Edward Lovo / Silhouette Staff
Whose memory is conjured when recalling the enslavement of millions of Africans?
Often, the discussion that circulates around black history narrows in on but a small portion: slavery. And often, one speaks of black slaves instead of enslaved Africans, which subtly conceals the act of enslavement and at once meshes black identity with slavery.
A playwright once wrote, “Language most shows a man: Speak, that I may see thee.” Despite good intentions, language belies the framework in which one conceives of a subject; both must therefore be beheld by the eye of scrutiny. Most strokes of the brush depict black history with the colours of oppression and powerlessness, to the neglect of a rich and vibrant past marked by a forgetfulness of how dignity was preserved in enslavement.
A different picture takes shape as horizons broaden to include the continent of Africa. Kingdoms and empires rose and fell, cultures flourished and social life had another mode of existence than in the West.
Portuguese exploration of Africa in the fifteenth century augured the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade – or Maafa as referred to by some – but the 15th century for Africa also meant the decline of one of its empires, the Mali.
The Mali Empire, under the rule of Mansa Mūsā, became one of the largest empires in the world during the early 14th century. The Mali Empire was known for its wealth, since Mansa Sundiata had in the preceding century secured Bondu and Bambuk, lands with lots of gold. The Empire’s wealth became known to the world during Mansa Mūsā’s pilgrimage to Mecca. Arab chroniclers said of Mansa Mūsā’s procession into Cairo and Mecca that it almost put Africa’s sun to shame.
This message by the Arab chroniclers is driven home by the fact that the Cairo market was still recovering from its decline in value 12 years after Mansa Mūsā’s lavish spending of gold. Even after these 12 years, the inhabitants of Cairo (estimated at one million) still sung the praises of Mansa Mūsā.
Apart from the kingdoms and empires of Africa, tribal lives still thrived with a communal spirit and, compared to the West, were kinder in laws and punishment. In the Congo, for example, private property was an unfamiliar idea, where theft was. In connection with this, Howard Zinn tells of when a “Congolese leader, told of the Portuguese legal codes, asked a Portuguese once, teasingly: ‘What is the penalty in Portugal for anyone who puts his feet on the ground?’”
It’s true that the enslaved Africans became a powerless people, torn from their homes and communities. Some were even sold by their own people and put through the trauma and physical ordeal of the tightly packed spaces below deck the ships, chained together. Despite or in spite of this, enslaved blacks would show their refusal to submit by running away. More frequently, they acted out more clandestine forms of resistance against their slave owners: sabotage and slowdowns. On occasion, enslaved blacks would organize rebellions; there is documented evidence of at least 250 uprisings involving 10 or more blacks. All of these forms of resistance were an expression of their unshakeable sense of dignity.
By no means have I provided a comprehensive history of the Mali Empire, let alone of the other empires, tribes and kingdoms that too often go unmentioned in African history.
However, this scant account is meant to adjust the focus of black history far beyond their enslavement.
Too often do these discussions fixate on the white enslavement of blacks, which not only forms an inaccurate portrayal of blacks as meek and submissive, but also neglects the grandeur of ancient African civilizations and the richness of its cultures that deserve to stand alongside the histories of Western civilizations as well as those of the Near and Far East.
American and Canadian consciousness, because of limited hindsight or because of a fetish with depravity (really, who knows why?) erase from memory the past of a people that had an existence before their enslavement. This amnesia should make us ashamed, for it neglects that essential part of a person, that individuality which has definition emerging from a long, long history and not simply from a small portion of it.