Thesis statement: This book is a social and cultural redefinition of American history through those Africans who became Americans. It is an attempt at a definition of what it is to be Black in America. This is because being Black in America also defines America. Those Americans who trace descent from African roots have a subsequent history that shows - and continues to show - what it is to be American. The people now referred to as African Americans were the essential foundation of the political economy of the United States. African Americans also continue to be catalytic to the entire sense of justice and freedom in the Americas. And, the cultural infusion of Black peoples has revolutionized arts and sciences in the so-called “New World.”
Without the labor and invention of Blacks, the contemporary United States would be poorer, smaller, and less culturally rich. And, it is the historical experience of Black Americans that defines American social justice. Since before the Mayflower, the struggle for self-determination by Africans in America has shaped the character of civil and human rights in the United States. And, due to the pernicious persistence of Race in America, African Americans continue to re-define just what it is to be free…
It is to this end – the historical re-definition of American freedoms, economic justice, and social liberty by peoples of African descent – that this book is written.
Organization of this text: Black in America was written from the lecture notes of the 2-part college course “African American History” taught in the California Community College system. This author originated these courses. The courses represented are fully accredited and transferable for college credit in the California State or University systems. This text replaces the author’s earlier anthology: African American: Readings in History and Identity. This book also contains many primary source documents for student appraisal.
Black in America is structured in five (5) sections; #1, An Introduction to Race, Class and Culture in American History; #2, Africans before America; #3, Black and American; #4, Black, American and Free, and #5, Have We “Overcome?” – Black Americans since 1968.
While this all-inclusive approach may seem exceptionally broad for the task of understanding the African American experience – it nonetheless allows the student of Black history to (finally) fully appreciate the true context of Black struggles for freedom and an American identity. It is an approach that has proven beneficial in the past (Carter G. Woodson, John Hope Franklin, Darlene Clark Hine and Lerone Bennett are just a few examples). You see, Black Americans are not simply formerly enslaved peoples. They are former Africans – with as much of a rich and diverse heritage as European Americans or any other group.
Inclusive though the attempt may be, there must be the eternal disclaimer that it is yet an incomplete history. It is the nature of history that the contemporary underrepresented are also the historically underrepresented. History is in the documents. Documents on the African and African American heritage are more difficult to locate and to interpret. Historically marginalized and currently economically disenfranchised, the task is to successfully articulate the Black and American interface through time. To do this, some details and particulars were sacrificed to present students of African American history with a coherent useful brief survey of how a people became Black and American.
Section one of this text, entitled: An Introduction to Race and Class in American History, highlights the ways in which race and class (and gender) have been socially constructed and institutionalized. This first section of the book also investigates the development and promotion of ethnocentrism (racism) as an American cultural norm.
Section two is named: Africans Before America. This portion of the text broadly and briefly surveys Africa since ancient times. It also illuminates the many European and Indigenous American contacts with Africans that would eventually lead to the formation of African American peoples.
The fourth section is Black and American. It begins with the English colonies in North America. Most of the time and energy that went into this text was put into the period starting with the newly created United States of America and ending with the “Obama Phenomenon” of the 21st century.
Section five is “Have We “Overcome?” – Black Americans since 1968. This section evaluates the post Civil Rights era beginning with the Federal assault on the Civil Rights movements. The section advances into the notion that African Americans have been the most politically successful of any immigrant group coming to the Americas. Blacks came as non-humans. Africans who once came as property have become world famous entertainers, multi-millionaire corporate giants, and political leaders. The United States – where chattel slavery destroyed the opportunities of both free and enslaved – eventually elected a Black (African American) president.
However, the “dream” of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. – that all Americans receive the same justice, equality, and opportunity – that dream is yet to be realized as the 21st century enters its second decade. African American may well have progressed politically, but there are other areas of glaring deficit. Blacks are still overwhelmingly at or below the poverty level. Peoples of African descent disproportionately fill jails and prisons. Black Americans continue to have a drop-out rate that is higher than the national average. And, African Americans maintain a higher rate of under employment and unemployment. In short – institutional racism and preference persists.
This final section also advances the thesis that one result of the post civil rights era is Black complacency. Since legal integration and affirmative action supposedly leveled the playing field in American society, many African Americans have concluded that the need for ongoing struggle for civil rights is done. On the contrary, the “Have We Overcome” section provides evidence that civil rights alone have not (and will not) result in Black prosperity. African Americans have not been well served by being complaisant Civil rights can be denied for want of money. Human rights are violated regardless of the letter of the law. Many lawyers and politicians see no rights beyond the bill. As was the position of Dr. King shortly before his martyrdom – this text ends with the strong assertion that economic justice is the challenge for 21st century Blacks in America. There is a Summary chapter on culture, race, gender, class, social institutions and political economy as relates to Blacks in America.
The end of this book contains additional Back-matter for ongoing study. This comes in the form of: a bibliography / suggested readings guide, and assessment tools such as: an Annotated Bibliography tool, Essay Instructions, a Film Review Guide, and a Biography Template used to collect information on key historical figures.
AN INTRODUCTION TO RACE, CLASS AND CULTURE IN AMERICAN HISTORY
Most people’s concept of Race relies on an artificial construct of relatively recent invention. Since the human race originated in Africa (ca. 150 – 250 thousand years ago) there have been several sub-species of human. The last was called Neanderthal. They became extinct about 30,000 years ago. Since then, there has been only one race: the human race. We are all biologically identical and interchangeable, yet culturally and ethnically diverse and distinct. This cultural and ethnic diversity has been institutionalized during European global colonization from about the 14th century on as categories of Race.
In the colonies that were to become the United States of America, these racial categories came to be institutionalized on the basis of skin color. People were placed in different groups based on skin color (among other differences such as religion). This was a political arrangement made mostly for economic reasons. Indian land had value. African labor produced value, and so on. Therefore these groups became (racial) social classes. Social Class refers to a person’s economic access and opportunity within a social system.
Since society is made interlocking institutions (systems) that control people’s lives, race and class distinctions have concrete consequences for all involved. For some the color based race system would mean rewards – for others it would mean degradation. To be defined as White (and male) resulted in unachieved preference and power. To be institutionally identified as non-White resulted in degrees of disenfranchisement and unrewarded labor. It is a social history of a racist culture.
Culture is – in part – is the set of assumptions and beliefs about the way the world should work. These assumptions and associations govern individual behavior. As I have said, these peoples coming to the lands that would be called the United States were culturally and ethnically distinct. Sometimes – often, actually – the cultural expectations of a people are in conflict with one or more of the institutions of society. They had differing interpretations of how the world should work. It is just that one of the color-coded racial groups would have the (unearned) power to enforce its vision of exclusivity. If one institutionally confirmed group expected the world should work one way – let’s say enslavement – and yet other groups expected the world should work differently – let’s say freedom – then out of that cultural and institutional conflict emerges the incidents of history. It is the interaction between these three – race, class and culture – that we will use to define Black American history. This interaction drives historical events.
And, all too often, the history of African Americans is taught as if bound in the fetters of enslavement – as if the sole identity of Black Americans is one of tragedy. Instead, this text substitutes the triumph of an enslaved people – a people who – though racialized and marginalized – yet continue to challenge the nature of American Justice.
First, what is an African? Second, what is America? And, also, what do I mean by Black? To be Black and American is an international experience. To overlook that fact diminishes both Africans and Americans. After all, more Africans ended up in other parts of the Americas than the small area we now call the United States. To use the words: Black American – to be Black and American – acknowledges a social and cultural dislocation from both Africa and America. Both Africa and America are continents. Each is made of many nations, cultural traditions and societies. Almost all Americans came from elsewhere – decimating and absorbing the indigenous Americans in the process. Each immigrating group retained an identity associated with their place of origin. Only the African diaspora required the purposeful destruction of national, social and cultural identities. Only the forced relocation of Africans required a people to re-invent themselves – and – in the process of this reinvention – American culture has been reinvented. The politics and economics of the African American experience have transformed America. And, it has transformed Africans into Blacks.
