African Culture and Historical Context


Africa in Historical Context — Introduction:

In this episode, we look at Africa in historical context and the events leading up to the Atlantic slave trade. Black Studies is a response to widespread misrepresentation of the history of the African continent and people of African descent, but what does an alternative context look like? Do we simply glorify Africa in response? If, in fact we are to look to Africa’s glorious past as an alternative, then how did things go from a wealthy Africa to the Atlantic Slave Trade and European colonization? We will explore rise and fall of powerful and wealthy African kingdoms as well as the fateful path they took that ultimately led to the Atlantic slave trade -the trafficking of millions of human beings from West Africa to the Americas.

VIDEO 1: Why African Culture Matters: A Survival Toolkit

Thank you for watching African Elements. In this video were going to look at African culture — where does it come from and why is it important? Why does culture vary so much from setting to setting? Also, why is it important to understand African culture? Will explore all that and more right now.

Welcome back to African elements. If you’re new to this channel, we take curriculum that’s geared towards students in higher education and we give it back to the people. We strongly believe this content should be freely available, but if you can and want to support this work, head over to our Patreon page at the link in the description. Otherwise, a like and subscribe would also go a long way in supporting this work.

Now . . . Let’s talk culture.

I’ll start with the basics. What is culture? This is a critically important term that is often used, but rarely defined. For the purpose of this program, I’m going to define “culture” as beliefs, practices and modes of being of a particular people in a particular setting adopted as a means of survival. Seems basic, but very important. Why do people do the things the they do? Why do they structure societies in any particular way? Why do they worship the way they worship?

For the most part that’s going to boil down to a very simple and pragmatic reason … to survive. Understanding culture in this way makes it easier to understand, for example, why the continent of Africa itself is so diverse. In an upcoming video, we’ll see how those elements of survival in West Africa, once they were brought to the Western Hemisphere, helped people survive in the Caribbean, Brazil and in what later became the United States.

Finally, the way I’m defining culture as a means of survival in a particular setting, makes it easy understand why for example to this day black folks in Georgia are very culturally different from black folks in, say, Louisiana. We’ve got two very different settings and different modes of survival that people have adopted as we’ll see.

So, let’s look at the settings. The continent of Africa is an enormous landmass — taking up a fifth of the earth’s surface land. It’s approximately 5000 miles from Tunisia to South Africa (north to south) and about 4,600 miles from east to west at its widest point. As you can see on the map, Africa can be divided into 4 regional climatic settings. Those settings are going to be the driving force that determines what type of society emerges. Is going to be a city dwelling urban society or a semi-nomadic society that’s going to embark on cyclical yearly migrations?

Take, for example the Saharan zone. The Sahara desert is the largest desert on Earth. For many of the societies that live in this setting, key water resources are going to be an important factor around which cities in transportation are going to be built. The best known of those civilizations is Egypt.

Egypt is a fairly typical river civilization and it’s heavily dependent on the annual flooding of the Nile River which brings in nutrients into the Nile Valley that are essential to survival and makes it possible to harvest crops from year-to-year. Given that their lifeblood was the Nile River and that the key building blocks for society are literally flowing from that source, it makes sense that the Nile River is an ideal feature around which to build cities and urban structures. Interestingly though, the structures themselves tell you a lot about the culture and the setting they are forged from.

There’s a very good reason, for example, why for most people when they think of Egyptian culture, the pyramids are the first thing that comes to mind. It turns out that in a culture that’s heavily dependent on knowing when these annual floods are coming, pyramids are very handy structures. They were very carefully constructed oriented north-south east- west — 4-sided structures that were oriented in that specific way.

That’s important, because if your survival depends on knowing when these annual floods are coming the pyramids will literally tell you that. Earlier civilizations had used mountains to determine the time of year by noting the sun’s position each day using a notched measuring stick. In addition to being gigantic sundials, and with their very deliberate and precise orientation the pyramids were a more enhanced and sophisticated method for determining “the time remaining before the Nile began to overflow. Armed with this knowledge, they could prepare by removing silt from irrigation ditches that led to the more distant plots used to extend the amount of arable land.”

