History Lessons

by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante

Published 6/1/2004

(First Published in City Press, June, 2004)

There is nothing better for black people than our own historical experiences when we want to understand what is going on in the world. A few days ago I was speaking with a woman who exclaimed, “The movie on the passion of Jesus brought me to tears.” I was extremely polite to her when I said, “All sufferings of humanity cause me pain.”

Isn’t it strange how easy it is for us to identify with the suffering of someone we did not know in an era a couple of thousand years ago in a movie produced by a white man who shows Jesus as a European, although a swarthy one, and yet cannot identify with the suffering of our own people?

I am convinced that black people are the most humane people on the face of the earth. We reconcile and forgive more easily than any people I know. I believe that this is because we have a great love for humanity and an appreciation for the ordinariness of all of us under heaven. Yet we are also rather complicated when it comes to our relationship with our own pain, suffering, and death.

What I propose is that we re-consider how we view history. Interrogate each story and every incident from the standpoint of our own humanity and you will see in a new light the realities of the world. I have been doing this for the last thirty years and it has made a big difference in how I approach what is going on in politics, culture, science, and art.

The horrendous massacres and damaging humiliations of the American-led war in Iraq, the Palestinian liberation struggle, and the battle of Africans in the Darfur area of Sudan against the radical Islamic forces supported by the Sudanese government are enough issues to cause us to re-examine how Africans have viewed reality. Of course, we must never underestimate the power of the media to distort our images of ourselves and the power of the media to promote the images of others.

Why are the Greeks considered the fathers of philosophy?
Why are the American movie heroes considered the best ideals?
Why do the terms “classical” and “universal” refer only to European art and culture?
I guarantee you the media, books, libraries, television, and other information outlets have a lot to do with the way we think. What we make a priority, what we discuss with our spouses, and what we tell our children can often be because of the media.

I once asked an African American soldier why he would voluntarily join the American military given the fact that it has often been used as an instrument to suppress the liberation struggles and legitimate rights of people. He looked straight into my eyes and said, “If I did not join the army then I would be unemployed, have no educational opportunity, nor future pension.” It was clearly an economic decision for him.

I guess I went away from him thinking, couldn’t he find something else to do, something better to do, something more rewarding because it would be to uplift people and bring about a better world.

The ability of Africans to identify with the legitimate freedom struggles of other people is well known. It rests on the fact that for the past five hundred years we have had to assert ourselves in order to gain our freedom. For the most part we sympathize with those who have been abused, persecuted, brutalized, and made mad by the irrational and insane violence created to maintain control. The Palestinians have suffered fifty years of intense dislocation, pain, and suffering. In many ways like the situation was here in South Africa during the old regime, the Palestinians are brutalized, killed, and humiliated just because they want to live on their land. Black people understand these situations; we have been the victims. We are not all like Condelezza Rice or Colin Powell, serving the interests of the most conservative government in modern American history. Knowing what we know as people who read and reflect on the political situations in the world, we cannot take any pride in black people siding with the oppressor in any case whatsoever. There is no excuse, no explanation, except gross materialism and crass careerism.

When a Sudanese doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania asked me to assist him in finding a job in the United States after he had completed his degree, I inquired about his position on the political situations in Sudan. I also wanted to know how he felt about the continuing battles with the SPLA inasmuch as this was before the cease fire. He said to me that he was an Arab in Sudan but in the United States he was an African. I did not quite understand the distinction because he looked just like any other African in the United States. But he explained that some of the ethnic groups of Africans in the north of Sudan had given up their language and adopted Arabic as their language and culture and so saw themselves as Arabs.

On the other hand, in the United States, a person’s African origin, skin color, appearance, and history determined whether or not one was black. Thus, the brother who could escape blackness in Sudan and perhaps feel superior to other Africans found himself black and African in the United States. Political and social histories differ from country to country. I realized that when I visited South Africa for the first time and was introduced to someone who said they were colored or the person with them told me that the person was colored and I recalled thinking, how odd?

In the United States, if you have one drop of African blood, you are technically African. It sounds silly but it has worked well for the African in the United States because it means that there are no coloreds, only blacks, Africans. It is no longer a question of biology, but of history, that is, were we oppressors or the oppressed.

Everything is instructive. The photographs of abuse that have come to light showing American and British troops gloating over the humiliations they have caused the Iraqi prisoners are not unlike the images of lynching in the American South. The white American cultural practice of lynching was rooted in a psychology of sexuality and violence.

The system that created lynching of Africans in the United States was absolute power over powerless people. It was evil, ferocious, brutal, and corrupting in all of its aspects. It was developed in its greatest degree of degradation in the United States. The African was treated with utter disrespect. During the enslavement, no laws protected the African from any cruelty the white could conceive. The man, woman, or child was at the complete mercy of the most brutish of people. For looking a white man in the eye the enslaved person could have his or her eyes blinded with hot irons. For speaking up in defense of a wife or woman a man could have his right hand severed. For defending his right to speak against oppression, an African could have half his tongue cut out. For running away and being caught an enslaved African could have his or her Achilles tendon cut. For resisting the advances of her white man a woman could be given fifty lashes of the cow-hide whip. A woman who physically fought against a man’s sexual advances was courting death, and many died at the hands of their enslavers.

Among the punishments that were favored by the enslavers in America were whipping holes where the enslaved was buried in the ground up to the neck, the dragging blocks attached to the feet of men or women who had run away and been caught, mutilation of the toes and fingers, the pouring of hot wax onto the limbs, and passing a piece of hot wood on the buttocks of the enslaved. Death came to the African in vile, crude ways when the anger of the psychopathic enslaver wanted to teach other enslaved Africans a lesson. The African could be roasted over a slow burning fire, left to die after having both legs and both arms broken, oiled and greased and then set afire while hanging from a tree’s limb, or being killed slowly as the enslaver cut the enslaved person’s phallus or breasts. A person could be placed on the ground, stomach first, stretched so that each hand was tied to a pole and each foot was tied to a pole. Then the white enslaver would beat the person’s naked body until the flesh was torn off of the buttocks and the blood ran down to the ground.

So you ask me, what do I think about the passion of Jesus? You ask me, do I believe that the photographs from Iraq are true? What about the passion of Hector Petersen? What about the passion of Bantu Steve Biko and a thousand others?

There is no lesson greater for us to remember than the lessons learned from our ancestors. There is nothing more courageous for the Afrocentrist than to resist all forms of oppression. Join me in creating an Afrocentric revolution in our thought. Start this process by redecorating your house with African fabrics and designs or forming a study club where you read and discuss Afrocentric books. In all your doing, do good to others.

Molefi Kete Asante is one of the most published contemporary scholars, having written more than sixty books and three hundred articles.

African symbol