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The Black Experience in America By Norman Coombs Characters: 31208

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

African Origins

The Human Cradle

THREE and a half centuries of immigration have injected ever-fresh doses of energy and tension into the American bloodstream. As diverse peoples learned to live together, they became a dynamo generating both creativity and conflict. One of the most diverse elements in American life was introduced when Africans were forcibly brought to the American colonies. The American experiment had begun and consisted mainly of white men with a European heritage. The African was of a different color, had a different language, a different religion, and had an entirely different world view. But perhaps the most striking contrast was that, while the European came voluntarily in search of greater individual opportunity, the African came in chains. Because the European was the master and thereby the superior in the relationship, he assumed that his heritage was also superior. However, he was mistaken, because the African had a rich heritage of importance both to himself and to mankind. When people interact intimately over a long period of time, the influences are reciprocal. This is true even when their relationship is that of master and slave.

To trace the importance of the African heritage one must go back millions of years. Evidence is accumulating to the effect that Africa is the cradle of mankind. Professor Louis Leakey argues that Africa was important in the development of mankind in three ways. First, some thirty or forty million years ago, the basic stock which eventually gave rise to both man and the ape came into existence in the vicinity of the Nile Valley. Second, some twelve or fourteen million years ago, the main branch which was to lead to the development of man broke away from the branch leading to the ape. Third, about two million years ago, in the vicinity of East Africa, true man broke away from his now extinct manlike cousins. The present species of man-Homo Sapiens--developed through a complex process of natural selection from a large number of different manlike creatures-hominids.

One of the most numerous of the early hominids was Australopithecus Africanus who originated in Africa. Although he also did some hunting, he lived mainly by collecting and eating vegetables. One of the things that identified him as a man was his utilization of primitive tools. He had a pointed stone which may have been used to sharpen sticks, and these sticks were probably used for digging roots to augment his food supply. Leakey believes that Homo Habilis, who lived in East Africa about two million years ago, was the immediate ancestor of man and the most advanced of all the hominids. Although the hominids spread far outside of Africa, it is clear that they originate there and that it was in Africa that true man first emerged. As Darwin predicted a century ago, Africa has been found to be the father of mankind.

For many thousands of years, Homo Sapiens and the other hominids lived side by side in Africa as elsewhere. By ten thousand years ago, however, all the hominids had disappeared. Scholars believe that this was the result of the gradual absorption of all the other hominids by the more biologically advanced Homo Sapiens. This process may explain the appearance of variations within Homo Sapiens. At various times and places, as Homo Sapiens absorbed other hominid strains, differences within Homo Sapiens developed. In any case it is clear that the various types of man came into existence very early. In Africa, this process led to the development of three main types: the brownish-yellow Bushmen in the south, the darker Negroes throughout most of the continent and the Caucasoid Mediterranean types in the north.

Most of the concepts, held even by scholars about the nature and origin of races, are being proven inaccurate. Anthropological literature used to suggest that skin color in some groups was a possible indication of Mongoloid influences or that the thin, straight lips common in another group could be envisioned as a Caucasoid feature. However, it has become increasingly obvious that an analysis based on specific single traits such as these is always a poor indication of either racial origin or of racial contact. In fact, they could just as likely be the result of spontaneous and local variations within a given population grouping. In contrast, recent anthropological research is putting less emphasis on bone measurement and shape and, instead, is turning increasingly to technical analysis particularly through the examination of blood types.

Making and using tools are what differentiate man from animals. The earliest tools which have survived the wear of time were made of stone. As man's techniques of handling stone improved, so did his tools. The hand axe, a large oval of chipped flint varying in size and weight, came into common usage about half a million years ago, and it has been found in much of Europe, Asia, and Africa. This too seems to have had an African origin. While scholars are not certain about its use, it was probably used for killing animals and for chopping meat.