Other aspects of Egyptian society also make perfect sense when you consider the setting. Patrilineal, patriarchal, male-dominated, hierarchical and polytheistic — multiple gods. Some of the more prominent gods in the Egyptian pantheon consist of Ra, the Sun God, whose essential role is to tell you when the floodwaters are coming, and of course your lifeblood, the Nile represented by Osiris.

Also if you’re in a setting that relies on your Sun God, Ra or Osiris, God of the Nile, it would make sense that you would want your ruler to have a good relationship with the gods. As we can see, the ruler, or Pharaoh was endowed with godlike status. Again, the religion and culture that comes out of the setting is directly linked to how people survive in that setting.

Moving on to another climatic zone — just below the Sahara, this green belt here — is the savanna grassland. The people of the savanna grassland are much like the people in the grasslands in the plains region of the United States. The Lakota the Arapahoe the Cheyenne — they share similar cultural characteristics because they have similar settings. On the grassland with its large game, which are constantly on the move, many are going to adopt a migratory or semi-migratory lifestyle just like people indigenous to the plains region of the United States. In terms of survival, cities don’t make a whole lot of sense in this setting. People tend to have few possessions and travel light in order to keep up with their food source which is the large game that follow migratory patterns. So, we can see here very different set of survival strategies and a culture that’s rooted in a specific setting.

Much further to the south, we have another climatic zone – the Kalahari Desert region in southern Africa. Here, you find the indigenous Khoisan who were chronicled brilliantly in the Noel Mostert’s book Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People. In it, Mostert describes two linguistically related people — the San and the KhoiKhoi – both part of the Khoisan linguistic family.

One of the cultural hallmarks of the Khoisan speaking ethnolinguistic groups is the click consonants prevalent language — a language that will allow the speaker to blend in to the background noise of rustling leaves and grass without giving away your position to a potential prey item — a brilliant cultural adaptation embedded in mode of speaking that serves as a survival strategy for a very particular setting.

Now, let’s talk a little bit about West Africa and specifically the region in this equatorial rain belt. Most black folks in the United States with a history dating back to the period of slavery came from this setting — a great many of them from the area of present-day Nigeria. It’s a region that’s forested, but it’s not particularly well suited for growing the various grains and cereals that you find in the sub-Saharan grassland.

There are plenty of huge trees in this thickly forested region, but because of the constant soil erosion that comes from about 6 months of annual rainy season, agriculture can only consist of plants with deep roots that are not going to not get washed away when the rains come. Culturally, your diet and the structure of your society is going to pivot around growing things like yams, watermelons, sweet potatoes, radishes things that have deep roots. That’s the only thing that can be grown there that won’t get washed away when the rains come and erode soil. Have you ever wondered why so many Americans consider apple pie to be “American” but if you asked most black folks they will say sweet potato?

The labor-intensive nature of growing food in this setting is also the reason why many West African societies tend to be communalistic. Communalism dictates that society functions best when we recognize our interdependence on one another. It’s a worldview that’s common throughout the African Diaspora as persons of West African descent in particular have been dispersed throughout the world. We find large family units with a well-defined division of labor in which various age sets define one’s role in society along with elaborate rituals to mark the passing from one age set to the next.

When someone sick, it’s in the collective interest to come together as a community to promote healing. I’ll be discussing African healing traditions more thoroughly in an upcoming video, but for the purpose of this video understand that there is a reason why the same type of interactive call in response that you see in black churches today has been historically embedded in the spiritual, medicinal, music, and dance expressions that make up the larger belief systems that you find in many precolonial West African societies.

