The Tarikh al-Fettash fi akhbar al-buldan wa ‘l-juyush wa-akabir al-nas (“Chronicle of the researcher into the history of the countries, the armies and the principal personalities”) is a well-known, locally produced manuscript on the history of Songhay and the western Sudanic region.
The well-known Catalan atlas of 1375 is credited to Abraham Cresques, a fourteenth century Jewish cartographer from the island of Majorca. The atlas was divided into six large panels. Panel three, the source of the atlas excerpt above, shows principal points along the trans-Saharan trade routes in west and north Africa, as well as camel caravans and some of the major trade goods exchanged—gold, copper, iron, horses, salt, textiles, leather goods, ivory, and captive peoples.
Bantu (“the people”) is a cultural-linguistic cluster of peoples originating around present-day Cameroon and Nigeria in West Africa. The prefix “ba” means “people,” while the stem “ntu” refers to “life force,” hence, “the people.” These African peoples migrated into much of central, southern, and eastern Africa over an approximate 2,000-year period.
The state of Aksum was located in the Ethiopian highlands, where local society developed in the northern end of the central highlands, before gradually moving south. Aksumite society engaged in pastoralism, harvested cereals, coffee and cotton, exploited its iron industry through its major port of Adulis on the Red Sea.
Neferkare or Shabaka, a ruler of the twenty-fifth dynasty, ordered an ancient religious text copied onto stone because the original was worm-eaten. The text belongs to the Old Kingdom (ca. 2649–2150 BCE), but its precise date is unknown. Named after this ruler, the Shabaka inscription shows how the beginnings of Kemetic/ancient Egyptian history had both divine and human origins, and how he, the ruler, was a bridge between both worlds.
Ptahhotep (ptāħ ħwtp) was a sage, city administrator, royal official and oldest son of Djedkare Isesi, the fifth dynasty ruler (r. 2414-2375 BCE) under which the “Instructions of Ptahhotep” were recorded. The instructions of Ptahhotep are one of several “wisdom” texts found in ancient Egypt.
Aksum was one of few states in the ancient world to issue their own independent coinage—in gold, silver, and copper. At the height of its power in the fourth and fifth century CE, the civilization and empire of Aksum extended its trade and influence to Egypt, the Mediterranean and across the Red Sea into Arabia.
The main industrial craft in Meroë was iron smelting and the making of iron tools, weapons, and implements. Iron provided its farmers and hunters with superior tools and weapons. The development and use of iron was thus partly responsible for the very success, growth and wealth of Meroë.
Scientists suggest at least three waves of human movement and periods of wetness between 130,000 and 10,000 BCE. During these periods, Africa’s Sahara region was a patchwork of forests, grasslands, and lakes.
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.
Joining and in some ways exceeding a recent list of Black Power-era scholarship, Russell Rickford’s We Are an African People is the first up-to-date chronicle and intellectual history of what the author calls “Pan African nationalist schools.” National in scope and well attuned to local and international contexts, We Are an African People pays particular attention to organizations and institutional builders-cum-activists of the late 1960s and 1970s, offering “a sympathetic yet critical analysis of Pan African nationalism’s ideological groundings… [and] a host of theoretical and practical weaknesses [that] plagued the quest for independent black institutions” (p. 18). Rickford combines intellectual rigor with dense archival research, packaged in higher level argumentation, yet the prose is accessible. The result or aim is not simply an examination of “Black Power through the lens of independent schools,” but rather the fertile political ideas generated by their discourses and as “a valuable means of accessing contemporary efforts to model a postrevolutionary future,” set against Rickford’s own political and intellectual biography. As Rickford explains, “I had aspired to open an Afrocentric academy as a symbol of my commitment to black nationalist development…[as a member] of the African-American middle class…. Probing the genealogy of my own bourgeois nationalist origins led to an analysis of the late Black Power ideologies in the age of neoliberalism. We Are an African People is the product of that inquiry” (pp. ix-x). Though Rickford’s political coming-of-age may necessarily be the coming-of-age of Black Power scholarship, the book under review offers much to digest and consider beyond the intellectual biographies of either the author or his topic.
The Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade is the culmination of decades of archival research and international collaboration among scholars, led by David Eltis and colleagues. Though the data for the book are available online for free (www.slavevoyages.org), the repackaging of that data into 189 visually stunning maps and nine tables, complemented by some forty-two vignettes, has earned the creators of the Atlas a vast amount of praise and numerous awards. Like the human genome project, which focused on DNA sequencing through international collaboration and pooling of data, the Atlas is a testament to the value of collaborative effort, and book reviewers and endorsers have called it “monumental,” “marvelous,” “superb,” “sophisticated,” “erudite,” “groundbreaking,” and of “immeasurable value.” It is possible that the Atlas’s accolades, however, may inspire too much self-congratulation and not enough humility toward the human lives transformed into data sets. Both the genome project and the Atlas are based on decades of research, but both also have limitations. The genome project, for example, has identified most genes, but the sequencing is not fully understood; we know comparatively little about the full functions of their proteins, and the human genome of most individuals remains uniquely unmapped. The Atlas, likewise, has mapped the economic contours of transatlantic slaving using available data, but there is a great deal of missing data; it cannot account adequately for the first century of slaving or for the illicit and contraband commerce in African bodies around the so-called Atlantic world. More important, its arithmetic methodology cannot represent the lost potentials of African lives. The sense of finality suggested by the authors of the Atlas or their public relations team should not, therefore, be accepted unconditionally.
While searching online at the start of the new year, I came upon a blog maintained by a PhD history student at one of the University of California schools. Interested in Atlantic history and “slave ethnicity,” this student displayed an historiographical essay, probably written for a class, in which the future historian wrote, “Even more dogmatic are such scholars as Kwasi Konadu, who has argued that Coromantees were essentially the early modern precursors to modern Ghanaians, joined together by a ‘shared genetic culture.’” Curious, I emailed the student, who responded, “I meant to quote your phrase ‘shared (genetic) language.’ I have changed the quote, and I also rewrote the sentence to reflect that my opinions are coming from Rucker’s reading of your work.” Less an apology and more a confession, I briefly contemplated this student’s essay and response, and wondered, more broadly, if this is the kind of scholarship Atlantic history—and its stepchild, black Atlantic history—inspires, and to which it aspires. Rather than accept the received wisdom of the academic grapevine, I kept gossip and book reviews at a distance while I carefully read Walter Rucker’s Gold Coast Diasporas with the seriousness it deserved, making marginal notes from the acknowledgement to the bibliography during the spring semester. This book sets out to examine “the formation of the Gold Coast diaspora from the 1680s to the 1760s,” identifying “the early decades of the eighteenth century [as] a period when Coromantee and (A)mina ethnic groups formed in the Americas” from Akan, Gã, Adangme, and Ewe speakers originating in Africa’s Gold Coast (p. 23). Using sociologist Orlando Patterson’s well-worn notion of “social death” and historian Michael Gomez’s “ethnicity to race” paradigm, Rucker argues, “Gold Coast Africans reinvented, redefined, and transformed Gold Coast cultural materials and deployed them in unprecedented ways in the Americas,” informed by a “commoner consciousness” and new notions of masculinity and womanhood (p. 9). This review assesses the validity of Rucker’s case study through an examination of the sources used and the reading practices or interpretive techniques employed, and suggests some implications for African history/studies and diasporic African history/studies.