The first achievement which radically altered man's condition was the invention of tools. The second achievement was his learning of primitive agriculture which transformed the hunter into the farmer. The domestication of animals and the planting and cultivating of crops had begun in the Near East, but the practice shortly spread to the Nile Valley in Northeast Africa. At the same time, farming communities sprang up throughout the Sahara which, at that time, was going through one of its wet phases. This made it well-suited to early agriculture. Farming permitted men to live together in communities and to pursue a more sedentary way of life. Actually, some Africans had already adopted a sedentary community life before the arrival of farming. Making hooks from bones led to the development of a few fishing communities near present-day Kenya.

As the communities along the Nile grew in size and number, society began to develop a complex urban civilization. By 3,200 B.C. the communities along the Nile had become politically united under the first of a line of great pharaohs. These early Egyptians undoubtedly were comprised of a racial mixture. The ancient Greeks viewed the Egyptians as being dark in complexion, and it has been estimated that the Egyptian population at the beginning was at least one-third Negro. Herodotus says that it was impossible to tell whether the influence of the Egyptians on the Ethiopians was stronger than that of the Ethiopians on the Egyptians.

What Herodotus and the Greeks referred to as Ethiopia was, in fact, the kingdom of Kush. It was located up the Nile from Egypt. As the Egyptian empire grew in strength and wealth, it strove to expand its power over its neighbors. Egypt sent several military expeditions south along the Nile to try to conquer the black people of Kush. They failed and the Kushites, in turn, endeavored to extend their power over Egypt. In 751 B.C., Kush invaded Egypt and, shortly thereafter, conquered it. This occupation of Egypt lasted for over a hundred years, until both the Kushites and the Egyptians were defeated by an invading army from Assyria in 666 B.C. At that point, the Kushites returned to the safety of their homeland.

The Kushites and the Egyptians had been defeated by a superior technology. While they were fighting with weapons made of copper and bronze, the Assyrians fought with iron. Methods of smelting and working iron had been developed centuries before by the Hittites who lived in Asia Minor. The use of iron spread across the Near East, becoming the basis for the Assyrian power. After their defeat in 666 B.C., the Kushites and the Egyptians rapidly adopted the new iron technology. The coming of the Iron Age to Africa meant the production of better weapons and tools. Better weapons provided safety from hostile foes and protection from ferocious beasts. Better axes meant that man could live in densely forested regions where he had not been able to live before. Better farm implements meant that more food could be grown with less work, this again encouraged the development of denser population centers.

By 300 B.C., Kush had become an important iron-producing center. Its capital, Meroe located on the upper Nile, developed into a thriving commercial and industrial city. Archeological diggings have unearthed the remains of streets, houses, sprawling palaces, and huge piles of slag left from its iron industry. When scholars are able to decipher the Kushitic writings much more will be known about the culture and way of life of this early black empire. In the first century A.D. a Kushite official, whom the Bible refers to as the Ethiopian eunuch, was converted to Christianity by the apostle Philip while returning from a visit to Jerusalem. Shortly, Christianity spread throughout the entire kingdom. When Kush was defeated by the Axumites, founders of modern Ethiopia, several smaller Nubian, Christian kingdoms survived. Not until the sixteenth century, after almost a thousand years of pressure, did Islam gain supremacy in western Sudan. Ethiopia, shortly after defeating Kush, also became Christianized, and survived as a African only Christian island in a Moslem sea. In fact, Ethiopia has remained an independent, self-governing state until the present, with the brief exception of the Italian occupation between 1936 and 1941.

The development of man and civilization in Africa was not limited merely to the area in the Northeast. There is much evidence of cultural contact between people in all parts of the continent. When the Sahara began to dry out about 2000 B.C., the population was pushed out from there in all directions, thereby forcing the spread of both people and cultures. Even then, the Sahara did not become a block to communication as has been thought. There is clear evidence that trade routes continued to be used even after the Sahara became a desert. Scholars also have found that, shortly after the Iron Age reached North Africa, iron tools began to appear throughout the entire continent, and, within few centuries, iron production was being carried on at a number of different locations. At about the same time, sailors from the far East brought the yam and the banana to the shores of Africa. These fruits spread rapidly from the east coast across most of the continent, becoming basic staples in the African diet. New tools and new crops rapidly expanded the food supply and thereby provided a better way of life.