Interestingly, in West Africa we also find tend to find societies that rely heavily on oral traditions to pass information from one generation to the next. Now, why not do it through writing? Are West African societies not as advanced as the European ones? Well, in the interest of reframing the discussion, I would question why is there a tendency to consider literary cultures to be more advanced? Who is defining what it means to me “advanced” and what criteria are being used? In the West African cultural setting, the means of survival dictate that the transmission of information from one generation to the other is not look the same as it’s going to look the same as in Europe.

In fact, before contact with China, which is where paper as we know it today originated, Europe borrowed heavily from Egyptians forms of writing, which was written mainly on papyrus. Those materials weren’t present in West Africa, so survival dictated that information be transmitted through other means. The tendency to note cultural difference and then frame those differences in terms of societal advancement is a largely Western European way of looking at the world, and it’s a worldview that this program — African Elements — flatly rejects. Since this program seeks to frame things differently, suffice it to say that Europe transmitted information one way, West Africans transmitted it another way, and there’s nothing inherently more or less advanced in either method.

So, we’ve seen how various cultures arise from the specific settings that societies find themselves in. But why is that important? Is it significant for black folks in the Americas to understand the cultures of precolonial Africans? What about people of non-African descent? Why should they be concerned with African cultures? I’d be interested in seeing some respectful dialogue in the comments below. I’m Darius Spearman. If you found this video interesting, be sure to drop a like and subscribe. Also, hit that bell notification icon so that you’ll be notified the next time a video drops. Until then, I’ll see you in the comments.

VIDEO 2: Brief History Of Africa Before Colonialism — How did we get there?

In 2015 Forbes Magazine boldly proclaimed Mansa Musa, the ruler of the West African empire of Mali, to be the wealthiest person ever to have lived on the planet. They estimated his wealth at $400 billion as compared to Bill Gates’s $81.8 billion net worth. Yet barely a century after his famous pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, West Africa had already entered a phase of its history later described in Swahili as the maafa – or the great disaster. How did that happen? How did West Africa and later the continent descend from the enormously wealthy kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai into the slave trade and colonial era within a matter of decades? We’ll breakdown the rise and fall of a continent next on African Elements.

Thank you for watching African elements where we’re taking Africana Studies from the walls of higher education and giving it to the people. I want to give a special thanks to our subscribers and Patreon supporters. This channel runs on people power, so your support is so greatly appreciated.

As we’ve seen Africana Studies was forged largely as a response to widespread misrepresentation of the history of the African continent and people of African descent. The picture of Africa that emerges out of the last five or so hundred years since the Atlantic slave trade and colonial era distorts understanding of African history by presenting what’s essentially a snapshot as if it’s the whole film. The narrative that emerges by focusing narrowly on a four or 500 year timeline can be summed up in the words of the famous 19th century German philosopher, Georg Hegel in his reflections on the continent of Africa…
It is manifest that want of self-control distinguishes the character of the Negroes. This condition is capable of no development or culture, and as we have seen them at this day, such have they always been. …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.”

Hegel’s comments taken from lectures that he gave around 1830, reflect a very selective use of timelines, highlighting a moment when Europe is in a state of expansion, while simultaneously Africa was in a state of decline. But backing up the timeline to, say the 4th and 5th century, presents an entirely different narrative. At that time, Rome was declining, and Europe descended into the medieval period of violence, disease, warlordism and various kingdoms vying for what was left of the crumbling Roman Empire.

But while Europe was in tatters Africa at that moment was thriving. We see vast empires connected to global trade networks that enjoyed wealth and prosperity. If we subjectively decided to start the timeline here, what the would be the narrative of Africa as it relates to Europe? Where you start the timeline matters.

Nevertheless, the question this video is addressing is, how do we go from Africa before colonialism with its wealthy and prosperous kingdoms to the Africa that exists at the time of Georg Hegel’s disparaging description? The answer involves a complex chain of events that begins with the development of a global economic system that centered in Egypt.