Black Americans are not just African any more than other Americans are just American. But, the cultural genocide of American institutions of enslavement stripped Blacks of this self awareness. “Black” may well be an ironic metaphor for this blank spot in what could have been a truly African American identity. Other Americans can proudly self-assert themselves as Dutch-American, or English-American, from Cornwall, or Jicarilla Apache. African Americans must affiliate with an entire continent. This presents certain unusual problems in understanding African American history and identity. No matter how strongly some Black Americans may wish otherwise – contemporary African Americans may well be the most “American” of us all. The African American search for a useful past upon which to build a present full of possibilities – the Black yearning for freedom and self determination – has defined just what it can mean to be American. And, it will be the future of Black Americans that will define the future of the American Dream.
Readers will see that throughout the book, many titles hold to spellings such as: “Afri-Latino” (or whatever). This is because people of African heritage come from Africa – not Afro-ca. They were Afri-cans, not Afro-cans. Today, Black Americans are also African Americans. The term “Afro-American” will be used in its historical context. We shall not shy from using the word: “Black” within the text. Black and White (or other ethnic “colors”) will be capitalized as the proper name of a people – not as a color. “Black” represents a distinct historical experience of a people. The word is perfectly appropriate. It is the original word applied to Africans by Europeans. It forcibly replaced “Ibo” or “Mende” that Black Americans would have used, much as other Americans can hyphenate their names with such identities as: Irish-American or Italian-American. What may have once been Ashanti-American – is now simply Black and American.
AFRICANS BEFORE AMERICA
Chapter 1: AFRICANS
Firstly: all of you reading this are Africans. To be human is to be African. It is where all contemporary human life originated. Current American culture views African as synonymous with skin color. We do not know whether ancient Africans were Black in the modern concept of Race (capital “B” and “R”), but they were African.
Africa is where most of what it means to be human originated also. The family, language, astronomy, technology, religion, domestication of plant and animal species (and, perhaps, beer): all African. In brief, the biological, social, and cultural source of all human beings is Africa. Therefore, we are all Africans in some more recent or more distant context.
Exhaustive DNA studies have replicated the biologic origin of humanity as being African. Some of the best evidence places the origin of all modern humans in the womb of a single mitochondrial “Eve” in East Africa around 200,000 years ago (Ehrlich: 94-109). It is from her that we are all descended. She was the mother of all humanity. And, she was African.
Our best current scientific data show Homo sapiens – modern humans – first migrated from their African origins into other parts of the world about 100,000 years ago (Fernandez-Armesto: 13). Already, the primary elements of the civilizations we all know and share were part of the human toolkit. Cultural understanding and complex social organization are well documented in many archaeological sites in and near the continent of Africa (Ehrlich: 205-09).
The next step in the human adventure on this planet is called “Civilization.” It, too, is of African origin. Along African rivers such as the Nile, the Congo, or the Niger, Black people would develop all aspects of complex and sophisticated societies. The well known ancient architectural marvel of the pyramids is the only one of humanities Seven Ancient Wonders to survive. But other less well known African civilizations contributed the bulk of peoples that would one day be called African Americans.
Beyond the physical biology, the size of our brains or the types of tools we make, the things that make us all human – that gives us our humanity – are culture and social relationships. These too are of African origin. Language, religion, and abstract thought, are all elemental to the human being. Families, bands, tribes, city-states, and nations are African firsts. The use and control of fire, organized scavenging, hunting, and gathering, the domestication of plants and animals are all part of our African heritage.
The diverse environment represented in Africa also laid foundations for the diversity of human approaches to survival and prosperity. Twa and !Kung hunter-gatherers share the African continent with Bantu agriculturalists and Maasai pastoralists. These modern examples of our collective African heritage stem from an ancient population that generated far more than we see now. Probably the most ancient and certainly the most original human society and culture of all time is African. Even though some interesting modern interpretations assert that it is in the Middle East or that its people were “White,” or that it was a Mediterranean empire, and even though we know it by the Greek name, Egypt was (and is) African.
Kemet is the first civilization in the world. Kemet is the African name of the land we now call Egypt. This more modern term – Egypt – resulted from Greek and later conquerors of the land applying their own names in their own language. Kemet means “black land” or “black earth.” And, Kemet may well be the first complex civilization in the world. It is certainly the longest civilization to still be located in the same place. If you define a civilization by its ability to make war, Sumer in Mesopotamia may be older. But, if you define a civilization by its peace and stability, then Kemet again is the oldest. And, despite modern political assertions that Egypt is in the Middle East, Kemet is in Africa.
Egypt (Kemet) bordered by deserts is absolutely the “gift of the Nile.” But African civilization is the gift of Kemet. Eminent African scholar Cheik Anta Diop has said that: “Egypt is to Africa as Greece is to Europe.” In other words, Kemet should be considered the jewel at the heart of African civilization from which much culture, arts, sciences and technologies radiate. Much the way Western Civilization traces its key origins to ancient Greece; other African civilizations owe a debt to Kemet.
In the past, there has been a spurious controversy over whether or not the ancient people of Kemet were Black people. This is a racist argument on either side. The people of ancient Kemet – or Egypt, if you like – were African. Regardless of our modern preoccupations with race as evidenced by skin color, the people of Kemet were African. And, just like today, Africans come in many shades (as, by the way, do Europeans). Any detailed examination of artistic representations show Kemetic peoples skin tones to range from dark Black to light tan and everything in between. The argument that they were Caucasians is based on the racist mythos that only Europeans could create advanced societies. It was an ugly idea based on European ethnocentrism. And it served well to perpetuate relatively modern color-based racism that has evolved since the start of European colonization. The argument that all ancient Kemetic peoples had to be Black in the modern sense of the word simply reinforces skin color based distinctions that are contemporary and have very little utility to understanding the peoples in themselves. It is putting our 21st century concepts of race in the way of understanding how the people of Kemet saw race.
We will leave the discourse of Egyptian “Blackness” with some tales that show both the connectedness of Kemet with the rest of ancient Africa, and that race as we know it did not apply.
Akhenaten was a pharaoh of the 18th dynasty in ancient Kemet. While his reign was quite controversial for many reasons – including the origin of monotheism (belief in one god) – it was not controversial about race. Akhenaten’s court sponsored a new realistic form of artistic representation. In the naturalistic style known today as the Amarna style, the pharaoh and his family are depicted without the stiffness and artificial perfection of earlier times. This man – the Pharaoh Akhenaten – has what today would be called African features. His lips are full and his nose is broad. No one said if he was Black or not. It did not matter.
Piankhi & Taharqa were two rulers of Kush (Sudan) and pharaohs of Kemet (727 BC – 25TH Dynasty). The region of Kush is in the Nile valley. The kingdoms of Kush are one of the many links between the Afri-Mediterranean and the Sub-Saharan Africans – Africans who had been considered as a racially distinct primitive population – until it was “discovered” that the rulers of Kush had actually invaded and re-unified Kemet. These same Kushite people had revived the fervor for pyramid building that the Keme had forsaken. The rulers of Kush built over 200 pyramids in their (Sudanese) homeland.
Apart from the rare times that Kemet was invaded by foreign conquerors, African Egypt was very stable and fairly peaceful. Most Kemetic wealth was derived not from warfare, but from trade. Natural products like rice, grain, salt & pepper, gold, palm oil, dates, cotton, hides, ivory and slaves were caravanned across the deserts alongside Kemetic manufactured goods to all parts of west Asia, the eastern Mediterranean and Africa. In this way the people of Kemet had profound influences on those around them.
Biblical Africa is another complex problem in African American history. Partly because of the historical affinities that the Black population of contemporary America holds for the Christian religions, and partly because of the more recent troubles between Islam and Christianity, the role of Africa in the Bible can be incendiary. But these forces demand especially that Black Jews, Black Christians and Black Muslims know more about the African contributions to their faith.
If there was a Garden of Eden, it probably was an African Eden – during an ice age that made the Sahara green. Depending on how literal the Bible is to be taken, the current Christian Old Testament places the genesis of humankind in Eden, and science has placed that genesis in Africa. Can they both be right? An area as eligible as any for the Biblical stories of Eden is the well watered region of Aquatic Age North Africa, and the Nile valley. Bible accounts differ. Abraham’s version of Genesis is vastly different from the King James Version – for example.