West African Empires

Although West Africa had been inhabited since the earliest times, about two thousand years ago several events occurred which injected new vigor into the area. The first event had been the drying of the Sahara, which had driven new immigrants into West Africa and, from the admixture of these new people with the previous inhabitants, a new vitality developed. Then, the introduction of the yam and the banana, as previously noted, significantly increased the food supply. Finally, the developments of iron tools and of iron work further increased the food supply and also provided better weapons. This permitted increased military power and political expansion. These were the necessary ingredients that led to the building of three large and powerful empires: Ghana, Mali and Songhay. Commerce was another factor which contributed to their development. Governmental control of a thriving trade in both gold and salt provided the wealth and power necessary for establishing these large empires.

Unfortunately, our knowledge about West Africa's early history is severely limited by the lack of written records from that period. In recent years, archaeologists have been unearthing increasing amounts of material which contribute to our knowledge of early Africa. West Africans tended to build their cities from nondurable materials such as wood, mud, and grass. The area does have a rich oral tradition, including special groups of trained men dedicated to its development and maintenance. As oral history is always open to modification and embellishment, with no means available for checking the original version, this material must be used cautiously. Nevertheless, when employed in conjunction with other sources, it does provide a rich source of information.

The earliest written records were provided by the Arabs who developed close contact with West Africa by 800 A.D. After that, West Africans began using Arabic themselves to record their own history. In the middle of the fifteenth century, Europeans began regular contact with West Africa, and they left a wide variety of written sources. While most of these early Europeans were not men of learning, many of their records are still valuable to the student of history.

Ghana was already a powerful empire, with a highly complex political and social organization, when the Arabs reached it about 800 A.D. An Arabic map of 830 A.D. has Ghana marked on it, and other contemporary Arabic sources refer to Ghana as the land of gold. From this time on, a thriving trade developed between Ghana and the world of Islam, including the beginnings of a slave trade. However, this early slave trade was a two-way affair. Al-Bakri, a contemporary Arab writer, was impressed with the display of power and affluence of the Ghanaian king. According to him, the king had an army of two hundred thousand warriors which included about forty thousand men with bows and arrows. (Modern scholars know that the real power of the Ghanaian army was due not to its large numbers as much as to its iron-pointed spears.) Al-Bakri also described an official audience at the royal palace in which the king, the Ghana, was surrounded by lavish trappings of gold and silver and was attended by many pages, servants, large numbers of faithful officials, provincial rulers, and mayors of cities. On such occasions, the king heard the grievances of his people and passed judgment on them. Al-Bakri also describes lavish royal banquets which included a great deal of ceremonial ritual.

The power of the king, and therefore of the empire, was based on his ability to maintain law and order in his kingdom. This provided the development of a flourishing commerce, and it was by taxing all imports and exports that the king was able to finance his government. The key item in this financial structure was the regulation of the vast gold resources of West Africa, and it was by controlling its availability that the king was also able to manipulate its value. However, after the eleventh century, the Ghanaian empire was continually exposed to harassment from a long series of Arabic holy wars. Over a long period of time, the power of the king was reduced until the empire of Ghana finally collapsed. From its ashes emerged the basis for the creation of a new and even larger empire: the empire of Mali.

