Intro to Afro-American Studies


Africa Before and After the Slave Trade: -The Afro-American Heritage  

Toward a Paradigm of Unity in Afro-American Studies

LOGIC OF CHANGE Social Cohesion Traditional Africa - Slavery - Rural Life - Urban Life
Social Disruption - Slave Trade - Emancipation - Migrations -
UNITS OF ANALYSIS Ideology A1 B1 C1 D1 E1 F1 G1
Nationality A2 B2 C2 D2 E2 F2 G2
Class A3 B3 C3 D3 E3 F3 G3
Race A4 B4 C4 D4 E4 F4 G4

The great-brained Ape 
Who stood erect and talked to his fellows
Who planted seed and first boiled Iron 
And civilized a World. 
Night fell, silent and noisome night, ghost-haunted, Earthquake tore, flood roared, serpent and insect bit; 
Fever raged, starvation reigned; but Africa lived; 
Africa lived and grew, fared far and flourished, 
Vitalized mankind. 

Until the Devil rose and ruled in Europe and America, 
Worshipping Greed, proclaiming God, enchaining His children; 
Preaching Freedom, practicing Slavery Making 
Africans the niggers of the World. 

To be mocked and spit upon, 
To be crucified! Dead and buried! 
But Africa is not dead; she never died; she never will, 
She writhes in sleep; this third century of her degradation 
She struggles to awake. 

W. 'E. B. DuBois, "I Sing to China:' 1959. 


   Hardly a  day passes without some mention of Africa in the newspapers, radio, and television. But such discussion of Africa - especially about the struggle for independence, liberation, and revolution - has not always been the case. Prior to the liberation struggles of the late 1950s, the most widely presented image of Africa in the mass media and in the textbooks was that seen in Tarzan movies - "primitive" and "savage" people who ate nice white missionaries (and each other) but who were so inferior that they could always be beaten single-handedly by Tarzan. Of course this view was symbolic of the colonial domination of Africa. Many Black people in the United States accepted this myth of Africa's inferiority and refused to identify with the continent of their ancestors.  31

   Today, however, this has changed considerably. The upsurge of Africans for liberation was linked to the struggle of Black people for freedom in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. Most Black people today accept the rich heritage of their ancestral continent - a heritage of culture and struggle. The task today, however, is to approach the study of Africa scientifically and not fall victim to an analysis which replaces the old set of myths and distortions with a new set. This chapter will present some basic issues regarding the African heritage of Afro-American people.


  Africa has a long, long history. It is widely accepted by scholars that it is the continent where human beings first evolved. Archaeologists (scientists who study early societies using artifacts like skeletons, kitchen utensils, and tools uncovered through excavations or digging) and anthropologists (scientists who study the origin and nature of people) have provided evidence of, human- like beings in Africa that are millions of years old. However, we are interested in taking up those aspects of Africa which are most immediately connected to the lives of those African masses, the ancestors of Afro-Americans, who were brought as slaves to the United States. This is our point of departure, though African history is also an important subject for study. In addition, we are concerned with the contemporary situation on the African continent - the struggles for liberation which have a great significance for our current lives.

   Africa is the second largest continent in size in the world, second only to Asia. Including its larger islands, Africa is three times the size of Europe and four times the size of the United States. The whole of Europe, India, China, and the United States could be held within its borders. It is about 5,000 miles long (from North to South) and about 4,600 miles wide. Its 11,700,000 square miles cover one-fifth of the total land surface of the world. The equator cuts across the middle of Africa and the entire continent falls mainly within the warmer tropics. It is bound on the North by Mediterranean Sea, on the West by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the East by the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.


   Africa is one of the world's richest continents, a fact which highlights its long history of being exploited since today its people are among the world's poorest. It produces over one-fifth (20%) of ten of the world's most important minerals - 77% of the world's diamonds, 67% of the gold, and 35% of the platinum. These minerals are especially needed by the industrially advanced countries. Southern Africa is a focal point for imperialist rivalry primarily because much of the rich mineral resources of Africa are concentrated in this region. For example, South Africa ranks first in the world's production of chrome, silver, and manganese and second in diamonds; Zaire is first in diamonds and fifth in copper, tin, and silver; Zimbabwe is second in the production of chrome, silver, and copper; and Zambia is third in the world's production of copper.