This is what current science knows: About 13,000 years ago the retreat of ice age glaciers began. These glaciers had covered most of Europe and had lowered global sea levels considerably. During the glaciations, North Africa had a dramatically different climate than exists today. It was especially more wet and temperate in North Africa. Where the Sahara desert is now, was then grasslands and savanna dotted with trees and flowing with rivers, streams, lakes and even an inland sea. In fact it was so wet that it has been called an “Aquatic Age.” Already, diverse African cultures had spread throughout the continent and beyond. Rock paintings from Tassili n-Ajjer in the central Sahara already show a developed pastoral culture of tall slender Black people. These herders of cattle wore what looks like textiles, carried spears and other implements, and are shown in a variety of activities.
Most versions of the (Judeo-Christian-Islamic) Bible place the first contact between Africans and Biblical patriarchs with King Solomon, son of David, and Makeda, the Queen of Sheba (Ethiopia and Yemen). Although no Biblical text supports the idea of romance between Solomon and Makeda, the royal family of Ethiopia traces its bloodline to such an alleged affair. And, to this day, the Judaic population of Ethiopia asserts that it is the oldest Hebrew population outside of Israel. Modern Ethiopia also hosts a large population of African Orthodox Christians.
Akhenaten and monotheism represent another Biblical connection with the core of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic creed. Monotheism – the belief in one God – is supposed to be one of the most significant evolutions in human religion. It has been claimed by some Christian theologians that the covenant between the patriarch Abraham and Yahweh over the sacrifice of Isaac is the first evidence of monotheistic Judaism. But Abraham (if he lived) lived in a time when many gods dominated what would later be termed Hebrew thought. This is clear when later in Exodus, we meet Abraham’s descendant (through Joseph) – the Egyptian prince and Levite Jew: Moses.
Jewish religious scholars place the life of Moses from about 1391 – 1271 BCE. Ankenaten ruled from 1352 – 1336. If these dates are accepted, then Moses lived in a Kemet (Egypt) that struggled with monotheism as Ankenaten defined it for his nation.
Then, later, after leaving Africa it was Moses who came down from Sinai catching his flock worshipping many gods. The first of the Ten Commandments is: “I am the Lord thy God. Thou shall have no other gods before me.” Thou shalt not kill is much later. This is fairly clear textual evidence that before the African – Moses – the future Hebrew people used to worship many gods.
Alexander the Great conquered Kemet is the 4th century BCE. Henceforth it would be called Egypt by the European world. A Greek and later Greco-Egyptian dynasty would remain in power in Egypt under the Ptolemy’s until the last - Cleopatra VII - committed suicide rather than face humiliation by Caesar Octavian.
By that time, most of North Africa was becoming the bread basket for Roman Europe, and only the oldest texts called Egypt Kemet.
Nubian Kush and Meroe
Nubia is a region located in the present day north Sudan and south Egypt. Also known as Cush, the ancient land of Nubian Kush was the southern neighbor of Kemet. As such, ancient Kemet (Egypt) culture and politics heavily influenced the Kushite people throughout their civilization. Trade was the most common and consistent interaction. Kemet was at the center of an international trade network and Kush was part of one long arm of that trade. Ivory, incense, hides, gold, salt and slaves were among the many goods traded by Kush. This contributed to a high level of material culture in Kush.
It was during an interruption of the close relationship between Kemet and Kush caused by the Asiatic invasion of Kemet that Kush emerged as perhaps the second great civilization of Africa. The capital for this new Kushite civilization was at Kerma in present-day south Egypt. The site of Kerma was occupied even while the earliest foundations in Kemet were being set. By around 1600 BCE, Kerma was as dominant and influential in the Sudan as its northern neighbor was in the Lower Nile.
Eventually, a Kemetic pharaoh named Ahmose expelled the Hyksos invaders and re-established control over Kush as well. During this time of revived interaction, there were close bonds formed between the peoples of Kush and Kemet. Temples to the gods of Kemet were built at places such as Kushite Napata. Families intermarried as the upper classes of Kemet either retired or vacationed in Kush, and the Coptic language was adopted through most of Kush. And later, around 750 BCE, when Kemet was again in turmoil a Kushite monarch reunified Upper Kemet. His successors Piankhi & Taharqa were two of the rulers of Kush who were Pharaohs of Kemet as well during a 100-year dynasty (25TH Dynasty). All these and later Kushite kings viewed their civilization as the inheritors and perpetuators of Kemet culture. These and up to the 300s Kushite kings and nobles were buried in pyramids. Kush spread their influence south and west of the current Northern Sudan.
Meroe is the seat of later Kushite government south of Napata. After 590 BCE and for the next few centuries their northern neighbor Kemet was conquered by a series of powers, finally ending in Rome under Octavian (Augustus). All during and after this time, the Kushite civilization centered on Meroe maintained the culture of Kemet. Rulers of Meroe were pharaohs. These rulers presided over a vast and highly organized society made further stable by elements of matriarchic rule. In Meroe, the queen-mother – called: Candace – and other royal women had a central role in confirming the next pharaoh. Many of these Candace were warrior-women as well as states-persons. This is shown in the beautifully sculpted stone art of Meroe. Meroe art and architecture evolved to represent the best of Nubian and Kemetic craftsmanship. Aside from temple complexes, Meroe was home to lavish palaces showing influence from all of the trade contacts of the Nubians. By this time, Meroe was linked by trade with the East African coast and the Indian Ocean all the way to the West African interior. In the 300s CE Meroe was conquered and destroyed by the Ethiopian civilization of Axum (Aksum). About this era, the Axumites (also known as Ethiopians) converted to Christianity. The church of Ethiopia claims to preserve the Hebrew Ark of the Covenant (of Moses) to this day. Still later, the King of Axum is esteemed in Islam as one who aided and protected the Prophet Muhammad’s family. Thus, this part of African is central to three of the world’s great religious traditions.
Kumbi Saleh, Mali and Songhai
Looking at Kumbi Saleh (ancient Ghana), the Empire of Mali and the Empire of Songhai, brings the history of Blacks in Africa closer to America. While the earlier African civilizations were far more distant in time and space, these three are far more up-close – far more personal. The Nile River in East Africa nurtured the Nubian and Kemetic civilizations. But the Niger River in central West Africa would be the cultural “cradle” for most Blacks in America today. In simple numbers as well, West Africa will unwillingly supply the bulk of enslaved Africans to North America.
Ancient Ghana (Kumbi Saleh-ca 1 CE) was nested between the Niger and the Senegal rivers in West Africa. Thriving on control of trans-Saharan trade routes, this wealthy nation traded pepper, gold, and slaves for textiles, salt, glass, and other North and East African commodities. A Soninke people who were expert ironworkers, the people of Ghana spread military control over the West African area that would one day become the source for a large portion of slaves bound for the Americas.
At first a pagan kingdom, Ghana reached its height of power and influence under Tenkamenin (1062 CE). Under his control, Ghana was known to have magnificent palaces, gardens, and temples. Arab traders had spread word of the wealth and splendor of Ghana, and its control of gold mines. Muslims known as the Almoravids invaded Ghana in 1076. They soon established the Islamic religion over the ruling and merchant classes in Ghana. Traditional West African religions – including Ifa – continued to flourish among the working-class Africans of Ghana and those south and west of Ghana.
Sundiata Keita was a Mandinka of the Keita clan when his people were conquered by ancient Ghana. Devoting himself to liberation and revenge, this young man whose name partly means “lion,” consolidated his power over the kingdoms south of Ghana to create the empire of Mali in about 1235. He created the title: Mansa, which was the royal rank of emperor used by fabulously wealthy Mandinka monarchs from that time on. By about 1240, Sundiata Keita – now Mansa – had consolidated Mali and absorbed Ghana.
Abubakari (ca-1310) is the name given by some Muslim scholars such as Ibn Fadlullah al-Umari for the ninth Mansa of the Malian Empire. His story is provocative and relentless. Among all other Mansa recorded in either Arabic or African documents, Mansa Abubakari II may even surpass his successor, Mansa Musa, in drama.