Mali, like Ghana, was built on gold. While Ghana had been under attack by the Arabs from outside, various peoples from within struck for their own freedom. The Mandinka people, who had been the middlemen in the gold trade and who had received protection from the king of Ghana, achieved their independence in 1230 A.D. They went on to use their position in the gold trade to build an empire of their own. The peak of their influence and power was achieved in the early fourteenth century under Mansa Kankan Musa who ruled Mali for a quarter of a century. He extended its boundaries beyond those of Ghana to include such important trading cities as

Timbuktu and Gao, encompassing an area larger than that controlled by the European monarchs of that day. This empire also was based on its ability to provide stable government and a flourishing economy. An Arab traveler, Ibn Batuta, shortly after Musa's death, found complete safety of travel throughout the entire empire of Mali.

Mansa Musa and, for that matter, the entire ruling class of Mali had converted to Islam. This intensified the contacts between West Africa and the Islamic world. Although several of these kings made pilgrimages to Mecca, the most spectacular was the one by Mansa Musa in 1324. On his way there, he made a prolonged visit to Cairo. While there, both his generosity in giving lavish gifts of gold to its citizens and his extravagant spending poured so much gold into the Cairo market that it caused a general inflation. It was estimated by the Arabs that his caravan included some sixty thousand people and some five hundred personal slaves. Mansa Musa took a number of Arabic scholars and skilled artisans back to West Africa with him. These scholars enhanced the university of Timbuktu which was already widely known as a center of Islamic studies. Now, besides exchanging material goods, West Africa and the Arabs became involved in a steady exchange of scholars and learning.

The success of Mali in bringing law and order to a large portion of West Africa was responsible for its decline. Having experienced the advantages of political organization, many localities sought self-government. In fact, Mansa Musa had overextended the empire. A skilled ruler like himself could manipulate it, but those who followed were not adequate to the challenge. Movements for self-government gradually eroded central authority until by 1500 Mali had lost its importance as an empire. Although the period of its power and prosperity was respectable by most world empire standards, it was short-lived compared to the history of the previous empire of Ghana. Again, a new empire was to emerge from the ruins of the previous one.

The Songhay empire was based on the strength of the important trading city of Gao. This city won its independence from Mali as early as 1375, and, within a century, it had developed into an empire. Songhay carried on a vigorous trade with the outside world and particularly with the Arabic countries. The ruling class, in particular, continued to follow the religion of Islam, but it is generally believed that the masses of the population remained faithful to the more traditional West African religions based on fetishism and ancestor worship. Two of the more powerful rulers were Suni Ali, who began his 28-year reign in 1464, and Askia Mohammed, who began his 36-year reign in 1493. Askia Mohammed was also known as Askia the Great. The security of Songhay was undermined when Arabs from Morocco invaded and captured the key trading city of Timbuktu in 1591. Thus ended the last of the three great empires of West Africa.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that those parts of West Africa which remained outside of these three empires fulfilled the usual European image of primitive savagery. On the contrary, a number of other small yet powerful states existed throughout the entire period. If this had not been so, the Europeans, as they arrived in the fifteenth century, could have pillaged West Africa at will. Instead, the Europeans were only able to establish trading stations where local kings permitted it. With the exception of a few raiding parties which seized Africans and carried them off as slaves, most slave acquisition was done through hard bargaining and a highly systematized trading process. The Europeans were never allowed to penetrate inland, and they found that they always had to treat the African kings and their agents as business equals. Many of the early European visitors, in fact, were impressed by the luxury, power, trading practices, skilled crafts, and the complex social structure which they found in Africa. Only in some parts of East Africa, where the states were unusually small, were the Portuguese able to pillage and conquer at will. While many Europeans may have thought of Africa as being filled with ignorant savages, those who reached its shores were impressed instead with its vigorous civilization.

The Culture of West Africa

An African should not have to find it necessary to make apologies for his civilization. However, Europeans and Americans have come to believe, at least in their subconscious minds, that civilization can be equated with progress in science and technology. Because the Africans lagged far behind the Europeans in the arts of war and of economic exploitation, the Europeans believed at the Africans must be uncivilized savages. Africa, like the rest of the world outside Europe, had not made the break-through in science, technology, and capitalism which had occurred in Europe. Nevertheless, they had their own systems of economics, scholarship, art, and religion as well as a highly complex social and political structure. There are common elements which run throughout the entire continent of Africa, but to gain the best insight into the background of the American slaves, West African culture can be isolated and studied by itself.