   Africa is under populated, in large measure because of the impact of the slave trade. The slave traders preferred able-bodied men and women between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five, which had the effect of depleting millions in the prime of their child-bearing years. Walter Rodney has pointed out that this in part led to a stagnation in population growth, as indicated in Table 5.

   While population growth in Europe and Asia led to economic development, Africa's population stagnation has resulted in low productivity. The population loss related to slavery led to the disruption of farming routines and often to the abandonment of land. When the population was reduced beyond a certain point, there simply were not enough people to harness nature. This loss of population and its negative effects on economic development is something from which Africa has never really recovered. Africa is still a relatively sparsely populated continent. Although it constitutes approximately 22% of the world's land area, its population in 1982 was only about 513 million people or just over 11% of the world's population.

Table 5

  1650 1750 1850 1900
Africa 100 100 100 120
Europe 103 144 274 423
Asia 257 437 656 857
Source: Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, p. 97


     That the continent of Africa is not a single unit but is a continent of great cultural diversity is indicated by the fact that there are approximately 1,000 separate and distinct African languages. The fact that European languages such as English, French, and Portuguese are spoken widely in Africa and are often "official" national languages sharply illustrates the impact of European colonialism on the continent.

     We will look at pre-colonial Africa using six categories that you will notice are the themes of some of the following chapters: production, politics, religion, education, women and the family, and culture.

   Agriculture was the basis of life in Africa and therefore had a determining influence on all aspects of society. Agricultural work was a communal or collective undertaking in which every adult was expected to contribute to and share the products on an equitable basis. Production, though done collectively, was still on a lower level technologically because there were no modern agricultural tools or machines (e.g., tractors). Manufacturing did not develop as rapidly as in Europe and other places. Products consisted of housing, cloth, pottery, jewelry, art, weapons, and agricultural tools.

   There was trade but it was a secondary source of material goods. Markets existed where traders came and brought firearms, gunpowder, hats, beads, and dried fish in  exchange for perfume, salt, and slaves. Cattle sometimes was used instead of money, which was not used widely because most of what was needed was self-produced and not purchased.

   Recently, the African past has often been glorified to the extent of making slavery and the slave trade purely a consequence of Europeans in Africa. This substitutes myth for fact. Africans did have slaves. For example, the pyramids of Egypt were built with slave labor. Slavery in Africa, however, was different from slavery in the West Indies and in the United States. In Africa, a slave was treated as a human being. It was when slavery become a tool of capitalism in which goods are produced primarily for sale on the market, and not just for personal use, that slavery assumed the brutal and inhumane character as in the United States. 


 Click here to view map of Africa 35

   Because   the politics of a society is based on its economic development, political organization throughout Africa took on many different forms. Large kingdoms arose only where there was a big enough economy so that a great deal of wealth could be accumulated. There were several large and significant centralized governments in Africa like those of Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. The governments of these kingdoms were used to collect taxes and mobilize armies. They were also important in increasing the capacity to produce food, clothing, and shelter, and in stimulating manufacture and trade.

   In general, however, the real power often rested with elders or chiefs of each local village, and not with the king. In addition, the family or kinship group was usually the basis of government or political authority. Governments or states were not as necessary in early Africa. In those societies, the exploitation of one group of people by another had not developed to a significant extent, and political power was not needed to rule over the exploited.

   African religion was a complex and all-encompassing social institution that involved philosophical views, belief in the super- natural, and rituals'  It was a pervasive aspect of life. Religion played both a positive and a negative role in African society. On the one hand, it was an integral part of the social life of the people and facilitated the cooperation and discipline needed to aid the group's survival. On the other hand, it often exercised a conservative influence on social development since it changed slowly, if at all.