The Empire of Mali bordered on the Atlantic Ocean. Mansa Abubakari was passionately interested in what lay beyond. To satisfy his thirst for this unknown knowledge, the Emperor commissioned a fleet of (some say) 200 ships with men and another 200 with provisions to set sail in a voyage of discovery and exploration. The fleet benefitted from the finances of one of the richest empires of the time. It was said that Mansa Abubakari spared no expense in consulting every expert from the ship building and navigation trades. This was the late Middle Ages in Europe and Columbus was nearly 200 years away. But the Malian Empire had spent its wealth on the building of universities at Gao, Djenne and Timbuktu. Instead of war, his clan had lavished money on mosques and the arts.
This enlightened Muslim monarch sent out the fleet of inquiry and waited. After an uncertain period only a single ship returned. The captain is said to have given a tale of the rest of the flotilla being swept away in a whirlpool or “river in the sea” that left only his vessel afloat to return.
Undeterred by this amazing account, Mansa Abubakari II constructed another fleet. Some accounts give the number of ships as ten-times that of the first voyage – a seemingly impossible total of four-thousand ships. After temporarily abdicating the empire to his famous successor and former chief advisor, Mansa Musa, Abubakari sailed west from Senegambia into legend. No ship is reported to have returned.
No other evidence beyond the few documented conversations exists to confirm (or to deny) the story of Mansa Abubakari II’s final journey. However, all the sources do agree with each other. This was the story in circulation freely during the reign of the later monarchs of Mali.
Some modern scholars such as the late Dr. Ivan Van Sertima have developed a case for the eventual contact with North America by Africans going back to ancient Egypt, including Abubakari II. In such books as: They Came Before Columbus, Ivan Van Sertima draws attention to many bits of evidence from both sides of the Atlantic. He notes such things as pyramids on American and African soil. And there has been the discovery of cocaine residue in Egyptian mummies. Coca is native to the Americas only. There is no more compelling visual evidence than some of the features found on carved stone heads of the ancient Olmec people of modern Mexico. The features again look like those of modern Africans. Even some of the costumes appear Mandinka.
But, of course, reality may be that fisherman and sailors could have been blown by storm and carried by current between the Americas and Africa for centuries or more. And, the best thing for Mali may have been for a troublesome ruler to honorably and heroically disappear in a quiet coup staged by a trusted vizier. He was the last of his dynasty to rule. The historic tale of Abubakari II may have served the history and politics of the times. Or, the historical story of Abubakari II may be one of the stories of the first Blacks in America.
Mansa Musa and the Hajj (1324) is one of the most documented stories of Ancient Mali. The Hajj is the term for the obligatory trip to Mecca and the other holy sites of Islam that the devout Muslim should make at least once in a lifetime. Mansa Musa made his Hajj that of an emperor.
On the many-mile journey from West Africa to Arabia, Mansa Musa paid his way (and that of an estimated 1000 person entourage) in African gold. Even his slaves carried solid gold staffs and wore golden sandals. He spent so freely in Egypt alone that he shattered the price of gold in the Egyptian market, causing its value to decline steeply (al Umari).
Another unintended consequence with eventually dire results was that Europe once again “discovered” African civilization in all its sophistication…and its wealth. One famous European map of the times shows an African monarch of Mali enthroned while holding a huge gold nugget in his hand. Mali controlled large gold deposits in places like Wangara and this, along with vast wealth derived from trade and manufacture, made Mali fabulously rich. Mansa Musa of Mali poured enormous wealth into the construction of Mosques and Universities at places such a Gao, Djenne, and fabled Timbuktu. Modeled on the oldest university still known to function (Al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco, North Africa), African universities offered students courses in the most sophisticated mathematics and medicine of the time. And, foreign languages were taught alongside astronomy.
The Muslim rulers of Mali and their courts lived in lavish palaces attended by ministers, bureaucrats and slaves. Mansa Musa himself reigned for over twenty-five years during which he presided over a huge empire spanning from the Atlantic Ocean to the other side of the Niger – embracing most of the bulge of West Africa. By the time he passed away, his empire had become renowned for its culture, its learning and the prosperity of its people.
Songhai (or ”Songhay”)
Part of the Malian Empire was the Niger River. Songhai was a previously obscure kingdom that was established along the Niger within the boundaries of Mali. Before Mali had engulfed the area it had been under the control of the kingdom of Gao. When Mali began a long decline in influence, Gao reasserted its independence. It was the Sonni dynasty of kings of Gao that would create the Empire of Songhai – forged under the leadership of Sonni Ali Ber (1464 – 1492). Using military forces consisting of coordinated cavalry and swift assault boats, the emperors of Songhai expanded the empire to a size larger than all the combined kingdoms of 15th and 16th century Europe. Songhai dominated the lucrative trans-Saharan trade routes as well as gold mines in the north and south.
Emperor Askia Muhammad Toure (1493 – 1528) broadened the borders of empire even further, absorbing Mali and all of its neighbors. He endowed universities and standardized laws, weights and measures even as he increased the military. Later, eminent scholars such as Akmed Baba (“the Black” 1556 - 1627) lectured to international students at government endowed multi-ethnic universities. Songhai became a center for higher education throughout this far-flung empire in places like (former Malian) Timbuktu and Sankore. Law, medicine and chemistry could be learned by people from all over the known world. The Islamic libraries of African Songhai preserved knowledge that had been lost in Europe since the time of ancient Rome. Although up to perhaps 90+ percent of the people of Songhai practiced various traditional African religions, the empire was under Islamic law and leadership.
Partly due to size, partly due to its very diversity of peoples, Songhai could not last as an Empire. The final feature leading to the end of empire was greed. The Maghreb region of northern Songhai revolted against imperial rule in the late 1500s. These peoples (Moroccans) gained control of enough of Songhai gold producing areas to finance a full-scale war. This time the Moroccans bought the latest gunpowder weapons – cannon and muskets. The Moroccans conquered Songhai in 1591. By 1621 – two years after the first Africans were sold in Jamestown, Virginia colony – the great African Empire of Songhai had dissolved into squabbling kingdoms and tribes.
Islam and Ifa
Islam (610) is the last of the historical religions making up the Judeo-Christian-Islamic triptych of world faiths. While Judaism and Christianity have had reciprocal relationships with Africa (discussed above), Islam may have had the most political, social and cultural influence on Africans who would one day be Black in America.
In a violent wave seeking urgent conversion of the infidel to the faith, Umayyad Muslim forces conquered Spain by 711. Islam would remain entrenched in parts of modern day Spain and Portugal until the time of Columbus over seven centuries later. The Abbasid caliphate made both peaceful and militant inroads to West Africa. Elite classes like traders, some craftsmen and the ruling families in Ghana (Kumbi Saleh) converted to Islam by the 800s. The Muslim Almoravids of 1076 invaded Ghana and made Islam the official religion, although many were allowed to practice pre-Islamic African religious traditions. By the time Constantinople fell to Muslim armies in 1453, Islam was the dominant non-native religion in north and sub-Saharan West Africa. When Songhai fell to Moroccan Muslims in the 1490s there had been nearly four centuries of on-and-off conflict between Christianity and Islam.
Beginning with the Crusades and perhaps only interrupted by the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, this religiously fueled conflict is what urged Cristobal Colon (Columbus) and others to seek alternate trade routes to Asian trading ports. By the 13th and 14th centuries, Islam straddled all the conventional trade routes between Europe and the fabled wealth of China (touted in accounts by Marco Polo). Islam forced Europeans to sail south and eventually west in search of trade. The Spanish needed to pay African mercenaries for their aid in expelling the Muslim Moors from Spain. This need would cause the Spanish crown to finance a risky venture to the west to find the Indies. The Americas would be “discovered” because African Islam blocked the way to European China trade. And, Columbus would sail because Spain needed cash to pay Africans. By that time (1492), the Portuguese had already been enslaving West Africans for their island-based sugar industry for a half-century. Many of the enslaved Africans were originally Muslims. Still many others adhered to religious faiths that go back to the dawn of African civilizations.
