In the West and East, when you talk about how things got the way they are, you’re able to go back pretty far to start to weave that story. When it comes to Africa, those stories tend to be shorter, starting around the time Europeans got to the shores of Southern and West Africa. We got other peaks into Africa through historical figures like Hannibal, but for the most part Africa is dark.
“At this point, we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit” – Georg Hegel, The Philosophy of History
So, what does that leave us with? Our reference points for our history often start with times of trauma – the slave trade and colonialism. Over the course of five centuries, beginning in the 15th century, Black folks went through this experience of having our culture altered, names changed, being shipped off to foreign lands as slaves, and being divided into artificial countries. That trauma has evolved over centuries into differing forms – Jim Crow, assassinations of leaders who emerge among us, prison industrial complex, and more. Over this period of time is where we tend to start our stories.
In college, there was a professor who every time I saw him would say Sankofa or “go back and get it.” The word represents that concept of reaching back in history to learn in order to continue forward progress.
Over the several centuries since the beginning of the slave trade, black folks have exhibited incredible determination and ingenuity to make something out of nothing in Africa, the Americas, Europe, and wherever else you find us in the world.
You see all this confidence in the way we dress, our music, and our language, and it’s beautiful. Yet, I worry that we still have so much trauma that hasn’t been dealt with, that even with all this confidence you see there’s so much that has yet to be tapped into because we’re not able to reach far back enough to see the totality of who we are.
I’m not saying we all were kings and queens. No. There were complex political economies across Africa each with their own value systems, ways of organizing people into groups and more. There were wars. There were winners and losers. There was the development of technology. There was innovation. There was wealth. There was poverty. The point is that we’ve been here before.
So, while an African American person in the US can make the choice to say that what I know is my experience and that of my ancestors in the US, or an African person can keep starting the story with her country’s independence, there is more. If our DNA is drawing on memories that goes back generations, why can’t we do the same to find our stories and see how far we can go back to draw from? We need to get our full confidence if we’re going to move in this world socially politically and economically in the way that we’re capable of.
With our trauma healed, and confidence on full go, I’d love to see the kind of imagination we could bring to ensuring that black folks in this world are doing well. Not only that, we could play an even greater role in shaping the human experience on the whole. Look at the extent to which we’ve contributed to the human experience through our food through, our music, our dress. Imagine what we can do when we’re not trying to work through trauma and partial confidence to get to our creativity.
“We are the culture. Nothing moves without us.” – Jay-Z
Over the course of modern history, mankind has done some incredible things. The next time you drive past the Pentagon, just think about how quickly they were moving to construct that building in just over a year. In fact, Patrick Collison has this fantastic list of things that have been done fast. Just go take a look at that.
My bet is that black folks who are connected to the complexity of our history prior to the slave trade and colonialism can bring an elevated level of innovation and creativity to not only build an incredible future for the time that we have on this Earth, but to also reap the benefits economically and exercise the power to shape a how these things affect our lives.
We can figure out creative ways of dealing with Earth’s changing climate from a vantage point that folks haven’t even considered. We can figure out innovative ways of developing oil pipeline technology while we’re still using the resource. We can build new industries that create jobs for the hundreds of millions of young black people across the Africa and the Diaspora in a fashion that enables them to build a good life where they are. We can figure out how to help the neighbors in the Middle East get along. We can do all this while being at the main table on the global stage and ensuring that the innovations that we bring to the table also reap benefits for our people. It starts with us tapping far back into our history.
“The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” – Winston Churchill