  According to Walter Rodney, religion slowed down the development of Africans' capacity to produce food, nothing, and shelter: "Belief in prayer and in the intervention of ancestors and various Gods could easily be a substitute for innovations designed to control the impact of weather and environment" Rodney is referring to the religious practice called ancestor-worship, a belief that the spirits of dead relatives are always around to protect and provide. Food and drink were always put on the ground for these spirits before it was consumed. As in other societies, this belief in some otherworldly or supernatural force with power over weather, life and death, health, and everything else reflects a pre- scientific understanding of nature and society.



   Education reflected the needs of African society. The process of education took place with groups of young people under the supervision of an older person. Boys and girls were taught separately those practices and customs important for their assuming the sex-role responsibilities of adults. The high point of the educational process was their initiation into adulthood, or the "rites of passages." Thus, the main aspect of this educational process is that it was based on the accumulated practical experience of the people. It was passed from generation to generation by the oral tradition and  apprenticeship relationships. There were also formal, institutions of education. The University of Sankore at Timbuktu and others were renowned intellectual centers to which scholars from other parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe came for study. These universities reflected the advanced development of a political state with the power to mobilize surplus wealth for education.

Women and the Family 
   Research suggests that in many ways the role of women in early African society was equal to men, even in armed battle. Gustavas Vassa, a West African who was taken to Barbados as a slave in the 1700s, wrote in, his account of life in Africa: ". . . even our women are warriors, and march boldly out to fight along with the men!' This observation is identical to what one would find in the current liberation struggles in Africa. Between men and women, however, there was a division of labor. Men were usually the hunters and farmers. Women also engaged ii4 agricultural work, but when networking with the men in this, they engaged in weaving and spinning cotton, dying the cloth, and making clothing. It is important to note, however, several ways in which women were oppressed in early Africa. The "council of elders" was made up exclusively of men. Men did not have to obey the same strict rules as women in relationships with members of the opposite sex. Men were even assigned more living space in the household. These kinds of practices undoubtedly led to attitudes and practices of male supremacy which women and men, especially in the contemporary African liberation movements, have struggled to abolish.


   The family was the basis of social organization in pre-colonial Africa. It performed essential economic, and political functions. Often families grouped together in clans for cooperation in various aspects of social life, like farming or war. Communalism - a society which -has a low stage of -technological development, no classes, and a collective Approach to the production and distribution of food, clothing, and shelter - developed in all parts of Africa. However, even during the pre-colonial period, a class structure was developing in Africa. There were Africans who owned slaves, and they were in a different class than the slaves themselves. In some places, there was a privileged "royal family" who comprised a privileged elite in relationship to the African masses.

   As a rich source of cultural tradition, Africa has long inspired Black people in the United States. This is reflected in many ways. Historically, many names of early Black institutions (e.g., the African Methodist Episcopal Church) symbolized the link with Africa. Creative artists have often written about Africa, as in Countee Cullen's poem "Heritage" ("What is Africa to Me") and Langston Hughes's "I've Known Rivers." More. recently, artists like Gil Scott-Heron have taken up the theme of struggle with songs like "What's the Word - Johannesburg," about the liberation struggle in South Africa. Similarly, Bob Marley has popularized a political link with Africa through Reggae music.

   Music, literature, dance, and sculpture are concentrated expressions of a people's culture. Thus, they are usually prominent in most societies. As Vassa says, "We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets." Every great event was reflected and communicated  in artistic performances, especially in dance and song. Musical instruments, such as drums, xylophones, and harps, were developed in Africa. The bronze sculptures of Benin, Vassa's home, have been widely recognized for their greatness. In fact, African art was copied by such artists as Picasso in creating modern art like cubism. 

   The research of such scholars as linguist Lorenzo Turner and anthropologist Melville Herskovitz has demonstrated that Africans brought this rich cultural heritage to America. Once here, African culture interacted with the culture of other peoples. Under these conditions, a new cultural pattern emerged. It was a culture that contributed to Black people's struggle for survival under very challenging conditions.




