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African History Must Be Taught In Western Schools

In today’s society, the question of race and racism remains a pressing issue. From news outlets to social media, protests and campaigns against systemic racism are widespread, fighting against the oppression asserted by white authorities across the western world.

The Black Lives Matter movement is one that many of us can resonate with, and we can recall the united outcry against the violence and prejudices that black, and many other people of color, face on a day-to-day basis. 

However, this racism is not something that naturally occurred in western society; it is something that was taught and manufactured during the period of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. To combat the evils of racism and white supremacy, we must first understand its roots, and so studying the history of Africa and its diaspora is highly significant to British society today. 

Not only is there the fact that we must understand racism to combat it, but also that much of the history of Africa, which we commonly know and associate with the continent, is given to us by western historians. This white-washed history erases black voices and removes them from their narratives, and often wrongly credits western people or dismisses the achievements and works of African people. 

Thus, it is paramount that we educate British students on the history of Africa and its diaspora in 2022, so we can create a more tolerant society and highlight African voices through history.

Where do Western ideas about African civilization come from?

“Civilised”- a word which, in modern British society, dictates the social standing of a community. 

The idea of civilization is central to being human, so to be uncivilized is to be sub-human or less than the standard for humans. We cannot deny that when we discuss Africa in western society, we often associate it with being less civilized, being a society that lacks infrastructure and adequate governing, and in need of charity and support from western culture. 

This notion is highly problematic and disregards the fact that Africa was the first continent to create complex civilizations and systems of governing. 

Towns in Africa developed as early as 3000 BCE, and the first cities were located along the Nile, evolving into governing centers. From 1000 BCE onwards, commerce grew in significance, and there became a growingly wealthy consumer class in cities and towns, which provided a market for artisans and other specialized occupations. 

Similarly, the idea of being tribal is an English word conveying a sense of being out of control or strange. During the Nigerian Civil War, 10 million Igbo people were called a “tribe,” but the 400,000 citizens of Malta and 200,000 Ruthenians were referred to as “nationalities.” Why was the war referred to as a tribal war when in Europe, the same thing would have been a civil war? Shaka, the famous 19th-century ruler, was referred to as the king of the Zulu “tribe” when in fact, he was the king of a powerful centralized state.

It is clear that “tribe” is a denomination that Europeans have targeted toward African ethnic groups and nationalities. Through typical narrations of history, there is also the notion that “tribal” people are “primitive,” While this once meant primary/original, it now conveys an image of backwardness and lack of skill. 

Christopher Ehret, in The Civilisations of Africa, argues that it would be foolish to distinguish societies by such criteria as being “civilized,” as civilization is relative. All organizations have rules and expectations, so all have been civilized, and any can face a breakdown. This is important to understand before further developing into the history of Africa, as we, as a society, often misuse terms such as “civilized,” “tribal,” and “primitive,” which can all have problematic connotations, dehumanizing African people and making them seem animalistic. 

In studying African history, we can understand how these terms are problematic and highly inaccurate. African societies, as aforementioned, had complex commercial centers and systems of governing, as well as technological innovation. 

Africans in the continent's heart appears to have invented smelting and forging copper before 1000 BCE. There is also evidence that the development of cotton weaving first began in Africa, much earlier than its metallurgy. There were also innovations in art and music- ancient wood-sculpting tradition paved the way for sculptures in other cultures. The brass sculptures of Yoruba and Benin, stored in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, are a famous example. In essence, Ancient Africa was rife with complex infrastructure, art, and technology, and this will only be seen through studying the history of Africa, as the familiar western narratives often depict Africa as “uncivilized” and exotic, lacking complexity and knowledge.

Giving a voice to the voiceless

It is essential to study the history of Africa so we can come to understand the question of race. How “African” is African history? According to V.Y. Mudimbe in The Invention of Africa, the idea of Africa was initially molded by non-Africans as a “paradigm of difference”- Africa served as an exotic continent, a concept through which Europeans could reflect on themselves and the image of “the other.” This is demonstrated by the fact that before the 20th century, very few Africans thought of themselves as “African”- to them, the idea of being African was to be “the other,” and many Africans distanced themselves from this notion.

It was only in the 15th century, the “age of discovery,” when Portuguese mariners served to expand, that the idea of Africa was brought into European concern. The Portuguese wanted not only to increase their knowledge of Africa but also to transform the way Europeans thought of Africa via the Atlantic slave trade. This involved the forced migration of around 12 million Africans to the Americas and established, in the view of Europeans, a connection between racial inferiority and Africa.

Africans themselves even began appropriating ideas of Africa. African Americans such as Alexander Crummell started to write about “pan-Africanism” in the 19th century from the point of view of their removal from it. African Americans became disconnected from their African identity and began viewing themselves through the prism European authorities had forged. 

There were also ideas amongst the Arabs surrounding Africa, and it became known as the “Bilad As-Sudan,” meaning “The Land of the Blacks.” When Arab trade began in Africa, the spread of Islam came with it. There were underlying notions amongst Arab traders that Africans were “primitive” because they were primarily pagan before the Arab arrival. North Africa, however, was presented differently and was viewed as more civilized as Christianity had already been introduced there. 