Ifa and Santeria
Unsurprisingly, African religion became one of the most important reservoirs of hope for the enslaved in the “New World.” To extend the metaphor: a religion is a watershed of culture and history – collecting many-but-not-all of the streams of a civilization. And, like a pool, we looking back may only see the surface. We must be careful to look into the water beyond our own surface reflection
Social custom, language, philosophy and African world view were under assault by the institutions of European bondage. In the western hemisphere, the Judeo-Christian slave owning class used their religion as a cultural weapon to further control “heathen” Blacks. Catholic Christianity was the dominant European religious tradition in the Indies, in Central and in South America. Later, Catholicism would revolt against its own excesses in the Protestant Reformation. Then, other Protestant Christian faiths would dominate the northern colonies that would become the United States. As the story unfolds, Africans from all over West and Central Africa would be equally enslaved by Christian Europeans in both regions in the “New World.” just as indigenous Americans would be, Africans would be bribed, coerced or forced to accept a new Christian faith – or suffer the consequences.
By the time of the second wave of human traffic to the Indies, Blacks had already begun practicing resistance through religion. Africanism – religious or otherwise – was suppressed in different ways throughout the Americas. Any African caught practicing non-Christian faith could be accused of plotting escape or revolt. Many were. Also, the practice of non-Christian religion was considered sorcery or witchcraft by Whites. Either could result in imprisonment, public torture and possibly execution. Nonetheless, a variety of Black and African religious expressions of resistance emerged through the colonial and post-colonial periods. Previously enslaved Blacks in the Indies had already formed covert resistances such as Santeria. These efforts in the Catholic controlled colonies kept fragments of African culture alive.
Religious practices of the enslaved in the Americas have been a basis for syncretism – a combination of faiths. One such is Santeria – originally founded by two African women in Cuba. Africans were considered by their European enslaver as religiously inferior. Africans were inferior (religiously and otherwise) in the European mind because Africans were viewed as polytheistic – they believed in many gods. This was false heresy to any Christian. On one hand, enslaved Africans were supposed to adopt the Christian religions of their “masters.” On the other hand, the comfort and solace of traditional African faith could not lightly be set aside by captive Blacks. One solution was what contemporary anthropologists call syncretism. It is a blending of two or more cultural traditions to equal more than the sum of each. Between Europeans, Africans and Americans this first took place among the Catholic slave-holding islands of the Caribbean. The following is a brief – near simplistic – example of how a syncretism between African traditions and Catholicism developed.
The Catholic religion requires those faithful to observe the lives of saints in mass and in celebrations. Deities called Orisha in West African religion also each have their celebrations and observances. This common feature facilitated the blending with Catholicism’s Christian Saints and African Orisha. Enslaved Blacks masked some of their Africanism – religious or otherwise – through Christianity.
A specific Orisha was identified with a particular Catholic Saint. There were many complexities as to how this played out in public and in day-to-day. Yet, this was a beginning for the enslaved. This effectively disguised their preservation of African culture. So – for example – the Catholic celebration of the feast of Santa Barbara is also the Santeria celebration observance for the Orisha, Shango. In this way, enslaved Africans began preserving traditional culture. But this preservation came through the development of a culture of resistance by using religious faith.
The newly enslaved would bring orthodox African faith to the Americas. Ifa is an indigenous African religious tradition dating back to the beginning of West African civilization. Ifa (also known as Orunmila) is still practiced in West Africa by Nations such as the Yoruba of Nigeria, Benin and Togo. Ifa often became a major wellspring from which enslaved Blacks could draw upon to refresh a culture that was in the throes of genocide. Every new slave ship arriving in Cuba may bring a shackled Ifa priest or diviner. When free Blacks recognized a Babalawo they would often buy his freedom to bring his knowledge into the community. It was through such human agency of countless Blacks that African culture would be preserved in the Americas. Language, music and other aspects of Africa were transmitted to generations of enslaved African Americans through religion.
Although the public practice of Christianity (and to a degree Islam) was accepted and open during North American enslavement, African expressions remained suppressed. But African traditions would survive because of three things: #1, “mainstream” religion does not work for all. The religions of the slave owning class in particular offered little to the enslaved; #2, because of their emphasis on divination, African religions such as Ifa provided immediate and personal answers to questions of faith. And #3, orthodoxies such as Ifa offer practitioners a reconnection to pre-enslavement African roots and heritage. Ifa remained. It remains still. It was a religion that became a foundation for resistance and for preservation.
Ifa is still with the Americas. Ifa in all its guises is a method of divination ethics, and medicine. In this African faith there is one God – one Supreme Being – but He comes in many facets that are called deities. The pantheon of deities called Orisha all submits to the Supreme Being of which they are part. The supreme being of Ifa is called Olodumare. The Ifa priest – the Babalawo – interprets the needs of individuals based on their Orisha. In the Indies, some equated the omnipresent Catholic God with the omnipotent Olodumare.
The soul of Ifa in the Americas would be the drums of Ifa. Three in number and in three sizes, the Iya, Itoltele, and Oconcolo (smallest), are each an individual voice. The three drums have many uses in Ifa – including prayer. None of the drums of Ifa are arbitrary, wild, or primitive. Instead they are among the most sophisticated communication methods ever devised. African drums are played with rhythmic meaning. Each drum and pattern carries deliberate intent. Each drum calls and responds to its brothers. The conversations that the West African drums are capable of represent a fully developed language. And possible sound combinations are intricate and infinite.
The ethnomusicology (study of culture and music) of African origin is itself worthy of many an independent text. That is indicative of the level of just the initial contributuion of African culture to American culture. Drums were also political as well as cultural. Skilled drummers could communicate precise data over long distances. And, all this could be done while the masters would be unaware. The drum could be used in a sacred manner. Drums could be used in celebration. Drums could signal an uprising among isolated groups of Blacks on different plantations. And, the magic of the African Drum would eventually revolutionize world music.
Today, anthropologists and historians know other African religions as practiced by slaves in the Americas by many names, such as Lukumi, Candomblé or Vodun (Voodoo).
Early European Colonial Africa and Slavery
There had been other significant nations and states in West Africa. Kanem, the armored horsemen of Bornu, the Hausa States, the Dahomey, Ashanti, Ibo, Benin, and Yoruba are just a few. Other states and nations in the Congo and in East Africa mirror the development and wealth, if not the complexities of West Africa. There had always been a degree of frontier autonomy in the times of the great empires. There was warfare - and trade in slaves was the result.
Slavery has a long history in every human civilization. Slavery in the Islamic lands and in the rest of Africa had a different character than America would ultimately give. Traditional African forms of slavery before European intervention had sets of rules and laws governing the institution and mitigating abuses. Slaves had rights in court. Slaves were acquired in war, or through bankruptcy, but could own their own property (including slaves) and could rise to high positions of social and political influence. Some slaves rose to become the highest influence in the land (i.e. Joseph). All slaves could keep families intact and could purchase themselves out of bondage. What was really owned was usually the labor of the slaves, not their lives (military slaves excluded). DISCLAIMER: all enslavement is an evil only humans could conceive.
While slavery is still slavery – and there is no “kinder, gentler” form – still slavery before European intrusion was different. There were opportunities to end your enslavement. This would come to an end with the intrusion of Europeans into the sub-Saharan trade networks of Africa. Intrusion may not convey the initial sense of contact.
A cry of “God, Gold, and Glory!” drew the sons of European nations into Africa. Europe was vigorous and belligerent from a series of failed holy wars against Islam. The Catholic Church had endorsed the Crusades and the conversion of any and all pagans to the True Faith by any means. Trade was always an avenue for wealth. Commercial intensity had been increased by the Crusades. More services than ever were required for “Holy War.” A new business class had begun to develop in Europe during and after the efforts to free Jerusalem and the Holy Lands from the control of the Islamic Caliphs and their warriors. It may be that these new merchant capitalists were the only people to benefit from the wars between Muslims and Christians.