   Considering such well-developed African societies, one must wonder how European slave traders and colonizers were able to penetrate the continent of Africa. The key to understanding this is that Africa and Europe were at different stages of socioeconomic development. Despite the fact that Africa was. more advanced than Europe at an earlier period, Europe by the beginning of the slave trade had surpassed Africa, especially in the capacity of its economy to produce goods like ships and guns. When a stronger socioeconomic system comes into contact with a system at an earlier and weaker stage of development, the weaker one will suffer. This is what happened when Europe penetrated into Africa.

     Initially, Africa interacted with Europe on the basis of trade, not of slaves but of other goods. This was the first step in "how Europe underdeveloped Africa." Briefly, because Europe was a capitalist society using manufacturing and large-scale machine production, its capacity to produce was greater. The manufacture of cloth is a good example. During the 18th century new inventions, like the power-loom and the use of water power, revolutionized cloth production in Europe. This enabled Europe to produce enough cloth to supply its own needs and to export large quantities, to Africa and elsewhere.

     European manufacturers even copied and produced colorful African cloth patterns and flooded Africa with this cloth. African cloth producers were unable to compete with this cheaper, machine-produced cloth since they were still producing by hand. Africans thus turned to mining gold, securing slaves, and producing other goods that could be traded for cloth produced in Europe. As a result African manufacturing was neglected and the process of technological advancement was slowed in cloth production and in many other sectors of the economy (like iron manufacture) Continued trade with Europe only pushed Africa further behind Europe.



   When we discuss the stunting of technological development in Africa, this is not to suggest that there were no significant achievements. The pyramids of Egypt and the granite stone buildings of Zimbabwe are outstanding examples of skill and technological capacity. There are, many other examples of early African superiority in culture and technology. The key point is that only the continued development of Europe's system of production into its capitalist stage - and not race or genetic inferiority - led to Africa's being dominated by Europe. In other words, Europeans' use of the gun eventually overcame, the fierce resistance of Africans using the spear.

     The most destructive trade, however, was the slave trade. Millions of the continent's most productive men and women were carried off to produce goods and services that would benefit neither themselves nor Africa. The social disruption caused by the many years of the slave raids and slave trade left long-lasting damage to African societies.

     There is considerable controversy about the impact of the slave trade on Africa, especially regarding the number of slaves exported from Africa. Estimates of the number exported to the New World range from one hundred million to a few million. Recent estimates of ten million tend to underestimate the extent of the slave trade. Just as the number of slaves exported from Africa is underestimated, so too are the mortality rates - the numbers of Africans who died on the voyage from Africa to the Americas. While some recent studies suggest that only 9 out of every 100 died, earlier studies of the slave trade show that the number of slaves who died was as high as 33 out of every 100 If, we take into account the number of Africans  who died in slave raids and of foreign diseases imported to Africa by slave traders, any estimate of the number of slaves imported into the Americas must be multiplied several times to be accurate about the depopulation of Africa.

     Most of the slaves exported came from coastal West Africa - from the areas now called Senegal, Gambta, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Benin, and Nigeria. One study  indicates that 81 % of the slaves exported by the British between 1690 and 1807 came from this area. There were some important variations, however. For example, 40% of the slaves imported into South Carolina between 1733 and 1807 came from Angola in southern Africa. Though the slave trade was concentrated in the coastal areas, it had a negative impact on the continent as a whole. As Walter Rodney has pointed out, "European trade goods percolated into the deepest interior, and (more significantly) the orientation of large areas of the continent towards human exports meant that other positive interactions were thereby ruled out:




   How were the slaves secured? Outright kidnapping of slaves by Europeans and African traders occurred at the beginning of the slave trade and lasted throughout its 450 year history. But very early after the first raids, the slave enterprise became more of a trade than a raid. That is, Africans, especially chiefs, cooperated with Europeans in securing other Africans to be taken away as slaves. The key to understanding this is as Walter Rodney states: the Africans who sold other Africans were a privileged class who "joined hands with the Europeans in exploiting the African masses." Thus, the slave trade furthered the development of classes in Africa by enabling a small elite group of Africans to accumulate wealth, luxury, and power (including firearms) at the expense of, the masses of African peoples. European countries even established trading forts on the West Coast of Africa where slaves could be brought from the interior and stored until slave ships arrived to make their purchases.