How conquests and slavery deepened racial discrimination

These conquests laid the groundwork for the view of Africa that became common in the west and elsewhere around the globe. The fact that African people had their pagan religion made the Arabs view them as inferior, and the Europeans used the fact that they had black skin as a means to present them as sub-human, a means to excuse the torture endured via the Atlantic slave trade.

When the intensity of slavery was at its peak in the 18th century, American and British scientists and academics developed a theory based on  Darwinism that divided humanity into a spectrum of civilizational development. They decided that some people (southern and eastern Europeans) were more civilized than others (Asian, African, and other native people around the world). 

These western academics believed that their own Anglo-Saxon culture was the pinnacle of civilization and structural problems that African Americans faced due to slavery, such as poverty, were not viewed as a result of the system of governance, low wages, or lack of education, but rather a trait of their race. This mentality was spread across western society, and racism and white supremacy were given legitimacy through the pseudo-science of social Darwinism that provided order in a period of seeming disorder. They were used to justify exploitative industry, immigration restriction, and empire.

In essence, the view that African people were less civilized and lacking in knowledge began with the European conquests in the 15th century. It grew with the Atlantic slave trade as racism was used to justify mass forced migration, slavery, and torture. 

The portrait of Africa throughout history has, for the most part, been told by non-Africans, and they have been painted as barbaric and subhuman, and the African side of this narrative must be told. 

The fact that America was essentially built upon these racist and supremacist values means that these ideas remain at the grassroots of western society today, as seen by police brutality and black erasure in media, education, and employment. Thus, it is quintessential that we voice the narrative of the ones who were robbed of a voice. 

Perhaps if we can teach the history behind racism and violence, the next generation can work together to understand and overcome these problems- to find a solution to a problem, we must first find its roots.

Moreover, studying the history of Africa and its diaspora is essential as it allows us as a western society to understand and give credit to the sacrifices of Africans. In particular, how the profits from the trans-Atlantic slave trade laid the economic foundations of not only America but also Britain and allowed for the start of the industrial revolution. 

Furthermore, slavery essentially provided the raw materials for the industrial revolution as cotton was produced in slave plantations in America and was transported to Britain. In 18th-century Britain, machines were used to spin cotton into cloth, and this cotton cloth was exported for high profits. The profits were used to develop industries and factories and replace workers with machines. Other plantation goods such as coffee, sugar, tobacco, rum, and molasses were transported from the plantations to Britain, where they were sold and exported across Europe. 

Bristol gained significant wealth from slave-produced sugar in the 18th century. Liverpool's wealth mainly came from plantation-grown cotton, and Glasgow became a hugely important tobacco port, bringing in large profits. These profits allowed for industrial development, which allowed for even more of an increase in profits. 

This meant that housing could be improved, and the standard of living drastically changed in Britain as schools were built and consumerism increased. Over the 18th century, Britain shifted from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, and people moved from the countryside to larger, more densely populated cities. Without the work of enslaved African Americans, the raw materials from which built in these industries would not have been produced.

We also must acknowledge the actual scale of the violence and torture during the slave trade. Around 10 to 12 million Africans were enslaved and forced across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas between the 15th and 19th centuries. 

Many died from poor conditions and disease, and once they arrived in America, the conditions were even harsher. Most enslaved people died within a year or two, due to being overworked or malnourished or due to disease. They endured rape, beatings, and torture, and laws were created connecting biology to labor status. As aforementioned, racism was given legitimacy through pseudo-science, excusing slavery. 

From 1660 onwards, anyone with African ancestry would be considered an enslaved person. White colonists and plantation owners made slavery permanent and hereditary, meaning no African person in America could escape the forced labor and torture. 

So it is clear that African people endured violence, rape, torture, and abuse on an extreme and inhumane level. They were stripped of their human rights, and this is what America and Britain were built upon. The exploitation of innocent African people to reap American soil and kick-start the British Industrial Revolution. So the importance of telling the story of enslaved people cannot be overstated.

In essence, what can be taken from this, is that we have a responsibility as historians to uplift the stories and voices of those who were robbed of their narrative. Often, the sacrifices of African people are overlooked, and in modern Britain, African people have played a massive role in building the society we live in today. 

Moreover, the entire concept of Africa, as suggested by V.Y Mudimbe, has been created by Europe. It has served as a prism through which Europeans could view themselves as opposed to the notion of “the other.” 

This is the concept through which Africa has typically been presented, so teaching the history of Africa and its diaspora can perhaps lead to change for future generations and change problematic notions surrounding the idea of Africa. By understanding this, pictures of Africa being “tribal” and “uncivilized” can be challenged, and we can change the future generations’ attitudes and subconscious understanding of Africa and its diaspora.

In conclusion, by educating British society on the history behind racism, we can help combat it. Studying the pseudo-sciences created to justify slavery and give legitimacy to racism can show people how the concept of race is artificial to divide societies into hierarchies. 

If people become aware of this, people can understand that racism holds no actual legitimacy and is nonsensical, and perhaps finding the root will help us find a solution. 

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