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Discourses of Omissions and Silences: What Films and Narratives Are Not Telling Us

10 March 2009 at 18:01 | 20474 views

African heritage/Black History Month: March 2, 2009

Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Surrey, British Columbia

Keynote Address by

Dr. Godwin O. Eni

International Health Consultant

The month of February is designated as “Black History Month” in the United States and Canada to provide a period of reflection, and perhaps recognition of the contributions of “Blacks” or more appropriately “Africans” to the development of this part of the world. The designation, by its existence, indicates a need to call attention to the contributions of a racial group from Africa that has been uprooted from their homeland, dehumanized as slaves, and subjugated through brutality and inhumane treatment by European and North American colonists.

Initially, I balked at the invitation to speak on the topic of “Omissions and Silences” especially when the subject for discussion is clearly outside my field of expertise in health care. However, as I read some of the research, and scientific evidence on African history and civilization, which are generally ignored by mainstream media and academia or unknown to the public, I came to the conclusion that I could educate myself and perhaps, in the process, share some aspects of my perspective based on the work of many scholars in the field such as Dr. Kwaku Person-Lynn of Loyola Marymount University in the United States. He was previously scheduled to participate in this gathering but unable to do so. My brief presentation is anchored primarily on his writings on the topic as well as on other historical, scientific and documentary evidence of African contributions to the world and contemporary western civilization. Dr. Person-Lynn discussed some key evidence of African history in his video on “African World Civilization”. I do not intend to go into details of the very considerable work undertaken by many scholars over the years such as Clarke1, Hansbury2 and Diop3 among others, whose works on African history are buried in archives or ignored by mainstream society and the media. I simply want to call attention to a few aspects of Black contributions to world civilization, which are unknown to many of us, especially those of us who labor in different disciplines.

African civilizations

The world did not begin and end in Kemit or Egypt. Kemit is the ancient Nile valley area which is renamed Egypt by the Greeks. Parallel civilizations continued to develop and exist in many areas of Sub-Saharan Africa outside Egypt or the Nile Valley. Unfortunately, the impact of colonialism prevented adequate study of these other African civilizations, kingdoms and Empires. For example, throughout the colonial period, West African students learned about the history, conquests and achievements of the British Empire, from King Canute to King George the sixth of England. Students were taught to take pride in everything British or French and nothing was taught in schools about the history and achievements of their own ancestors or country. Textbooks were filled with examples based on developments in colonizing countries. Africans in French Colonies were told to consider themselves French and behave as such, similar to the attempt to anglicize native North American Canadians. Students knew the geography of Great Britain and Canada and could name Canadian provinces, but they knew nothing about the names and location of countries in Africa or the great West African Empires that predate the colonization of Africa. That was part of my basic high school education in Nigeria during the 1950’s.

Parallel civilizations, which are complementary to Kemite or Egyptian civilization in North Africa also existed in West Africa. Some of the great African Empires included the Ghanaian, Mali, Songhai, and Benin Empires. Located in West Africa, these empires were powerful and they had vital trading links with Europe and North Africa through nomadic Arabs. They had a well-organized society, powerful administrative systems and economic prosperity. From the accounts and writings of Arab travelers and traders, Ghana was the first West African empire to rise as a regional power. Ghana was already a powerful empire before the departure of the Roman Empire from North Africa in the 4th century AD. Europe depended on Ghana for the importation of Gold before America was discovered. It was ironic that the colonists from Europe re-named the country as “Gold Coast” probably due to this link. Fortunately, Ghana, unlike some other African countries, reclaimed its rightful, ancestral name after it acquired independence from Great Britain. The system of government during the Ghanaian Empire was so advanced that a method for collecting tax was imposed on every commodity entering or departing from Ghana. The prosperity of Ghana was organized around a trading system that ensured wealth. It is also reported that the people of Ghana achieved advanced methods of warfare with swords and lances, which enabled expansion to other territories.4

The Mali Empire emerged under Sundiata Kita as ruler in the 13th century as Ghana’s power began to decline. The Empire began to extend towards the South and Southeast regions of Africa and became the most powerful force of all Kingdoms of the Sudan. Under the reign of Mansa Musa, Mali Empire became known throughout Europe and the Mediterranean World. Successively, the Songhai Empire emerged about 1464 under Soni Ali as ruler as Mali Empire declined. Soni Ali captured the city of Timbuktu in 1468, a city known for its trade routes and learning centers. His successor, an Army General who named himself Mohammed instituted a disciplinary system and well-organized government and created a central office with administrative departments for justice, finance and agriculture similar to contemporary bureaucratic governance systems. Consistent with trading in the preceding Empires of Ghana and Mali, the Songhai Empire continued trade with Northern African Region and Europe while importing goods such as clothes and salt from Germany and Spain. It was during Mohammed’s reign that Timbuktu became a well-known center of learning. One of the five Universities in Africa at the time was located in Timbuktu. Timbuktu University was so famous that scholars came to it from all over the Muslim world, Europe and Asia. As his successor, Mohammed’s son allowed Islamic influence to spread throughout the Sudan and scholars came from the Muslim world, Europe and Asia to study in Timbuktu.