     The prices paid for slaves reflected the different modes of production in Africa and in Europe. This is important to keep in mind when we read that slaves were often purchased for a few bars of iron or a few yards of brightly colored cloth. In 1695, for example, a healthy African could be purchased for eight guns or 600 pounds of iron. This may seem cheap but not when we consider that in Africa such large quantities of iron could not be produced without considerable time and expense and the guns could not be manufactured at all. Thus, the price that was obtained for slaves was really a reflection of how long it took Africans to produce the goods that were traded for slaves and not how much it cost to manufacture them in Europe.

     We must also note the impact of firearms on Africa. If one state obtained firearms in exchange for slaves, it was stronger than its neighbor. A neighboring state was often forced into slave trading in order to secure guns to protect itself. Thus, it is correct to assess the full impact of the European penetration into Africa by including these patterns of violence and disruption introduced by the slave trade. Economic development usually demands peaceful conditions. The slave trade stimulated social violence and increased fear and distrust among people, all of which had a negative impact on economic development in Africa.



   Who were the major slave trading countries? England carried 44.6% of all slaves as compared to 29% carried by Portugal and 16% carried by France. The United States carried 5% of the total while Holland carried 3.4% and Denmark carried 1.7%. Thus the capitalist countries of Europe were the principal slave traders. This is an important fact that will be discussed in greater detail in the next chapter. In East Africa, Arab traders carried out a slave trade secondary in importance to the European trade.

     Where were Africans taken as slaves? Phillip Curtin in The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census calculated that between 1701 and 1807, 42% of all the slaves exported from Africa went to the Caribbean Islands and 49% went to South America. The most significant finding is that less than 5% of the total exports came to the United States. The bulk of these 430,000 slaves came between 1730 and 1770 - before most settlers from Europe. 


As capitalism continued to develop in Europe and in the United States, its need for slaves decreased. After the Industrial Revo0lution, Europe became more interested in the valuable raw materials of Africa. As Walter Rodney has stated:

Both openly and by implication, all the European powers in the nineteenth century indicated their awareness of the fact that the activities connected with producing captives were inconsistent with other economic pursuits. That was the time when Britain in particular wanted Africans to collect palm produce and rubber and to grow a agricultural crops, for export in place of slaves; and it was clear that slave raiding was violently conflicting with that objective in Western, Eastern, and Central Africa. 

   The slave trade was abandoned because it no longer suited the capitalists' needs.

   This was why Europe's relationship to Africa shifted from slave trading to colonialism. Kwame Nkrumah put it correctly: "Colonialism is, therefore, the policy by which the 'mother country,' the colonial power, binds her colonies to herself by political ties with the primary object of promoting her own economic advantages." He went on to point out: 
Such a system depends on the opportunities offered by the natural resources of the colonies and the uses for them suggested by the dominant economic objectives of the colonial power. Under the influence of national aggressive self-consciousness and the belief that in trade and commerce one nation should gain at the expense of the other, and the further belief that exports must exceed imports in value, each colonial power pursues a policy of strict monopoly of colonial trade, and the building up of national power. 

     The French Premier Jules Ferry, in a speech to the Chamber of Deputies in 1885, clearly articulated the main reasons Europe acquired its colonies: "The nations of Europe desire colonies for the following three purposes: (i) in order that they may have access to the raw materials of the colonies; (ii) in order to have markets for sale of the manufactured goods of the home country; and (iii) as a field for the investment of surplus capital." Many years later, Nkrumah, whose country underwent colonialism, spelled out the colonial policies the Europeans used to ensure their success in achieving these goals: "(i) to make the colonies non-manufacturing dependencies; (ii) to prevent the colonial subjects from acquiring the knowledge of modern means and- techniques for developing their own industries; (iii) to make colonial 'subjects' simple producers of raw materials through cheap labor; (iv) to prohibit the colonies from trading with other nations except through the 'mother country."'

