Understanding how complex societies developed in Africa can be as challenging as how to tell the histories of Africa. These interconnected issues are true for scholars who sort through equally complex evidence, but also for teachers and students who rely on scholarly interpretations of the past. In many instances, social and political complexity was achieved with centralized authority and a ruler, but also with collective rule based on pacts between lineages, ritual specialists, and autonomous settlements. Nowhere was the mixture of environment, nature’s resources, and the economies and relationships that flowed from them clearer than in pre-1600 West Africa.
The modern world owes its origin to transatlantic slaving, otherwise known as the transatlantic slave trade. If this seems surprising, it is because the overall significance of transatlantic slaving in the creation of the Americas and the modern world more broadly is not a celebratory history. It is a history of greed, immeasurable misery, and more importantly denial. To say slavery created the modern world is to say the historical obvious. But to accept this statement is to confront its denied cruciality, to bypass the idyllic scenes of picking cotton, and to come to terms with the barbarity and systemic humiliation of millions, the societies ruined, their lost possibilities, and the psychological if not financial debt owed to the collective skilled labor force that produced the opulence “modern” people enjoy or envy.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Mohammed Ali Ben Said settled in Alabama, where his narrative and the paper trail for his life ends, but where the research for my Transatlantic Africa book began. Transatlantic Africa: 1440-1888 retold the story of transatlantic slaving through the lived experiences and intellectual history of Africans who lived through it. In that way, uncovering Mohammed’s story was fortuitous because Mohammed was an African, a Muslim, and an enslaved or indentured person for most of his remarkable life. For all these insights Mohammed’s extraordinary story provided, it left an equal amount of questions. These questions became the legs of my research, conveying it along an exploratory journey.
Though I am aware of Coates’s new book, We Were Eight Years in Power, released today, what follows is a condensed version of my views, stirred principally by BWM but also by the repurposed essays and anecdotes that form the contents of Eight Years in Power. More importantly, there has been insufficient consideration of what BWM’s argument portends for the fate of “black” people—a race identifier used grudgingly but in no way do I subscribe to it. My concern is the defective premise, a story if you will, anchoring Coates’s argument and its dead-end implication if we were to follow that argument to its logical conclusion. I offer another way to think about the fate of black people in the United States and in white societies more broadly.
When I was a graduate student at Cornell University, I became fascinated but equally frustrated by the Civil Rights-Black Power movement nexus in North American historiography. On one hand, historians presented the African American Civil Rights movement as a watershed phenomenon unto itself and which forever changed the course of North American politics and race relations; on the other hand, the Black Power movement became its demonic inverse and thus reduced to an aberration led by fragmented groups of gun-toting, dashiki-wearing, Kiswahili-speaking nationalists.
The more I read, the more I became frustrated with, essentially, the same characterizations about the Black Power period of the 1960s and 1970s, but the stubbornness of those narrative accounts also fueled my fascination. The individuals, families, organizations, and African diasporic networks of culture and politics fascinated me, but, more importantly, many of the same (kinds of) individuals belonged to both movements and shaped or, otherwise, equally informed the other. In essence, the dialectic between the two freedom movements in the second half of the twentieth century was more symbiotic and simultaneously distinct than previously thought, and this realization prompted a number of young scholars, including myself, to reconsider the nexus and the demonization of the Black Power movement.