The Significance of the African World
2.2 0f 10 by John Henrik Clarke
Until quite recently, it was rather generally assumed, even among well educated persons in the West, that the continent of Africa was a great expanse of land, mostly jungle, inhabited by savages and fierce beasts. It was not thought of as an area where great civilizations could have existed or where the great kings of these civilizations could have ruled in might and wisdom over vast empires. It is true that there are some current notions about the cultural achievements of Egypt, but Egypt was perceived of as European land rather than a country of Africa. Even if a look at an atlas or globe showed Egypt to be in Africa, the popular thought immediately saw in the Sahara Desert a formidable barrier and convenient division of Africa into two parts: one (north of the Sahara) was inhabited by European-like people of high culture and noble history; the other (south of the Sahara) was inhabited by dark-skinned people who had no culture, and were incapable of having done anything in their dark and distant past that could be dignified by the designation of “history.” Such ideas, of course, are far from the truth, but it is not difficult to understand why they persisted, and unfortunately still persist, in one form or another in the popular mind.
To understand how these ideas came about we must examine African history and its relationship to world history before and after the slave trade and the colonial period. Then we must deal with a recurring theme in the African peoples struggle to regain a definition of themselves and their role in world history—Pan-African Nationalism. African people are both jealous and envious of other people who possess a culture container called, nation. They want the same thing for themselves and all African people on the face of the earth. African political activists are asking, and trying to answer the question: “How did we become so scattered and fragmented and how can we unite to save ourselves?” The formula that a large number of African people agree on most is Pan-African Nationalism. This formula bridges all political lines, religious and cultural lines, and geographical boundaries, or should do so.
The following definition of Pan-Africanism and its meaning is extracted from one of my books in preparation, Pan-Africanism: A Brief History of An Idea in the African World. “Pan” movements are not new in the world. These movements existed long before the use of the preface “Pan” was a part of a group’s organizational name. Any movement by an ethnic group to recover and reclaim their history, culture and national identity, after slavery, war or migration, forced or otherwise, can be called a “Pan” movement.
The largest number of these movements existed in the United States, a nation of immigrants. In this country these movements were mainly historical and cultural societies whose objectives were to preserve the history of the United States and the respective history of each immigrant group.
Pan-Africanism, often thought of as a movement conceived and developed by Africans living outside Africa, was in fact, a world-wide movement, affecting Africans in every part of the world. Generally, we think of it as a twentieth century phenomenon. In fact, this world-wide movement used different approaches, depending on the political climate in the countries where African people lived in large numbers. In Africa itself, Pan-Africanism was often expressed through armed resistance to slavery and colonialism.
There is need for an operational definition that will explain Pan-Africanism’s many manifestations in different places, under different circumstances. All over the world, Africans have been fighting to restore what slavery and colonialism took away from them. No matter what their circumstances, their objectives have been the same. Slavery and colonialism strained, but did not completely break, the cultural umbilical cord between the Africans in Africa and those who, by forced migration, now live in what is called the Western World. A small group of African American and Caribbean writers, teachers and preachers, collectively developed the basis of what would be an African-consciousness movement over one hundred years ago. Their concern was with Africa in general and Egypt and Ethiopia, and what we now called the Nile Valley, in particular.
In the years before emancipation of the slaves in the United States and in the Caribbean Islands, these “free” blacks had barely mastered their conqueror’s language. However, in spite of their lack of formal training, their first writings reflected a concern for Africa as their homeland. W.E.B. DuBois, the great African American scholar, and elder statesman among African Americans, describes the situation in this manner:
From the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries, the Africans imported to America regarded themselves as temporary settlers destined to return eventually to Africa. Their increasing revolts against the slave system, which culminated in the eighteenth century, showed a feeling of close kinship to the motherland and even well in the nineteenth century they called their organizations “African” as witness the “African Unions” of New York and Newport, and the African Churches of Philadelphia and New York. In the West Indies and South America there was even closer indication of feelings of kinship with Africa and the East.
In referring to the importance of African people in world history, he tells us that:
Always Africa is giving us something new.. On its black bosom arose one of the earliest, if not the earliest, of self-protecting civilizations, and grew so mightily that it still furnishes superlatives to thinking and speaking men. Out of its dark and more remote forest vastnesses came, if we may credit many recent scientists, the first welding of iron, and we know that agriculture and trade flourished there when Europe was a wilderness.
He notes further that:
Nearly every human empire that has arisen in the world, material and spiritual, has found some of its greatest crises on the continent of Africa. It was through Africa that Christianity became the religion of the world. In Africa, the last flood of Germanic invasions spent itself within hearing distance of the last gasp of Byzantium, and it was again through Africa that Islam came to play its great role of conqueror and civilizer.
Egypt and the nations of the Nile Valley were, figuratively, the beating heart of Africa and the incubator for its greatness for more than a thousand years. The human traffic from the South renewed the creative energy of Egypt and helped it meet one of the greatest challenges in history. She gave birth to what later became known as Western Civilization, long before the greatness of Greece and Rome.
In essence, Pan-Africanism is about the restoration of African people to their proper place in world history. The Arab slave trade in East Africa (that started before the trans-Atlantic slave trade in West Africa) shattered the foundations of African nations and cultures. These catastrophes would scatter African people to the four corners of the earth. Further, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europeans began to colonize most of the world: they not only colonized the world but they colonized information about the world. And in order to create a rationale for the Atlantic slave trade, Africans were left out of the respectful commentary of history.
The objective of Pan-Africanism is not only the restoration of land and nationhood: it has as one of its aims the restoration of respect. The major PanAfricanist theoreticians—W.E.B. DuBois, H. Sylvester Williams, C.L.R. James and George Padmore—gave the concept form and substance. This concept was old before they were born. The main roots of Pan-Africanism (both action and social thought) were nourished by the events of the fifteenth century—the second rise of Europe, the beginning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and Western colonialism. During the period referred to here, Africans lost their nation-structure, war was declared on their culture, both by the European and the Arab and the African was removed from the commentary of world history.