In the wake of the Crusades, small European feudal kingdoms were congealing into larger more modern-styled Nations. There was no separation between Church and State – between God and national glory – or between nationalism and capitalism. The people of a country either joined into this spirit of national unity or those dissenting were isolated, suppressed and sometimes destroyed. Patriotic pride urged men and nations to actively seek the glorious power of fame. And, along with fame always comes wealth. By the beginning of the Renaissance in the 14th century, Europe had become a watershed of technology from around the world. Gunpowder, the clock, the compass, Arab mathematics, the African lateen sail, and other necessities of exploration joined the legacies of Rome. Catholic piety, and business capitalism, along with the nationalistic spirit, was the common currency of European intrusions into Africa. Together they equaled exploration and colonialism. And colonialism means exploitation.
Portugal was the first new Nation to search for new links to African and Asian trade that had been dominated by a few city-states of the Italian peninsula. The long history of North African Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain) and the position of Portugal on the seacoast made it natural for the Portuguese to seek God Gold, and Glory in Africa. Economic demands competitive capitalism and of nationalism soon pulled other European nations into Africa seeking profit.
The Portuguese were just the first of many European nations (in the modern capitalistic sense of the word) to initiate a maritime trade that would eventually challenge the Black Muslim trans-Saharan caravan trade and, later the stability of the entire region. Later nations would follow in the same pattern as Portuguese traders (called “factors”) wishing to establish slave trading zones (called factories). Each was granted an asiento between Spain, a European power such as the Dutch and local African governments. The asiento guaranteed exclusive slave trading rights in a region. And they guaranteed a Spanish market for African slaves – slaves which Spain – in turn – would mark up and export abroad. Thus, Spain franchised African enslavement and war. This system encouraged a dramatic increase in African slavery among Europeans, and warfare for slavery’s sake. Black on Black violence is not a phenomenon of modern African America. Historically, African had warred on African as European had against European. But, when Europeans began sponsoring conflict between Africans, a new system of colonial exploitation and slavery was born. Specialized coastal forts were constructed to serve the violent business of enslaving and exporting Africans. Today, Elmina Castle in modern Ghana is a prime example of a slavers fort. It was built by Portugal in 1482, but shifted to other European hands several times in the next nearly 350 years of the Triangle Trade. In contemporary times it has become a museum / tourism destination that has been used in movies such as the 1993 Haile Gerima film: Sankofa.
And so it was less than a century after the Portuguese began to explore and exploit Africa, that the royal Spanish houses of Castile and Aragon joined forces. Along with their African Moorish mercenaries they were able to expel the last of the Afri – Spanish Moors out of the Iberian peninsula. Ferdinand and Isabella formed the Nation of Spain, and (tentatively) endorsed an Italian navigator Cristobal Colon (Columbus) in a search for a new trade route to Asia. This would help Spain to compete economically with Portugal and the rest of Europe. From the start the object was profit. The new kingdom needed lots of money to pay their African mercenaries and to build a new government.
By this time, everyone with and education knew the world was round. The earliest maps showing this are from China and Africa. And Africans came to the Americas following Columbus in 1492. One pilot, Pedro Alonzo Nino, was known as Pedro the Moor – the Black. Within two years (1494) the Pope would declare the New World to be the property of Spain and of Portugal, although Portugal was left with only Brazil, due to inadequate maps of the hemisphere. There, African slaves would learn Portuguese. Before, and even after the fabulous conquests of the Aztecs and Inca flooded Spain with gold and jewels, wealth for the crown was generated another way. Plantation agriculture had taken root in the colonial lands of Spain and Portugal. Both countries used Native Americans, but turned soon to importing large numbers of captive Africans as slaves.
Slavery brought many things to the Americas. Apart from the Africans, themselves, chief among them at the time was economic stability, and then prosperity. Beginning with Columbus and his heirs, the West Indies (Caribbean) became host to a new enterprise – the plantation. Sugar cane became the cash crop. And its byproducts, molasses and rum, had become huge profit makers as well. As Native American slaves died from European disease, by hard labor, or by violence, they were replaced by Africans that at first came from Portuguese sources already established. There were early arguments against the African slave trade from both Europeans and Africans. Sugar plantation life was already brutal for slaves. Spanish Bishop Bartolome de las Casas was an advocate for Native American rights and at first he suggested using Black slaves to replace them. Soon, he became aware of the unholy abuses of slavery and the European view that non-Christian Native peoples (Black, Red, or Brown) were less than human. De las Casas, and other Europeans brought the matter to the King of Spain and the Pope, and argued passionately to end the trade. However, the ban against using African slaves was removed, and Charles II of Spain began issuing licenses to trade African flesh to the colonies.
Then in 1517, German priest named Martin Luther protested against Catholic excesses. He began a Protestant Reformation that eventually would lead all other European nations into the Americas and into the African slave trade. Protestant nations no longer needed to heed the Catholic Church which had decreed that only Spain and Portugal had rights to the “New World.” Their needs for cheap and free labor inspired all other Europeans to copy the Spanish and Portuguese habit of using African slaves.
Everywhere the Spanish went in North America they took with them Africans or African Latin slaves. The oldest continuously existing European city in the 21st century United States is St. Augustine, Florida – founded by the Spanish in 1565, but built by Africans. The oldest community of Blacks and freed slaves guarded St. Augustine. It was called Fort Mose. Shortly after this time African slavery and the slave trade became the basic element of successful colonial enterprise for Europe.
Corporations were formed. Monopolistic slave trade contracts went to the highest bidders, who were at any given time any number of European nations. Dutch, English, French, and others soon joined the Spanish and Portuguese in the trade of African flesh for profit. West Africa was where African civilization had advanced the farthest, equaling and in some cases exceeding that of Europe. The slave trade would halt and then reverse West African social, cultural, and economic development. Tribe was pitted against tribe, nation against nation until – in order to hold onto and maintain profits – European nations would aggressively colonize Africa in the late seventeenth through the early twentieth centuries. Although most Americans see slavery in terms of the United States, as many as three times the amount of Africans were brought to South and Central America, and many more Black people taken to other European colonies worldwide.
Although no one knows for sure, estimates of the loss of Africans to the Americas average about 25 million. There may have been three times as many who died in the infamous “Middle Passage” from Africa to the Indies. Another like number possibly died in Africa as a result of the slave trade wars and raids. And these numbers just relate to the Africans brought to the Americas. It was the most devastating Diaspora in human history. The result was that over 50% of the new immigrants to the Americas from 1500- 1800 were Africans, and most came as slaves.
Chapter 2: AFRI-EUROPEANS – Colonial Africans & Europeans in North America
Now, let’s back way up in time. Herodotus of Halicarnassus is called the “Father of History” by most and the “Father of Lies” by some. This early 5th century BCE Greek historian and geographer popularized the name Egypt for greater civilized Africa throughout the European ancient world. By the time European civilization was militarily strong enough to attack others, the name of Egypt (and Africa) were the common names used for the region. This was the time of the sweeping conquests of Alexander of Macedon – Alexander the Great. It was his former General and relative Ptolemy, who began the final ruling dynasty of Kemet / Egypt. It is a Greco-African dynasty that ends with the death of Cleopatra Ptolemy (30 BCE) at the beginning of the Roman Empire.
Yet, earlier, from the very beginning of the Roman Republic, Africa had been intimately involved. It was the Punic Wars that made Rome into the power of the western Mediterranean. The defeat of Phoenician Carthage in North Africa brought such nations as Ghana into contact with ancient Europe (as Alexander’s conquest of Kemet had linked Meroe with Greece). When Carthage was sacked and raised to the ground, its surviving African inhabitants were sold into slavery throughout greater European Rome.
African slaves joined all others in Rome’s expanding slave-based society. With the rise of Imperial Rome starting with the same Octavian (Augustus Caesar) who defeated Cleopatra, Rome became even more hungry for free wealth generated by slave labor. But another upshot of empire was that nearly 1/5th of the world’s population lived under Roman influence if not direct control. Slaves came from everywhere and went to everywhere within the empire. In the gladiatorial games so familiar to those who study Rome, exotic animals and peoples were displayed. You may see an African lion pitted against a European cave bear. Along with African animals came Africans. Soon also, many free Africans lived throughout the Roman Empire.
Soldiers were also conscripted from throughout the Roman Republic and the later Roman Empire. A Roman Legionnaire may find himself resettled into whatever part of the empire necessary. Mauritanians and Numidians from Africa may find themselves in Britain or the Persian frontier. Kushite and Ethiopian recruits may soldier alongside Gauls. One Emperor of Rome – Septimus Severus – was himself an African (193-211 CE).