Egypt sits on an important nexus that linked the Mediterranean to Asia through the Red Sea and later connected large empires in West Africa to a global trade network through the trans-Saharan trade routes.

Because Europe wasn’t particularly rich in terms of natural resources it was predisposed toward expansion. As we saw in our previous video, Why African Culture Matters: the Survival Toolkit, the survival strategies embedded in the culture reveal much about the society and its setting. In the Greek pantheon, we see Aries, God of war, and Poseidon, God of the sea among others. It reveals a society forged in conflict and expansion. Dominance of the sea was a necessary component, and along with it came the representative deities that accompanied that need. Supremacy over critical access points to Asia would be the driving force for major events in Western Europe for millennia — from the expansion of Greece into North Africa to the Crusades and finally to the age of exploration and Columbus’s voyages is in 1492. For our story, it’s important to note that Alexander III of Macedon extended the Greek empire into Egypt in 322 BC, and in doing so, Greece gained a major foothold along the spice route that granted them access to India, and by extension, China. When Rome supplanted Greece, Europe’s control of North Africa under Rome extended even further.

Along with its expansion into North Africa, Rome fortified the trans- Saharan trade routes. In the process, West Africa was more firmly linked into the trans-Sahara network, and into a global system of trade that eventually extended from West Africa to China. Rome made significant adjustments to its society and culture that fed in part off of critical access points like Egypt, but that all started to crumble with the fall of the Roman Empire around the 5th century A.D. By the mid 7th century, things in Europe took a turn for the worse as another key player arrived on the scene.

With the Islamic expansion into North Africa, Western Europe was significantly cut off from its critical lifeline. The centerpiece around which they structured so much of their society was jerked out from under them. That’s when things really start to go bad. While Eastern Europe maintained access to the east through Constantinople, in Western Europe crime rates soared, infant mortality rose to as high as 50%, malnutrition was rampant, and warlordism was the order of the day. To top it off, bubonic plague killed up to half of the European population – it was a violent time, but maybe it’s the inevitable result of a society that pins it prosperity on a specific set of conditions, and those conditions are jerked out from under them…Keep that in mind for later.

In the trans-Sahara region, Rome’s decline left a vacuum that led to West Africa’s expansion. When Ghana — the first of 3 major empires in West Africa began to expand between the 5th and 8th centuries, the centerpiece around which it structured its prosperity was trans-Saharan trade. Ghana’s main resource, gold, was traded pound for pound at the same value as salt. Salt is critical in preserving food for long distance trade, and that’s just one example of how West Africa and its society began to pivot around it’s coveted trans-Saharan trade. Another example was Ghana’s adoption of Asian camels that were better suited for long distance trade than the African variety. Are we seeing the pattern yet?

Mali — the second major west African Empire — supplanted Ghana in the thirteenth century. By then, the Islamic Caliphates had secured control over the north African trade routes linking the trans-Saharan routes to Egypt. Interestingly, in another adjustment aimed at solidifying access to its lifeline, Mali became the first Islamic empire in West Africa, and that is the stage that Mansa Musa stepped onto.

Mansa Musa, the emperor of Mali and wealthiest person ever to have existed on earth, according to Forbes Magazine, undertook a legendary pilgrimage in 1324. His caravan spread so much gold over the trans-Sahara region on his way to Mecca that it took the city of Cairo over a decade to recover from the inflation. In doing so, he accomplished two things. First, he established a demand. His kingdom had more gold than it knew what to do with, but that doesn’t do too much good unless you can find people who want it. So his pilgrimage put people on notice by letting everyone know, “Hey, I’ve got the goods.” Second, he established himself as a prominent player in the trans-Saharan trade — the source of his wealth, the key to the kingdom’s prosperity, and yet another egg that West Africa placed in the basket of trans-Saharan trade.

I sure hope nothing happens to that trans-Saharan trade route.

