Malcom X was known to remind African Americans that their history “did not begin in chains.”
Well, duh, right? Everyone knows that, right?
Except that, somehow, I didn’t.
I’ve done a fair amount a anti-racism work in my life, trying to dig up and destroy all of its ugly roots from beneath the surface. Perhaps a sense of justice might have been enough to motivate me to do the work; but the truth is that the health of many of my most important relationships depends on me not settling in to the space afforded me by my white privilege. My first love was a Black man. I attend a predominantly Black church. Most of my high school students were Black and Latino. I’ve been the guardian of one black child, and am the mother to another. And let’s not forget about the time my friend Tina asked me, “Why are there always so many Asian people at your house?” Working on my own race crap was never a trivial matter to me.
So imagine my surprise when I began to prepare for the class I am co-teaching for a group of homeschoolers, a class on ancient Africa. I knew almost nothing about it when I began to research the topic, but that was true when I began to teach the American Revolution and Greek mythology as well. Nothing I learned researching those classes, though, exposed anything more than ignorance. Studying ancient Africa was different. At one point, I had this sick feeling come over me as an ugly thought began to bubble up in the back of my head:
“I didn’t know THEY were as advanced as WE were.”
And it wasn’t just a hmmm, I didn’t know that. It was a Really? I’m surprised that.
How was it possible that I still had that floating around in there? If you had asked me last year if ancient Africans were as capable as Europeans of developing advance cultures of art, education, and architecture, I would have said that they absolutely were. But when confronted with the reality that they in fact did have those advanced cultures, I was surprised. In a way I found disturbing.
After spending some time reeling, thinking, praying, and repenting, I began to wonder how the heck this happened to me. The answer was no big mystery: I had the idea that Africans never did anything all that amazing because that is what I had been taught. No one, of course, said that pre-colonial Africans were big dummies or that we did them a favor by bringing them over to our sophisticated way of life. But if you never explicitly teach otherwise, if you start your teaching about Black history by teaching about the victimized American slaves, you convey just that message. I think I grew up thinking something like this: Slavery was awful and all, but it’s not like we ripped them away from thriving, sophisticated cultures. If we had, then surely we would have heard about some of that culture. We would have heard about:
- Mansa Musa, the 14th century king of the Malian empire. He is reported to be the wealthiest man the world has ever known. On his trip to Mecca he gave away so much gold to the poor when he was in Cairo that the metal became devalued and it wreaked havoc on the economy. The situation was not rectified until he borrowed the gold back at a high interest rate. He built up Timbuktu to be an intellectual center that rivaled any other on the planet at the time.
- Lalibela, home to a series of stunning churches carved from solid rock in the 12th and 13th centuries. Lalibela is one of two holy cities in Ethiopia, designed by the Axum king whom the city was named after. Scholars believe he designed the town to replicate Jerusalem, which had recently been conquered by Muslims.
- Ancient Africans who developed calendars, estimated Pi to be 3.16*, and utilized medicine more advanced than that used in Europe.
I could go on and on, and I knew none of it. I watched Roots in high school and learned about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, George Washington Carver, and Jackie Robinson in elementary school. I learned a little bit about Egypt, but there was a not-so-subtle implication that Egyptians weren’t really African. Black people were presented as suffering and heroic, but certainly not as conquerors and university builders and architects and scientists.
When my friend Susan and I were deciding how to start our class this semester, we thought about telling the kids about the early archeologists who decided that Europeans must have arrived in Africa far earlier than they had previously known. There was no other way for them to explain the advanced art, technology and architecture they discovered. Surely the Africans could not have done it, they surmised. In the end, Susan and I decided not to start the class with this information. We don’t have to correct lies the students believe about ancient Africa because they are not being taught the lies at the outset. (To see our extensive curriculum outline, click here.)
One day, when they hear Malcolm’s quote – Our history did not begin in chains – they will respond, “Well, duh. Everyone knows that, right?”
* An earlier version of this post erroneously reported the value of Pi discovered in ancient Africa to be 3.14 rather than 3.16.