Intro to Afro-American Studies
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|
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: THE CONTINENT AND ITS 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.
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.
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.
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|
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.
and the Family
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
AND IMPERIALISM IN AFRICA
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:
The slave trade was abandoned because it no longer suited the capitalists'
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
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:
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.
Compare the various features of the African continent to Europe, to the
U.S.A., and to the Soviet Union.
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.
What is colonialism? Why was Africa dominated by European colonialism by
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?
Abdul Rahman M. Babu, African Socialism or a Socialist Africa?
London: Zed Press, 1981.
George M. Fredrickson, White Supremacy: A Comparative
Study in American and South African History. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1981.
Henry F. Jackson, From the Congo to Soweto: US. Foreign . Policy
toward Africa since 1960. New York: Quill, 1984.
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.