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Perspectives: Time for a Fresh View of African Civilization


Almost 100 years ago, Carter G. Woodson called upon Black intellectuals, not only to defend their integrity and examine the values of their contributions to America, but also, to put an end to the lies that were being perpetuated by the self-declared scholars, historians and pseudo-scientists, who began their degrading and humiliating attack on Africa and the Africans. These anti-African groups went to describe Africa as the “Dark Continent,” full of savage tribes and devoid of any attributes of civilization before the coming of Europeans. Writing and lecturing, in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, they made every effort to justify the inferior social economic and political positions America assigned to Black citizens. Woodson saw that the celebration of Black History Month may help to educate both whites and blacks about the Black contribution to America and the world and thus may help to enhance efforts to improve race relations at home. He also saw that by demonstrating to the world that Africa and people of African descent have and continue to contribute to the advancement of world civilization, he would regain a respectful place for Africa in the world community.

Since 1926, we have been celebrating Black History Month every February by examining Black struggles against slavery, social injustice and for equality.  Every year in February we review direct and indirect contributions of Blacks to our nation and the world without sufficient efforts to examining the African people’s contribution to Western civilization. Woodson believed then, as I do today, that Africa is the great genealogical tree while African-Americans and all Africans in Diaspora are the branches of that great tree. To appreciate the branch but not the tree is to negate the very purpose of the celebration. It is impossible to have lasting respect for the people of African origin, if we don’t have respect for Africa and for the African’s contribution to our world.  For the sake of empowering our children and ourselves, I appeal to African and Black scholars to start discussing objectively the African contribution to philosophy, science, art and religion, if not 365 days a year, at least during Black History Month. Let us be proud of our accomplishments, and equally proud of our African root.

It is one of the paradoxes of history that pre-colonial Africa’s contribution to our world is either distorted or remains hidden from most of us and our children. For years, the western world presented Africa as the continent where diamonds and ivory was sought for Europe and slaves for America, but not, as a continent of advanced civilization and culture. Today, we speak of Africa in terms of poverty, famine, war, genocide, political unrest and disease without examining the root causes of such horrific situations and events throughout the continent.

If truth is to be told about pre-colonial African’s contribution to our civilization, we have to begin with positive deconstruction of western history as we know it today. Without such deconstruction, the reconstruction of a fair, just and balanced history that will include African contribution to western civilization would be difficult, if not impossible.

There has been a deliberate and systematic destruction of African cultures and the records that speak to African civilization. This destruction started with the first invaders of Africa and every invader thereafter. Missionaries and colonizers did Africa more harm than good. Today, despite all the growing evidences to the contrary, the denial of Africa’s contributions to world civilization continues to persist at the highest social and academic levelsMost western scholars are still bent on negating Africa’s contribution to the study of science; mathematics; medicine; arts; laws and religion. A brief examination of our literature on Africa and Africans will shed some light why and how this was done.

To justify slavery and the dehumanization of slaves, Thomas Jefferson, who owned more than 200 slaves, set the wheels of racism in motion. Formulating the first racist theory in North America, he wrote: “blacks are inferior to whites in the endowment of both body and mind” and therefore incapable of creating civilization. Our Supreme Court, consistent with Jefferson’s theory, established not only “Separate but Equal” doctrine, but treated African-Americans as “three fifth” of a person.  Even though “Separate but Equal” doctrine was overturned by “Brown decision” in 1954, the struggle for justice and equality continues.

Anyone who is born, raised and educated in the United States most likely obtained and internalized negative information about Africa and the people of African origin. John F. Kennedy confirmed this assertion when he wrote: “until very recently, for most Americans, Africa was trader horn, Tarzan, and tom-tom drums. We are only now beginning to discover that Africa unlike our comic strip stereotypes is a land of rich variety of noble and ancient culture and of vital and gifted people.” Such vital information about Africa and the African people is not recorded in our history books nor included in our school curriculum.

To repair the damage done to the continent, Black, African and Euro-American scholars must begin to look at Africa and its contribution to our world with socially, politically, culturally and spiritually librated minds and attitudes. Taking such reconstructive steps will have positive and lasting impact on our efforts to create shared vision world-wide. It will empower all learners, especially, students of color who are struggling to fit-in in a less welcoming environment. If we fail to take such positive steps, our children and grandchildren will not have the heart to forgive us.

Dr. Alem Asres is director of college diversity and affirmative action at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.


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