The Benin Empire emerged in an area of present day Nigeria parallel to the Songhai Empire and extended to present day Togo, the Republic of Benin and parts of Ghana. The tribal members of the Ga people of Ghana trace their ancestry to the ancient Kingdom of Benin. The Binis developed a strong mercantile relationship with the Portuguese and traded tropical products and slaves for European goods and guns to the extent that during the 16th century, the King or the Oba of Benin sent an ambassador to Lisbon and the king of Portugal sent Christian missionaries to Benin. In 1553, the Empire developed further trade partnership with England based on the export of Ivory, palm oil and pepper.

Ancient West African Empires had well organized and sophisticated African polity in operation, militarily and commercially, before the major European colonial interlude.5 There was exchange of goods and services between Europe and Africa. It is remarkable that this history and the achievements of African Empires were not taught to African children during the colonial period. It fell on archeologists and scientists to explore and obtain much of the information from excavations and oral history.

The Genesis of Global Civilization

Regardless of the tremendous advancements in scientific knowledge over the years, some people, albeit a minority and some academics still harbor the myth that Africans had nothing to do with the creation of civilization due to diminished or sub-standard intelligence quotient. As a result, they do not want to give credit to Africans for anything.

We know that the evidence of the first human being was found in the rift valley of Ethiopia, not in Greece, and that the greatest ancient civilization began in Ethiopia and through migration to Kemit, now known as Egypt from where Africans crossed over to Europe. Evidence shows that the pyramids were built before Greece existed. The first Greek literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey, emerged in 800 BC. The Pyramids were built centuries earlier around 2,800 BC. In his studies, Dr. Asa Baffour Hilliard6, noted that the, ancient Egyptian higher education system predates the Greek Heroic age and existed before Greece existed as a nation. In particular, “Kemetic Higher education existed centuries before famous Greek scholars were born. The study of Greece and Kemet (Egypt) at 2000 B.C.E. showed the absence of a textbook in Greece at that point in time. On the other hand, the Ahmes (Rhind) or the Mathematical Papyrus material existed in Egypt complete with problems in geometry and trigonometry. Architecture and astronomy are manifest even in the more ancient pyramids, tombs and temples. Complete university curricula in grammar, (known as the hieroglyphs by the Greeks), mathematics, sciences, arts, literature of many types, and philosophy existed in Africa. The concept of education was holistic in nature. Students studied for 40 years from the age of 7 years and graduated as priests with broad knowledge necessary for their function in society. Education was seen as a process of the transformation of the learner, through successive stages of rebirth to become more godlike and disciplined under the guidance of a master teacher towards becoming a new person.” 7

Dr. Yusef Ben Jochanan, an Egyptologist of Ethiopian origin has proven through considerable research that the people who built the pyramids and the ancient civilization in Egypt were indigenous Africans8. Science, engineering, mathematics, philosophy, medicine, law, agriculture, architecture, spiritual thought and many other human innovations began in ancient Egypt. Imhotep was the first multi-talented genius in the world. He was the father of medicine, not Hippocrates. Imhotep was also the African architect who designed the first step pyramid while he was also practicing medicine and conducting surgical procedures. According to Person-Lynn9, Imhotep was held in such high regard by the Greeks that they built a temple in his honor and made him a “god” called Aesculapius.

The implication for attributing these innovations to Black Africans today is huge. Think about it. It means that everything that is taught from the elementary schools to the University should be revised, deleted or changed. Another implication is that the majority of literature texts will be considered dishonest and inaccurate. More importantly, visual media such as films, posters, and teaching slides will be declared obsolete. Therefore, there are reasons for omissions and silences in key areas of studies regarding the contributions of Africa to civilization in general. Can you imagine a Professor of Medicine in the Western world telling students that Imhotep, and not Hippocrates, is the father of medicine? It will be impossible for such a Professor to do so having sworn the Hippocratic Oath!

