Davidson, Basil, the Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation State

By Walter, John C. | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 31, 1993 | Go to article overview

Davidson, Basil, the Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation State


Walter, John C., Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Davidson, Basil, The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation State

The prevailing image of Africa in the Western mind since the 15th century has been that of the dark continent from which little of value could be gleaned. This view, in great part, accounted for the enslavement of Africans in the Americas, and its legacy contributes to the continued discrimination against people of African ancestry in the 20th century. The Black Man's Burden caps Professor Basil Davidson's long, distinguished career as a historian of Africa who has given Africa its rightful place as one of the world's pre-eminent civilizations. Davidson makes the case that Europeans are the Black man's burden, for apart from the slave trade and other exploitations, they imposed on politically and ethnically unrelated groups of people the concept and actuality of the nation-state as an organically superior form of government. This was foreign to African peoples who, prior to the coming of the Europeans, had fashioned for themselves effective and just laws and governments.

Beginning with the relationships between Europeans and Africans before the 1883 partition of Africa, Davidson shows that overt racial discrimination in that era was relatively mild, since the slave trade was a bad memory and Europeans, particularly the British, no longer viewed African subjects as inferior beings. But with the confluence of intensified competition among the European powers and the pressure of modernization, Europeans returned to the earlier slave-trading view of African inferiority. "The crude and inchoate prejudices of the slaving centuries," writes Davidson, "were gathered together in a skein of racist ideology, while on the ground, out there in Africa, the old acceptance of innate equality was thrown overboard." While a terrible development, more depressing was the attitude and practice of many western-educated Africans Davidson calls "recaptives", including Black Americans that colonized present-day Liberia, who bought into the view of Africa as a backward place. To them, Africa lacked the means of modern production, being devoid of western political organization needed to put African countries in the forefront of the world.

The confluence of recaptive thought and increasing Eurocentrism led to a rejection of the old systems of indigenous governance. …

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