With the fall of Rome and descent into the isolation of Europe’s Dark Ages, most connection between Europe and Africa dwindled. Even though Africa preserved knowledge and civilization in universities from Alexandria to Timbuktu, Western Europe forgot how to read and even how to bathe. It is partly because of the European Dark Ages (ca 450-800 CE) that Europeans consider Africa a “Dark Continent.” But, it was European knowledge that went dark – not Africa.
The rise of Islam in the 7th century and its spread through North Africa effectively shut both Western Europe and the surviving Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) off from Africa. Complexities aside for a moment, the resulting Crusades (beginning 1098) and fall of Byzantium to Muslim Turks (1453) maintained a cultural and political separation between Europe and Africa that was only interrupted by the tales of Emperors like Mansa Musa on his great pilgrimage to Mecca.
Some Europeans of African descent had remained in Europe assimilating into cultures as far north as Scandinavia. French historical novelist Alexander Dumas (1802-1870), who wrote such classics as The Three Musketeers, and The Count of Monte Cristo was of African descent. So was Russian author and poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837).
The First Black Americans, however, were Spanish and Portuguese Moors and the African slaves they helped bring to what was called the “New World.” They were African and Latin. They were (or would become) Catholic. For over 7 centuries the Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula had meant a constant interaction between Africa and the kingdoms that would one day become Portugal and Spain. Moor and “Blackamoor” continued to be a term to refer to these European-ized Africans. (The word “Moor” is a derivation of Mauritania – the region in northwestern Africa. It comes from Roman times when Africans in the Roman province of Mauritania were annexed. In addition as earlier stated, it had been the Portuguese that had first begun African enslavement as a European national commercial strategy)
Afri-Latin – The First Blacks in America
With Cristobal Colon (Columbus) came the crown of Spain. The Italian navigator had accepted the bargain with Spain’s monarchs to help them recoup financial losses from the war to expel the North Africans. Along with this deal, came certain baggage. The Spanish ships would carry experienced Spanish crews and pilots. Columbus himself was the navigator in overall command by Spanish authority, but he was to rely on the experience of his men. Following the explosive revelation of Columbus’ first voyage, many Afri-Europeans looked west across the Atlantic for God, Gold and Glory. One such was Pedro Alonzo Nino. He had spent an earlier part of his life exploring the African coast for profit – trading in cargo and slaves.
After participating in the third of Columbus’ voyages, Pedro Alonzo Nino – also known as Pedro the Moor or Pedro el Negro: the Black – gained the assent of Spain’s Council of Castile to duplicate Columbus’ search for wealth. Soon, Pedro the Moor outfitted his own voyage to the Indies. He and his brothers visited several islands that Columbus had not seen. They collected a small fortune in pearls from different Caribbean islanders before returning home to Spain. Pedro the Black died while waiting to answer charges of avoiding the king’s tax.
Pedro’s rival and competitor, Columbus, ever-increasingly turned to brutal atrocities when it came to wrenching wealth from the West Indies - as they were now called. His successors would expand the violence against the “Indians.” It was at this time that Catholic priest Bartolome de las Casas recounted the horrors inflicted on the Native Americans of the islands in the search for gold. If the Spanish conquistadores did not mutilate or murder the Indians then they enslaved them. They would extort gold through violence of extract it through forced labor. The priest then thought that the pre-existing population of enslaved Black Africans to be a better replacement for the enslavement of Indians.
This recommendation was followed by Columbus’ successor and governor of Cuba, Diego Velasguez de Cuellar, who began using the old Roman latifundia and encomienda labor systems to control enslaved island Indian workers. He exterminated the local Arawak and Carib Indians in the forced search for gold. When the gold was finally exhausted and the (so called) Indian population devastated, new methods of generating profit developed: agribusiness. There was profit to be made by providing Europe with new and exotic goods that only came from the “New World” like tobacco and later vanilla and cacao – chocolate. Also, valuable crops that could not grow in Europe could be grown in the Indies – crops like sugarcane and later, African coffee. The labor intensive cultivation of tobacco and sugarcane required a larger work force than was left after the Indian genocide. The Spanish lords of Cuba turned to African slaves. At first, many of these agricultural slaves came from populations of Africans that had been born into enslavement among the Portuguese. Eventually Cuba would also become home to a large and thriving free population of Africans, people of African descent and people of mixed background.
The encomienda labor system meant there was also the proliferation of institutionalized rape of enslaved women. This led inexorably to a mixed European and Indian population. Living alongside free Europeans who claimed primary ownership through European law and Papal decree meant that new rules must be followed by these non-Europeans. And this new social order must be maintained.
Race – Indian, African, European – and what of the mix? As these lines blurred (and with them the guarantee of consistent profit), new social institutions had to be created for the colonies. The European minority held the most military power. This same minority held the pre-developed economic institutions proven to extract wealth in large and regular quantities. All that was needed to extract profit from the infinite resources of these new lands was tremendous amounts of cheap or free labor. The first model was race slavery. Since only Indians and Africans were enslaved, the distinction of Arawak or Mende meant nothing. They were simply brown or black – “negro” in Spanish – a color, not a culture, profit, not a person.
By the time that fabled mass murderer Hernan Cortes began raping and crushing the Aztec and other mainland Indian Nations in 1521, the Spanish presided over color-coded colonies. The Spanish even discriminated against each other for profit and power. To be born in Spain was to be a “peninsulare,” which was to say a pure-blood Spaniard. This birthright brought with it the highest opportunity for promotion to position within the aristocracy and the greatest social mobility. Next was the “criollios” who were of pure Spanish blood, but had the misfortune to be creoles born in the colonies. Below these two exclusively European (and White) classes was the “mestizo” who represented the ever-increasing population of mixed Indian and European “blood lines,” as the Spanish would then think. Next came the racial class of people – slave and free – that was made up of mixed African and European. These were termed “mulattos.” Lower on the social ladder were the free Africans and (few) free Native Americans. In this social hierarchy, these must be Catholic. Only non-Catholics or prisoners could be legally enslaved.
And at the bottom of the Spanish class system were the masses of the enslaved. All of these had been by history, tradition and law either Indians or Africans – brown or black in America (the stereotype of calling Native Americans “red men” ws not adopted until later). This color-coding of people spread from Spain and Portugal to all the other European nations. It was nowhere stronger than in the British colonies 100 years later – and – even later in the United States. Color based systems of race and race based systems of social opportunity would become hallmarks of African American history.
Consider the life of an African caught up in the times. You are born into a rich and ancient culture. Tales and traditions of your childhood are filled with the great Mansas and warriors like Sonni Ali. You have an education, and a family that has placed you in its future. But, you are also born into a time of turbulent change. The year of your birth is 1500. It is 8 years after the first contact of Columbus with the Americas. It is 13 years before Diego Velazguez shifts to reliance on African slaves for his plantations. In North Africa – the place of your birth – Songhai is the dominant empire. It will not be until after your early death that the Moors of Morocco and Spanish mercenaries drive south across the desert to conquer the rich Songhai in 1591.
As with many millions after you, early in life, you are enslaved. You will not be the first African to be in the Americas. But, you will be the first African in what will one day be known as the United States. You will be known as the first Black in America. After enslavement you are sold when you are just 13 years old to the Portuguese only to find yourself shipped across a vast ocean. You must quickly adopt a new name, language and faith. Your new name is now Steven, or Estaban in Spanish. You are a now Catholic. You were once a Muslim. In Africa you were called Mustafa.
This is the true experience of an enslaved African known as Estevanico or little Steven. He was also known as Steven the Moor. Often described as “dark” or as an “Arabanized Black,” Estevanico accompanied Spanish explorers Pánfilo de Narváez and Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca in the earliest European and African explorations of North America. These expeditions were looking to colonize Florida and to explore the contemporary American Southwest for “cities of gold.” At the least, they would convert the heathen Indian to the true Catholic faith.
