Contrary to a misconception which still prevails, Africans were familiar with literature and art for many years before their contact with the Western World.
Before the breaking-up of the social structure of the West African states of Ghana, Mali and Songhay and the internal strife and chaos that made the slave trade possible, the forefathers of the Africans who eventually became slaves in the United States, lived in a society where university life was fairly common and scholars were held in reverence.
To understand fully any aspect of African American life one must realize that the African American is not without a cultural past, though he was many generations removed from it before his achievement in American literature and art commanded any appreciable attention.
That is why African and Africana history should be taught every day, not only in the schools, but also in the home and African American History Month should be every month. We need to learn about all of the African people in the world. The idea of an education for a new reality in the African world was already old, with me, before this decade. The serious study of the plight of African people all over the world, in all ages, conditions and geographical settings, has been the main part of my life’s work. It is the all consuming passion of my existence. It is something I do, just like breathing is something I do. It is a subject which, if I were to talk directly on it for more than twenty minutes, I would have to talk on it for at least a year. To begin, let’s consider the word BLACK.
Black is an honorable word and I am glad to see so many people lose their fear of using it: however, black has its limitations. Black tells you how you look without telling you who you are. A more proper word for our people, African, relates us to land, history and culture. No people can be spiritually and culturally secure until they answer to a name of their own choosing—a name that instantaneously relates that people to the past, the present, and the future. In his book, The Name “Negro”: Its Origin and Evil Use, the Caribbean writer, Richard B. Moore, has said: Slaves and dogs are named by their masters. Free men name themselves. In his book Mr. Moore expresses something that is increasingly rare in the present academic environment—a conviction based on research and reason. “Human relations,” he says, “cannot be peaceful, satisfactory, and happy until placed on the basis of mutual self-respect. The proper name for people, has thus become, in this period of crucial change and rapid reformation on a world scale, a vital factor in determining basic attitudes involving how, and even whether, people will continue to live together on this shrinking planet.”
Richard B. Moore gives us much to think about in a world where Europeans and white people in general went to such great lengths to distort world history. Europeans benefited, greatly, from this distortion and it is clear that they knew more about history than they are prepared to admit. They had to know a great deal about history in order to distort it so effectively, and then use this distortion as an element of world control. They knew that history is a two-edged sword that can be used both as an instrument of liberation and a weapon of enslavement. They knew that then and they know it now that history, like a gun, is neutral; it will serve anyone who uses it effectively. We must understand that all the world was changed to accommodate the second rise of Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Followed swiftly by the European conquest of most of mankind, this conquest was achieved by the astute use of two political instruments—the Bible and the gun.
The Europeans, in addition to colonizing the world, colonized information about the world and the writing of the history of the world. They were so successful that today there is not a single book in existence with the title, “World History,” that is an honest history of the world and all of its people. World history lost its broad definition and became a rationale for European conquest and control—a means for the glorification of European people at the expense of other people and nations whose civilizations were old before Europe was born. The first European attack was on African culture. Their next move was to deny that this culture ever existed.
A look at African cultures, especially in West Africa, will show us what an education for a new reality in the African world should be about. There is no way to talk about this education without looking again at the roots of world history and the interplay of the histories of various people. The scholar who knows his people’s history and its relationship to the history of the world should start with the bold assertion that Africa is the basis of world history, and that African people are the mothers and fathers of mankind. Scholars the world over must be courageous enough to make this assertion and prepare themselves academically to prove it.
The special role that history assigns to the scholar eludes most of us: the role is simple, therefore it is very complex. In most societies the scholar is not required to labor in the fields, to draw water, nor to bring wood for the fires. At this point you might ask what is the scholar required to do? What is his or her special mission? What is the assignment? The scholar is the clock-watcher of history and the keeper of the compass that must be used to locate his or her people on the map of human geography. The scholar will be able to tell the people where they have been and what they have been, where they are and what they are. Most importantly, the scholar should be able to prophesy and predict where his people still must go and what his people still must be. The scholar should be able to find the special clock that tells his people their historical, cultural and political time of day. The role of scholars to us as a people is to end part of our special tragedy because for too long, figuratively speaking, we have been telling our time by our oppressor’s clock. By his clock it could be midnight in December because he is losing control of the world. We, estranged in the Western World where we are neither guest nor citizen, are re-merging with hope flowing before us like a river—by our special historical clock. It is a morning in spring. We are in an extraordinary situation so let us use our imagination to create an extraordinary way of looking at it.
