Racial Politics of Writing African History: "As a Historian of African Descent, I Regard the Decolonisation of Knowledge as a Crucial Step in Ensuring That Africans Worldwide Retake Control of Their Own Destinies and Histories."

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In my January 2008 column titled We Have a History, I documented the long history of racism towards global Africans. But the title appears to have given some readers the wrong impression, that I was suggesting that centuries of anti-Black racism are the only defining feature of our history. This was not my intent. My goal was to provide a historical genealogy of Western racism, and to show how consistent and enduring that history has been.

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What most intrigued me about several readers' responses was that they struck at the heart of the complex racial politics of writing African history. Kofi Campbell wrote in from Kingston, Jamaica, objecting to my citing of the work of a white scholar, Martin Bernal, while failing to mention the earlier work of African scholars. In his view, by citing Bernal, I implicitly reinforced the very notion of black inferiority that I was challenging. While I wholeheartedly agree with Campbell that Bernal owes a great debt to Cheikh Anta Diop, Martin Delaney, and other African and African Diaspora scholars, Black Athena was indeed path-breaking in its extensive engagement with both old and new archaeological, documentary, and linguistic evidence.

A fact that Campbell may not know is that Bernal comes from a deeply progressive tradition of scholarship and activism, and precisely because he could not be sidelined he was instead the target of some of the most vicious and vitriolic attacks that academia had witnessed in decades.

As a historian of African descent, and as an Africanist, I regard the decolonisation of knowledge as a crucial step in ensuring that Africans worldwide retake control of their own destinies and histories. At the same time, I also realise that just as there are Mobutus there are also Lumumbas, and equally just as there are James Watsons and Hugh Trevor Ropers, there are also Martin Bernals. Honest scholarly and intellectual engagement requires that we give credit when it is due.

Another reader also criticised my reference to Bernal's work claiming Black Athena was "a fake and full of myths and inaccuracies". Not surprisingly, he also argued that Africa has no history because if Africans really built the pyramids, why didn't they develop civilisations of equal grandeur in other parts of the continent?

The question is probably best answered by flipping it on its head and asking why Egypt was so complexly organised at a period in time when most other human societies (not just in Africa, but the world over) were still organised along much simpler lines. Yet, what I find most intriguing is the underlying assumption that a human society has to be state-based, hierarchical, at least partially urban, and organised in a "complex" manner in order to qualify as a civilisation. Instead of accepting this prefabricated model of civilisation and trying to squeeze every corner of African into it, we need to rethink what constitutes civilisation. This has been one of the central tasks of Africanist historians. Yet, our work has often been complicated by the thorny racial politics that surround not only the idea of Africa, but also its material realities. Perhaps more than any other field of history, African history has been called upon to do more than just interpret and record the past. It has often been vested with a mandate to defend the humanity of Africans.

It goes without saying that long before African history emerged as a formal discipline in European, and later American universities, Africans were recording their own history. Even before the Egyptians pioneered hieroglyphics around 3150 BCE, older African civilisations recorded their history through rock paintings, many of which survive today in northern and southern Africa. The manuscripts of ancient Mali, and in particular those found in its great centre of learning, Timbuktu, also provide an incredibly rich written record of the region's scientific, economic and religious history. …