Similarly, it is very difficult for some skeptics to believe that the first university in the world existed in Africa prior to the existence of Europe. The university is a worldwide entity, but very few people know about its African origin. Very few people are aware that ancient Egypt was the intellectual, spiritual, scientific and industrial center for the world. The greatest scholars in Greece at the time honed their skills and acquired their knowledge in Kemet named Egypt by the Greeks. Among those who were educated in Kemet were Hippocrates (known as the father of medicine in the western world), Thales (similarly considered in text books to be the father of philosophy), Pythagoras (to whom the title “father of mathematics” is attributed), and other Greek scholars which include Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Democritus all of whom attended the famous temple-universities in Ipet Isut and Waset in ancient Africa. Today, most Western scholars and educational institutions teach and continue to promote the notion that civilization began in Greece. Perhaps, part of their belief is due to the lack of appropriate knowledge because they have been so informed by their teachers. It may also be due to the prevailing position that Western civilization must be held up and eulogized, at all cost, as the supreme human endeavor that ever existed. In particular, it seems that the mentality or the philosophy of white supremacy gives Africans absolutely no credit for anything worthwhile.

Africa and the World

The most significant anthropological, physical evidence regarding the origin and spread of African world influence is the discovery of African human “pygmy” fossil, artifacts, and presence in Europe, Asia, Australia and Latin America including the North Pole10. It has also been shown through research that Africans, known as Moors who originated from the Nile valley in Egypt and trekked to Europe brought civilization to that continent11. Here are a few of Africa’s global influence and presence discussed in the literature, some of which are also presented by Person-Lynn in his educational video “Africa World Civilization”. They may surprise many people but they are research driven facts.12

* Martial arts originated from Africa and taught in China by Africans
* India was part of the Ethiopian Empire
* Ballet dancing began in Africa
* Three Roman Emperors including one of the greatest, Septimus Serverus [199 - 211 AD]; three Popes, and Hercules were Africans?
* The Moors or Muslim Africans from Egypt brought Civilization to Europe a second time [711 - 1472 AD] during the European dark ages. This includes air-conditioning [ventilation of houses] and engineering.
* The first University in Europe located in Salamanca was brought to that continent by Africans
* Chess is an African game introduced to Europe by Africans
* England had a black Queen consort.
* The Ten Commandments evolved from Egyptian laws and that Moses was trained as a Kemetic priest in these laws
* The concept of immaculate conception had an Egyptian origin when Isis gave birth to Kern via immaculate conception
* Cultural African traits and anthropological evidence were found in the Mayan and other tribes in the Americas including the Philippines and that the Olmet civilization in North America has African origin and influence.
* California was named after a black woman.

Some Contemporary Black Contributions

Important historical information about the contribution of Blacks to human race has been missing, omitted or neglected in Western accounts of world civilization. We know now that Columbus did not discover America before the Africans who were crossing the Atlantic Ocean repeatedly to North America and Asia about 1,000 years before Christopher Columbus undertook the same journey13. We now know that the Pyramids were built by Africans and not by Jewish slaves as reported in the Bible14. We now know that the University as an institution existed in several places in Africa and was introduced to Greece by Africans who trained and educated the much-heralded Greek philosophers and thinkers we read about in textbooks15. We also know that science, mathematics, architecture, religion, philosophy were introduced to Europe, first by Kemit Africans and the second time by African Muslim Arabs known as the Moors16. The list goes on.

Today, the works of many Black researchers aimed at unraveling the truth about African contribution to World civilization are hidden, ignored, and sometimes castigated by some people in mainstream academia and higher institutions of learning. For example, Dr. Yosef ben-Jochannan, one of the world’s leading African Egyptologists, was dismissed from many universities for teaching subjects related to the contributions of Africans to civilization17. The first doctoral thesis of Dr. Anta Diop, one of the preeminent authorities in this area of study, was rejected at the University of Paris for addressing this subject18. However, contemporary Black scientists, educators, archeologists and historians have continued to make significant contributions to civilization even as they face considerable obstacles and lack of recognition. George Alcorn developed the imaging x-ray spectrometer that helps scientists better understand what materials are composed of when they cannot be broken down. Benjamin Banneker, a black man, was responsible for the first clock to be made in America. Dr. Patricia Bath invented a specialized tool and procedure for the removal of cataracts in 1985 and developed a procedure that increased the accuracy and results of cataract surgery. Another Black man, George Washington Carver discovered over 300 different uses for peanuts such as making cooking oil, axle grease and printer’s ink. Dr. Mark Dean was instrumental in the invention of the Personal Computer (PC) at IBM in 1980. Dr. Charles Drew revolutionized the understanding of blood plasma , leading to the invention of blood banks. Dr. Valery Thomas, while managing a project for NASA’s image processing systems, led a team that developed "Landsat," the first satellite to send images from space. In 1976, she learned how concave mirrors could be set up to create the illusion of a 3-dimensional object. The work of Ernest Just led to the research and discovery of DNA.