From 1461 to 1591, Songhai — the last of the three major West African Empires — emerged. But it emerged onto a landscape that was already in the process shifting. Europe was already encroaching on the Guinea coast where Portuguese traders had already established a foothold. By the fall of Songhai the Atlantic slave trade was already well underway. Just like that, a thousand years of wealth and prosperity in West Africa came to an end in just a few decades. What happened?

One last critical event that took place far from West Africa, was nevertheless critical in the chain of events leading to the Atlantic slave trade — the fall of Constantinople. Constantinople was the Eastern Roman Empire’s last gateway to Asia. In 1453 Constantinople fell to Islamic expansion under the Ottomans and it became Istanbul. It was the fall of Constantinople that forced Europe to seek alternate routes to Asia prompting Spain to hire Christopher Columbus in 1492, and prompting the Portuguese to circumnavigate Africa, which it finally did in 1499. As it turns out, to this day it’s much easier to transport goods by ship than it is by plane, train, automobile or any other method including… camel caravan. When an alternate route to Asia was found, Africa was effectively cut out of the picture and the trans-Saharan trade fell into disuse.

As with Rome, the fundamental assumption on which West Africa based its prosperity had been jerked right out from under them, and the results were similar. Various kingdoms vying for supremacy over a crumbling way of life. Just as the medieval period had been in Europe, this was a very violent time in West Africa in which warring factions came into conflict with one another, captured one another, and sold one another.

Africa’s decline came in a critical time when Europe was in a state of expansion. Venturing to Asia by sea and circumnavigating Africa, Europe sought to establish ports along the way in order to restock ships, and repair sails and prompting the need to establish colonies — all at a time when Africa was in a state of decline and was ripe for colonization.
Here it’s important to discuss the role of slavery not just in West Africa but in human history. Slavery is as old as human history itself, but historically, slavery has tended to go hand-in-hand with conquest — where you find one you tend to find the other. For example, the Egyptians would conquer their neighbors and make slaves of them. The Greeks conquered their neighbors and made slaves of them. The Romans did the same thing. So, as society began to fall apart and West Africa descended into conflict and chaos the one commodity they had plenty of – the one that goes hand-in-hand with conflict — happened to be slavery. That also happened to be very commodity that Portugal was in high demand for at the time.

Just as Mali adjusted in response to Islamic controlled north African trade routes, a similar adjustment took place to meet the Portuguese demand for slaves. Still, I’ve often heard it asked … “How is it that these Africans sold other Africans to Europeans?” Two things are important here. First, it’s important to understand that traffic in slavery was not a new phenomenon, along with expansion and conquest, slaves had been trafficked over the trans-Saharan trade routes for a thousand years before Europeans arrived on the scene. There’s no reason to think Africans would feel any differently about the trafficking of human beings after Portugal arrived and Europeans needed the one commodity that Africa had plenty of — slaves.

Second, It’s important to understand that Africans at that time didn’t think of themselves as Africans any more than Europeans hought of themselves as Europeans. I’ve never heard any one ask the question, “How is it that over hundreds of years of conflict between Spain, France and England that these Europeans are killing other Europeans?” That’s because Europeans thought of themselves Spanish, French and English — not as Europeans. In the same way, West Africans thought of themselves not as Africans, but as Ibos, Ashante, Dahomeans, and Yorubans. Even so, as we’ll see in a topic for a later video, West Africans did bring elements of their society and culture to the Western Hemisphere and much of those elements of West African culture are going to help them survive in a different setting.

So, as we can see, it was a specific chain of events from Egypt, to Greece, to Rome, the spread of Islam and the rise of Ghana, Mali and Songhai and to the fall of Constantinople that let Africa from its wealthy kingdoms to the slave trade and era of colonization, but was that chain of events inevitable? Could Africa’s downfall have been avoided or is it simply the natural course of events that civilizations rise and fall. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

I’m Darius Spearman. Thank you for watching, and until next time, I’ll see you in the comments.


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