For the moment, let us take our crisis out of the framework of history and sociology, and instead regard it as a drama with many dimensions and with long historical roots. The drama is not pure: it is part comedy and part tragedy, sometimes it will be a satire and there are even elements of farce. It is a mystery play about the greatest crime ever contrived by the mind of man. The recurring theme of this drama is rape, the rape of a continent, the rape of its people.
This rape set in motion an act of protracted genocide that lasted for five hundred years and has not completely exhausted itself today. The aftermath of this crime is the basis of the black world drama and the crisis that no black scholar can avoid. With this said we can now, figuratively, put the players on stage. In the unfolding of this great human drama that we are calling the “Black Crisis,” the characters will play every role from saint to buffoon. The first scene in the play is pleasant and here is nothing that suggests future developments. Some sailors have arrived on the coast of West Africa. The year is 1438. The Africans with their customary hospitality to strangers have invited the sailors to dinner, a scene that will be repeated many times before it is turned into a tragic occurrence. The Africans did not know the temperament of these strangers, nor did they sense their ambitions nor the intent that was hidden behind their smiles. These sailors have come from a thawed-out icebox called Europe. A people who were as violent as the climate that produced them. A people who were reaching out from their hostile land searching for new gold, new labor, and a new supply of food. They find all of these items in Africa and they do not buy or bargain for them, they take them.
In the second scene of our play’s first act, the dinner is over and the guests begin looking around the house of their hosts. They like so many of the things they see, including the wife of the house. Suddenly all expressions change. The guests take out their guns, rape the wife, enslave the both of them and force them away from their home to labor in the far reaches of the world. Thus the long night begins. The curtain falls on the first act of a long play that, in many ways, is still on the road. My basic point is that all black scholars in the West, and most of them in Africa, have been reacting to the consequences of this play.
Their dilemma is how to interpret these events and their far-reaching tragic aftermath.
Their consequences are the primary content of their literary heritage and out of this material came the slave narratives, the spirituals, and the blues. I am talking about something that is both historical and topical, which helps to explain why we can better understand the present by looking through the lenses of the past.
We need both vantage points in order to understand the present. We, as a people, each time we forget that our African-ness is our rallying cry, our window on the world, and the basis of our first allegiance, find ourselves in serious trouble. To explain this fact I must make an admission that breaks my heart, as well as it might break yours.
Throughout history we have been a politically naive people. We have never made a good alliance with another people, least of all with white people. I do not mean that we have never made alliances with other people. I am saying that the alliances that we have made have not been in our favor. In the future we should enter into only those alliances that we can control.
Africans, traditionally, have been the only people who permit other people to live in their home, or country, for hundreds of years without demanding a declaration of allegiance to their home. We have always invited our future conquerors to dinner.
This misplaced humanity and hospitality to strangers is at once the strongest and the weakest aspect of our African way of life. It is the strongest because it is the basis of African humanity; it is the weakest because all too many strangers have come into Africa and have taken advantage of Africa’s generosity. People who think they can trust every stranger who enters their home are politically naive. This is an aspect of the African world situation which we have not studied or fully acknowledged and it will remain so as long as we ignore it. We need to take a global view of African people in our attempt to understand how we relate to other people. This will be the culmination of a long intellectual struggle that started in the first half of the nineteenth century. The need to analyze and interpret the place where African people in world history grew more critical during the first two decades of this century. Black Americans had entered the twentieth century searching for a new direction, politically, culturally and institutionally, a new definition and an ideology. New scholars were emerging who began to interpret the history and struggles of African people from an international point of view. This atmosphere nurtured new men and movements which gave black scholarship the real test of its existence.
To establish an education for a new reality in the African world without an ideology would be merely a recitation of days, places, personalities and events, without an understanding of their place in the past, the present and their effect on the reshaping of the future. For our liberation we should draw on the intellectual heritage of the whole world, beginning, of course, with our own intellectual heritage.
If our people are cold, we should invade hell and borrow fire from the devil, and we will do this without becoming the devil’s disciples. We should properly read the signs of history and remember: What we do for ourselves depends on what we know of ourselves and what we accept about ourselves. This is what the struggle in education for a new reality in the African world is all about. An education for a new reality in the African world must be holistic. Africans must be educated to know, down to the marrow of their bones, that they must be the owners of Africa and must be responsible for the management of every part of Africa.
While there are Africans in most parts of the world, the historical, political and cultural heart-beat of all Africans is in Africa itself.
Dr John Henrik Clarke