     Colonialism was but a form of imperialism. "Imperialism," as Ralph Bunche succinctly puts it, "is an international expression of capitalism:' Briefly, imperialism. is a stage of capitalism  in which a few capitalists own or monopolize the wealth (factories, banks, land, and the like) in a country, and because they have exhausted all of the most profitable investments at home, these monopolists can only expand their profits by turning to, the rich raw materials, land, and people of other parts of the world. The main reason for this is that advanced capitalist countries, because of the constant struggle for profits, cannot continue to develop based on their own resources. Hence, these countries are forced into a new kind of struggle with each other in which they annex overseas territory as part of their "empire."



     The impact of imperialism and colonialism on colonized people was very destructive. Economically, the people were forced, often at gunpoint, to work in imperialist-owned mines, plantations, and factories for starvation wages. Politically, imperialist nations arbitrarily drew political boundaries and instituted a system of political rule using their own administrators or indigenous puppets to guarantee that power remained in the hands of the "mother country." Socially, the cultural and social life of the indigenous people was suppressed. Missionaries and educators played key roles in consolidating imperialist colonial domination. As Nkrumah has written:

The stage opens with the appearance of missionaries and anthropologists, traders and concessionaires, and administrators,. While "missionaries" with "Christianity" perverted implore the colonial subject to lay up his "treasures in Heaven where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt," the traders and concessionaires and administrators acquire his mineral and land resources, destroy his arts, crafts, and home industries. 

     One of the most significant tools of colonialism was racism. Colonialism usually involved Europeans as the colonizers and people of color as the colonized. As a rationalization for exploitation and oppression, the ideology of racism was developed which branded the colonized people as racially inferior and subhuman, having no rights that the colonizers had to respect. Their only right, in the eyes of the imperialists, was the right to be exploited.

     It is against this long history of exploitation and oppression by colonialism, imperialism, and racism that we must understand the daily discussion in the U.S. mass media regarding Africa. While it is not often presented to us as it really is, Amilcar Cabral, an assassinated leader of the African revolution, points to the real story behind the headlines we read about and hear: "The destruction of colonialism and the struggle against imperialism constitutes one of the outstanding characteristics of our times." It is. this struggle against an international system of imperialism and such evils as colonialism and racism that are caused by it that, says Cabral, links the struggle of African peoples to the struggle of freedom-loving and justice-loving people all over the world. It is partly because of their rich heritage of culture and struggle that Afro-American people are profoundly -interested in, influenced by, and indeed, form an integral part of this same struggle now being valiantly fought in Africa.





African Heritage Liberation struggles
Colonialism Population/Depopulation
Cultures Slave Trade
Geography Slavery
Imperialism Wealth


1. Compare the various features of the African continent to Europe, to the U.S.A., and to the Soviet Union.
    a. land
    b. population and peoples
    c. natural resources
    d. industrial production e. cultural diversity

2. Discuss life in pre-colonial Africa using six key aspects of social life in all societies: production (food, clothing, shelter), politics, religion, education, women and family relations, and culture.

3. What is colonialism? Why was Africa dominated by European colonialism by 1900?

4. What is the liberation struggle in southern Africa all about (specifically South Africa and Namibia)? Use current news- papers and magazines to research this question. What is the significance of these struggles for Afro-Americans and the U.S.A. in general?



1. Abdul Rahman M. Babu, African Socialism or a Socialist Africa? London: Zed Press, 1981.

2. George M.  Fredrickson, White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

3. Henry F. Jackson, From the Congo to Soweto: US. Foreign .  Policy toward Africa since 1960. New York: Quill, 1984.

4. Bernard M. Magubane, The Political Economy of Race and Class in South Africa. New York:- Monthly Review Press, 1979.

5. A. Temu and B. Swai, Historians and Africanist History. A Critique. London: Zed Press, 1981.


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