Most historians believe the records stating that Estevanico was killed by Native Americans during his last expedition of discovery and conversion. However, some more recent inquiries support the idea that what Estevanico did was that which so many African slaves would do after him. Some sources say that to escape enslavement Estevanico faked his death and lived out his life as a free man among the powerful Zuni or another nearby tribe.
1612 – Jan Rodrigues
According to records uncovered by historian Thelma Foote, the first official non-Native American to inhabit what is now New York was Trader Jan Rodrigues from Santo Domingo. Rodrigues identified himself as a son of Portuguese and African birth. Although the colony founded the year later would be at first called New Amsterdam after the Dutch who followed, it was not Christiaan Hendricksen who was the first settler. Later, Manhattan would be the center of a large segeregated settlement of free Blacks. The English would take the colony over in 1664. Eventually, there were so many free Blacks vying for social position in the colony that New York law was changed to prevent free “Negroes” from inheriting land. By the time George Washington was ready to become the first President of the United States, slave codes were state law and Wall Street was a thriving slave market. It was there that George Washington was inaugurated.
Afri-Caribbean – The Black West Indies
Africans who were part of the official Spanish and Portuguese colonial apparatus were all still under the heel of the racialized social system that limited every person of color. It did not matter if you were slave or free, if you were Black and appeared out of your class – that of a bondsperson – you had to show proofs of free status. But not all Africans lived under the rule of Latin America. From the start of the slave trade, Africans and others resisted. Escape in Africa was sometimes possible. But, most had to either escape at sea – usually in the Caribbean West Indies – or they must escape on land. In either case, these escaped Africans were far from home with no possible way back. They were called: Maroons, because they were marooned. Linguistically, the word comes from the region some of the first escaped slaves had been born – Cameroon. The Pirates of the Caribbean is not just a Disney series. The “Golden Age” or pirates in the West Indies was from the 1520s through the 1720s, although piracy has existed as long as there have been men in ships. It is historic fact that as soon as Cortes conquered the Aztecs and began sending home incredible amounts of precious metals and stones that a new class of Spanish vessel was designed, commissioned and named the Spanish Galleon. It was the Spanish Galleon that most pirates looked to for the big score. But they were just as happy stealing goods coming the other way. Enormous wealth in slaves was moving across the Atlantic from east to west. A vast sum of money and goods was also moving west to east on what was part of the economic engine often called the “Triangle Trade.” This drove slavery and war in Africa. Colonialism produced the new economic elite in Spain and Portugal. All of this drew the attention of the other hungry new nations of Europe. Dutch, English, French and others either sought to explore and gain their own “El Dorado,” or they preyed on the Spanish. When an official government gave license, it was called “privateering.” But when there was no “legal” sanction, it was known as piracy. Often the pay-off for a privateer or a pirate was a human cargo. Such an enslaved cargo may well be sold. The free prisoners could also either be enslaved or ransomed. That is the business of pirates. But, many times some enslaved members of a captured vessel would be offered a place among the pirate / privateer crew. Other times, revolts occurred on slave ships during the middle passage. If they were not caught, most often these Africans would also be Maroons. They would have to evolve a new culture and a new society between free and defensive Native Americans and violently greedy Europeans. Many of these first Maroons were liberated by their own efforts or those of French, Dutch and English privateer / pirates. Some of the Africans formed or joined independent societies and gained the name: Buccaneer. The title is in reality quite honorific. The word buccaneer is a derivation of the French: boucan. It is what we would call smoked pork or dried meat like pemmican or jerky. Maroons would hunt island animals to live. Hunters in the Caribbean Islands became master marksmen. They would sell the excess of their hunts to Dutch, French and English sailors. However, if the Europeans were less numerous and poorly armed…the Boucaneers would take what they needed from the Europeans. The Spanish were never safe from Buccaneers. They could shoot wild pigs on the gallop. Buccaneers had little trouble with naval targets. When these ethnically mixed social renegades gained naval vessels of their own, all the European nations outlawed both privateers and pirates.
But, there would be groups – villages and tribes – of mixed free Africans who had escaped Portuguese and Spanish enslavement on the mainland. Many groups existed until after the American Civil War. The most famous of all African Maroon experiments in freedom under institutional slavery are the Quilombos of Portuguese Brazil. They are illustrations of how far Africans would have to extend themselves to become Black and American. The most famous of the Quilombos (Mocambos) was Palmares, or Quilombo dos Palmares. From 1605 through 1694, Palmares existed as a haven for runaway slaves, disenfranchised minorities and AWOL Portuguese soldiers. There were also many Maroon settlements in the future United States. As European colonialism advanced with the institution of slavery, those who fled before it created alternative communities and lives of freedom on their own terms.
Afri-French – Haiti, the First Free Black Republic
When it eventually came in 1776, the American Colonies was not the only place to have a revolution, and the United States was not the only new nation. Ally of the American colonial rebels, France almost immediately had its own revolution. Napoleon Bonaparte became the Emperor of France, and the most feared military leader in all Europe. By 1791, the revolutionary spirit seemed everywhere when French slave Toussaint L’Ouverture began a plan on the Caribbean island of Saint Domingue that would result in the first Black republic (1804). After long struggles against sometimes combined European forces, Black forces under L’Ouverture finally defeated Napoleon’s own brother-in-law, Pierre Le Clerc to win Haitian liberty. The struggle cost Toussaint L’Ouverture his life due to French betrayal. His second-in-command, Jean Jacques Dessalines finished the revolution. Slavery was abolished. And, although Haiti has had a problematic post-colonial existence fraught with race issues, Haiti remains the first self liberated free Black Republic in history.
Black veterans from the American Revolution for independence such as Henri Christophe aided in the overthrow of French rule in Haiti. Christophe had been a slave and a French drummer-boy in the American Revolutionary War before fighting in the Haitian Revolution. He had freed himself by the time of the fight for Haitian independence. Henri Christophe became a general and close associate of the revolutionary commander, Toussaint L’Ouverture. He eventually also rose to lead his country.
The island nation we now call Haiti was once part of the foothold in the Americas that Napoleon intended as a base for conquering this hemisphere. Napoleon claimed the Louisiana Territory, as well as the sugar rich slave plantation island group of Guadeloupe, Martinique, and St. Domingue (Santo Domingo: now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). The slave-revolt-turned-revolution in Haiti cost the armies of Napoleon years of defeat, and caused the French Emperor to sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States by 1804. This Louisiana Purchase did two things. First, it doubled the size of cotton growing land in the U.S. At the time, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin (1793) made the crop more profitable. Because of this, the second thing the Purchase did was to revitalize the institution of slavery. But, also, the Haitian Revolution inspired African Americans with a renewed spirit to revolt against American slavery – slavery that was now protected under the Constitution of the new United States.
Yet another result of Napoleon Bonaparte’s interest in North America is the founding of cities such as St. Louis, New Orleans and Chicago. It was Chicago that was first settled by Black Frenchman Jean Baptiste Pont du Sable. A French citizen born on the island of Saint Domingue, Pont du Sable may well have been part Haitian-before-Haiti. He had left the island well before the revolution of Toussaint L’Ouverture. Having made his way to the British colonies by the time of the American Revolutionary War, as a Frenchman, he was accused by British authorities of being a spy for the Americans. Following the war, Pont du Sable was pressed into British service in what is now Michigan. As soon as he was able, Jean Baptiste moved to the frontier borderlands between European and Native American civilizations. This was to be true of many Blacks in the Americas. Escaped slave or born free – many Blacks in America found it hard to thrive under the domination of any of the European colonial apparatus of the times.
Jean Baptiste Pont du Sable married a Potawatomi woman with whom he had several children. The couple settled at the mouth of the Chicago River. By 1790 their family is recorded as the first inhabitants of the area in European documents. The area is named for the wild onion smell that permeated the region – in essence, Chicago means “stinky place.” The second largest metropolitan area in the contemporary United States was founded by a Black person.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I had a chance to visit the city of Chicago in the early 21st century. I visited the very spot where a plaque commemorates the fur trading post of the Pont du Sable family. You may still see it in the plaza at the mouth of the Chicago River. A few miles away just off the Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile” you can find a museum that preserves other aspects of early Chicago. The other direction on the “Mile” you can find the world famous Field museum.