The West African economy was a subsistence economy, and therefore people were basically satisfied with the status quo and saw no point in accumulating wealth. Also in a subsistence economy, there is little need for money, and most trade was done through barter. Because there was no money, there was no wage labor. Instead, labor was created either through a system of domestic slavery or through a complex system of reciprocal duties and obligations. However, West African slavery was more like the European system of serfdom than it was like modern slavery.

Within this subsistence economy, each tribe or locality tended to specialize in certain fields of agriculture or manufacture which necessitated a vigorous and constant trade between all of them. However, within the trading centers, money had come into regular use. It usually took the form of cowrie shells, iron bars, brass rings, or other standard items of value. Systems of banking and credit had also been developed, but even those involved in money, banking, and trade had a noncapitalist attitude towards wealth. They enjoyed luxury and the display of affluence, but they had no concept of investing capital to increase overall production.

West Africa also carried on a vigorous trade with the outside world. When the Europeans arrived, they discovered, as had the Arabs before them, that the West Africans could strike a hard bargain. They had developed their own systems of weights and measures and insisted on using them. Europeans who failed to treat the king or his agent fairly, found that the Africans simply refused to deal with them again. Trade was always monopolized by the king, and he appointed specific merchants to deal with foreign businessmen. As previously noted, it was by the control and taxation of commerce That the king financed his government and maintained his power.

The strength and weaknesses of the West African economy can be seen by a cursory glance at a list of its main exports and imports. West African exports included gold, ivory, hides, leather goods, cotton, peppercorn, olive oil, and cola. While some of these items were only exported for short distances, others found their way over long distances. West African gold, for example, was exported as far away as Asia and Northern Europe. Some English coins of the period were minted with West African gold. West African imports included silks from Asia, swords, knives, kitchen-ware, and trinkets from the primitive industrial factories of Europe as well as horses and other items from Arabia. Two other items of trade became all important for the future--the exportation of slaves and the importation of guns and gunpowder.

West African manufacturing demonstrated a considerable amount of skill in a wide variety of crafts. These included basket-weaving, pottery making, woodworking and iron-working. Archeological evidence shows that West Africans were making pottery and terracotta sculpture as much as two thousand years ago. Three-dimensional forms seem to have held a particular interest for West African artists. During the last century, art critics have gone beyond considering this art as "primitive" and have begun to appreciate its aesthetic qualities. In fact, in recent years, African art has had considerable influence on contemporary artists.

The two forms of African art best known outside Africa are music and the dance. African music contrasts with European music in its use of a different scale and in concentrating less on melodic development and more on the creation of complex and subtle rhythmic patterns. Musicians used to view African music as simple and undeveloped, but now musicologists admit that African rhythms are more complex and highly developed than rhythms in European music. Africans like to sing and to develop songs for all occasions: religious songs, work songs, and songs for leisure. African singing is also marked by the frequent use of a leader and a chorus response technique. African dance, like its music, builds on highly complex rhythmic patterns. It too is closely related to all parts of the African's daily life. There are dances for social and for ritual occasions. The most common use of the dance was as an integral part of African religious rites.

African religion has usually been defined as fetish worship-the belief that specific inanimate objects are inhabited by spirits endowed with magical powers. While this view of African religion is partly true, it obscures more than it clarifies. The fetish is believed to have some powers of its own, but, in general, it derived them from its close association with a dead ancestor. Behind the fetish was the religion of ancestor worship, and the fetish is better understood as a religious symbol. Ancestor worship was also part of the African's strong family ties and his powerful kinship patterns. Behind the realm of this fetish and ancestor worship lay another world of distant and powerful deities who had control over the elemental natural forces of the universe. While this religion might be described as primitive, it cannot be viewed as simplistic. It involved a series of complex ideas about fetishes, ancestors, and deities which required a high degree of intelligence.