Reasons for Omissions and Silences

In my view, the seed for ignoring and denigrating the contributions of Africans to science and civilization was planted by Pope Nicholas V who issued a Papal Bull in 1455 authorizing Spain and Portugal to destroy Africans, their possessions, culture and everything else and assign them to perpetual slavery. During the colonial and trans-Atlantic slavery period, Africans were subjected to extreme dehumanization that, over time, helped develop inferiority complex towards Europeans. As a result, today, some Africans in the Continent of Africa tend to consider anything white or European to be superior and authentic including associated knowledge and education. Colonial textbooks promoted the European view and superiority. Slavery buttressed the notion of inferiority due to incessant brutality and dehumanization of Africans in the Americas by Spain, Portugal, France and England. In other words, the African appeared to have no history to speak of, and incapable of rationalization except in basic skills for labor. It is indeed sad that a group of people that developed the sciences, mathematics, philosophy, architecture and many other areas of knowledge were considered by some people of European origin as ignorant, uneducated and of low intelligence.

In my view, another reason for omitting or quieting the contributions of Africans to world civilization is racism, or the notion that one race is superior to another based on the skin color or based on the color of slaves. Some of the most compelling and supportive, scientific evidence that advances a particular theory of racism include the discovery by Dr Frances Cress Welsing that only 10% of people in the world can be categorized as white19. Using genetic and chromosomal markers, her research shows that less than 10% of the world’s population is of European descent. She argued that Europeans noticed people of color everywhere they went during expeditions. They knew they have to control people of color or they will be wiped out through genetic annihilation. If people of color misogenated with white people, therefore under the one-drop rule as in the United States, that would make their offsprings “black”. For example, Beethoven has some African Blood in him20.Under such a scenario, white people will no longer exists under this rule and people of color will dominate. Therefore, Ethnocentric Europeans had to control anybody of color through discipline, domestication, dehumanization and separation thus giving rise to the concept of “White Supremacy”. In this context, no credit will be accorded to “Black” achievements and contributions. A new version of history should be developed to place Europeans at the apex of civilization and Africans contributing nothing. Religious images such as the Madonna, and important cultural personalities such as Beethoven are colored white in photographs and images. Fortunately, the original depiction of the “Black Madonna” exists in some places such as Poland. An original painted picture of Beethoven, signed by him exists to confirm his African heritage. In general, there seems to be a concerted effort by Eurocentric Europeans to deny, hide or wipe out any supporting evidence of African contribution to civilization. I do not necessarily agree with this perspective, but it is a reasoned one.

Perhaps we are all related! More recently, in 1987 Wilson and coworkers Rebecca Cahn and Mark Stoneking claimed they had evidence that the most recent maternal ancestor of all living humans was a woman living in Africa about 200,000 years ago. They based their conclusion on the analysis of restriction maps of mitochondrial DNA taken from 147 individuals representing different races and geographic origins21.

Finally, it is my considered view that the “bandwagon” effect on academic research appears to have contributed to meager research effort in the study of African contributions to humanity. Students are perhaps encouraged to study areas that are consistent with prior-selective research by their teachers. To do otherwise would most likely result in failure or denial of tenure as experienced by Dr. Diop at the University of Paris and Dr. Yosef ben-Jochannan in several universities. Therefore, much effort is required to study and promote African history, achievements and contributions to humanity. The absence of this type of study in schools especially in Africa borders on negligence. Few African students know about the contributions of African contemporary leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria and Patrice Lumumba of the Congo who led the effort to achieve independence from colonial domination. Much has yet to be done as Africans gain further consciousness and pride. The election of Barack Obama to the highest office in the United States is perhaps a revelation of what the future holds for the African. It seems the cycle is gaining completion as African who were at the forefront of civilization for the first [Egyptian] and the second [Moorish] times are becoming ready to manage it a third time.

Key issues appear to revolve around (a) the creation of awareness about African history and contributions to society, (b) the reformation of institutional instruments that sustain academic suppression in certain areas of learning, (c) continuing dialogue about the true origin of civilization in educational institutions and the society in general, and (d) the acquisition of pride, dedication and self-worth in all areas of endeavor by many Africans who are still affected by colonial oppression and slavery. Perhaps Obama has opened the door to conscious self-awareness and global reassessment.

Thank You.