ABS Exalts Black History: Part V
For the 2015 edition of Black History Month, we asked a team of talented writers and scholars to mimic the dance of the Sankofa bird and carry us back to our roots so that we may move forward.
We are presenting their efforts throughout February in an impressive array of pieces that reveal to us from whence we came and where we might want to go. There is nothing quite so edifying and necessary as African history, for its grandeur is spectacular in direct proportion to the depths of scarcity we were trained to believe in the New World. It is as essential to us as the air we breathe. We asked our writers to use as a template the words of Langston Hughes, who penned “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” as a 17-year-old boy crossing the Mississippi. Hughes uses the metaphor of the river as a way to trace the splendor of African people. Here at Atlanta Blackstar, we see these as words to live by:
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
We Need to Know We Are More Than Slavery and Freedom
By Brother Victorious
African people throughout the diaspora have always had the ability to use their intellectual and physical genius to cultivate and develop some of history’s most powerful civilizations. For many African-Americans, their understanding of our history and culture begins during our period of enslavement. But our history predates the trans-Atlantic slave trade and cannot be condensed into a simple phrase “we were kings and queens.” The truth is the history of African people is vast, diverse, original, innovative, collective and creative. Black history should not simply be viewed as reactionary history created after prolonged contact with Europeans. It is the primary source for all humanity to begin to examine their own identities.
This creative genius of Africans often spawned from the geographical landscapes in which African people settled voluntarily or by force. In the case of the voluntary settlement around the Nile, thousands of years before the birth of Jesus, African people were able to settle and develop civilizations. That same spirit enabled African-Americans to use the Mississippi River as a geographical tool for freedom, resistance and cultural development. To truly celebrate Black history, we must examine our accomplishments in America, but it is important that we not have a limited outlook on history. For we gave literacy and civilization to those civilizations who would eventually serve as our enslavers and oppressors.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it …
The communities of Africans who called the area around the Nile their home gave birth to civilization as we know it. The harvests from the Nile led to an abundance of food that helped nourish all members of the community. With their basic needs met, people along the Nile began to focus on the study of science, math, art, philosophy, religion, astronomy and architecture. Children went to school; women exercised freedoms not seen in later civilizations; scholars wrote thousands of books; pyramids were built, and consistent technological advancements were being developed. The concept and identity of “Blackness” did not emerge until European contact. The identities of those living in the Nile Valley were based in their lives and accomplishments, not their skin color.
Once the civilizations of the Nile were conquered in the fourth century B.C., it was then the history and color of the people were distorted. Every great accomplishment of African people somehow turned into a great accomplishment for Europeans. Most that is celebrated about Greek and Roman culture is proven to have been stolen, translated and transformed from civilizations developing along the Nile. In fact, the Greeks were the students of African teachers.
Before civilizations of the Nile were whitewashed, Imhotep, the first recorded multi-genius who lived 2,700 years before Christ, studied the stars, enhanced medicine and worked to design pyramids. So, it would be inaccurate to study Aristotle and Socrates without first acknowledging the brilliance of Imhotep. Thirty-five-ton ships were built to travel up and down the Nile over 4,600 years ago. How then can we celebrate Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus when Africans were building ships and navigating waters long before European contact?
Africans living along the Nile respected the balance of male and female energy. Many women were able to live alone, work outside the home and bring legal action against wrongdoers. Women possessed a degree of freedom that was unparalleled to many civilizations that followed. The celebration of Isis, Mut, Hathor and Bast demonstrates the immense amount of respect Africans possessed for female energy. Queens such as Hatshepsut, Tiy, Tetisheri and Meryt-Nuth helped to expand and develop civilizations along the Nile. Women not only lived along the Nile but were active members who helped to contribute to the legacy.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset…
The trans-Atlantic slave trade and the 246 years of chattel slavery in North America clouded our abilities to remember. But the spirit and genius of our past accomplishments are ingrained in our DNA. African people were brought by force to the shores of the Mississippi River. The same ingenuity, intelligence and creative spirit that was developed and flourished on the Nile began to also take shape along the Mississippi. Under barbaric European forces, enslaved and oppressed, Blacks used the river to achieve freedom, foster independence and stimulate community growth.
The Mississippi River became a symbol for bondage and freedom. Europeans would use the Mississippi River as a tool of enslavement and Africans would use it to regain freedom. When sold away from their families, they would travel the river to reach their new location of bondage. Blacks also used this massive waterway to escape the chains of bondage. Once Blacks got wind of the vastness of the Mississippi, they knew that it could be used as a means to travel to freedom.
It’s amazing how oppression can lead folks to build a collective identity. Those who were forced to work along the shores and ports had a degree of independence that was greater than those working in the field. African-Americans participated in many dangerous maritime jobs along the shores of the Mississippi. They were marginalized to specific low-level jobs on steamships and on the docks in an effort to suppress their ingenuity. Allowing Blacks too much freedom would debunk the cultural norm set by the oppression of the day. The thousands of Blacks who worked on steamers used the river to develop a deeper sense of independence and to build relationships with each other. Many used the money earned from working along the river to buy their families’ freedom and to help enhance the life of members in their community. To some degree, the sustainability of the maritime industry was developed from the backs of Blacks. So to only account for European innovation along the Mississippi would be an extreme fabrication.
Even during the most tumultuous times along the Mississippi, African people used the spirit of song to persevere through dark times. These soul-stirring harmonies that were borne out of the horrors of enslavement would eventually transform into an American genre called “jazz”—which in the recent past has become whitewashed similar to the accomplishments along the Nile. Detailed Black history is important because without it we would lose our true identities and recognition for our accomplishments.
To celebrate Black history only with the endeavors of Black people in North America is truly doing us a massive disservice. African people’s legacy in North America, though an extremely powerful one, is limited. With only 500 years of history in this country, more than half in bondage, it is important for us to remember from where we developed. As the true creators of civilization, it is important for us not to look at our history as responders to oppression but rather skillful originators who educated the world. In order to restore greatness, we have to take an intrinsic look at our DNA. Greatness has been developed in us long before European civilization was even formed. Let us not forget our legacy, our power and our connection to the world.
Brother Victorious is a national speaker and host using his platform to focus our attention on the value of positive living, community engagement and education. He was selected by a Clear Channel radio station as one of 2011’s “Top 30 under 30” in Washington, D.C., and has been featured on a variety of local television and radio programs. Brother Victorious has served as an educator in the Prince George’s County Public School System for over eight years as a teacher and academic dean. Victorious is currently working on his first book, “Excelling in America while being Young, Male, and Black: Stories of Resilience.” He resides in Prince George’s County, Maryland, with his wife Tinselyn Simms and his son King Victorious.
ABS Exalts Black History: Part II–The Sacred Waters That Nourished Black Genius, Nurtured Black Children
ABS Exalts Black History: Part III–To Raise Strong, Well-Educated Black Children, We Must Look to The Ancestors for Guidance