The intricacies of theology, law, medicine, and politics made it necessary to develop a complex system of oral education. Europeans, who tended to identify knowledge with writing, had long assumed that, because there was no written language in early Africa, there could be no body of knowledge. After the arrival of Islam, Arabic provided a written form within which West African ideas could be set down.

Only recently have scholars become aware of the libraries and the many publications to be found in West Africa. Two of these books were responsible for providing historians with detailed information about the customs and social structure of the area. One was the Tarikh al-Fattiish, the chronicle of the seeker after knowledge, written by Mahmud Kati in the early fifteenth century. The other was the Tarikh al-Sudan, the chronicle of the Western Sudan, written by Abd al-Rahman as-Sadi about the beginning of the seventeenth century.

The society of West Africa was stratified in several different ways. It was divided in terms of differing occupations: farmers, merchants, priests, scholars, laborers, and a wide variety of craftsmen. The social ranking assigned to these occupation divisions varied according to the importance of each occupation.

Society was also divided in terms of clans, families, and villages. At the same time, there was a hierarchical division based on the varying degrees of political power each group exercised within its society. Some had the power to become chiefs and rulers. Some had the right to choose and depose rulers, and others could limit and define the rights of the rulers. However, almost everywhere there was a clear trend toward increasing centralized authority and decreasing popular participation. The centralization of power in West Africa never reached the extremes of absolute monarchy which occurred in Europe, and there was never the same need for revolutionary social changes to revive democratic participation within African society.

In an old Asante ritual, connected with the enthronement of a ruler, the people pray that their ruler should not be greedy, should not be hard of hearing, should not act on his own initiative nor perpetuate personal abuse nor commit violence on his people, While the right to rule was generally passed on from generation to generation within a single family, the power did not immediately and automatically fall on the eldest son within that family. Instead, another family had the power to select the next ruler from among a large number of potential candidates within the ruling family. If the ruler who was selected ruled unwisely and unfairly, he could also be deposed. Here was a distinct limitation on royal absolutism.

In a similar way, there were limitations on the centralization of economic power. While valuable land in Europe had been captured and controlled by private ownership and was the possession of a powerful minority, land in West Africa still belonged to the community. A powerful family had the right to control and supervise the use of the land for the welfare of the community, and, undoubtedly, this power could be misused. Such a family assigned land to its users along with certain tenure safeguards which operated to limit even the power of the family. Those using the land who did not fulfill their obligations to the community by utilizing it properly and wisely, could have the land taken away from them. It might then be given to someone else. Both in economics and in politics, historical custom and precedent has limited minority power and has protected the welfare of the community. Nevertheless, community power and wealth has come to be divided into two major divisions: the rich and powerful few and the poor and powerless majority. Though the elite ruled and the masses served, rights and obligations which limited the amount of exploitation were always in existence.

One of the signs of the trend toward the increasing centralization of power within the society of West Africa was the development of a professional army. The gigantic armies of Ghana had been conscripted from the common citizenry. As the ruling class in West Africa adopted Islam and as its desire to increase its power continued to undermine local tradition and custom, there was more need for a professional army which would owe its total allegiance to the ruler.

Also, changes in military technology required a skilled and carefully trained army. Horses were expensive and could only be used efficiently by men who were expert riders and who knew how use a horse in a combat situation. Even more, with the arrival the Europeans in the fifteenth century, West Africa was introduced to guns and gunpowder. These, too, were expensive required trained soldiers to make good use of them. While the new military technology had increased the ruler's freedom from popular control, it made him increasingly dependent on and subject to European interests. The African ruler's desire for guns and the European's desire for slaves went hand in hand.

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