if we were to do likewise.
For societies such as ours, history is a way of traversing backwards and forward through time, as it were, to access knowledge that could be used to improve the present. It presents counter-narratives and alternative ways of being and doing.
That should be our answer to snide remarks that rubbish the importance of African-centered history. Better still, leave the offender to his own monologue and just continue doing what you need to do inasmuch as he is doing what he needs to do.
His writings stem from philosophies in which some people deserve more humanity and some less.
And since that is the predominant belief and since we have people living here who subscribe to that, why again do I have to listen to any advice they to give?