Posts Tagged ‘Cheikh Anta Diop’

A Thorough Critique of Afrocentric Pseudo-History, Psychology, and Science

January 27, 2022

Stephen Howe, Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (London: Verso 1998)

This is another excellent book I’ve been reading lately. I first came across in it an excellent review by the Black British writer, Caryl Phillips in the Financial Times at the time it was published, though it’s only now I’ve actually got round to ordering a copy and reading it. Afrocentrism is a set of inter-related, pseudo-academic disciplines based on the claim that the ancient Egyptians were Black and are the unacknowledged source of White western culture, which was stolen from them. Not only were the Egyptians themselves Black, but they may also have derived their culture and achievements in turn from the peoples further to the south, the Nubians and Ethiopians. Some Afrocentrists claim that Greece, Rome and Carthage were originally Black ancient Egyptian colonies and that the original peoples of the British isles were also Black. Some push this claim of Black African primacy even further, claiming that ancient Egyptians travelled to the Americas before Columbus, where they founded the Olmec culture. The ancient peoples of Asia too, the Indians, Thais, Chinese and Japanese were also Black. At the same time ancient Egypt expanded to colonise Africa, where it was also responsible for the major cultural, artistic and architectural achievements. Where these coexisted with alleged brutality and barbarism, as in West Africa, which had a highly sophisticated art alongside human sacrifice, this was due to biological degeneration from the original Egyptian herrenvolk.

Black Americans are held to be part of a single Black race and culture with Black Africans, and Afrocentric scholars are active trying to trace authentic African survivals in the speech, culture and psychology of Black America. There is supposed to be a single Black character and psychology and a distinct Black philosophy. At the same time, ,Afrocentric scholars believe that the Egyptians were masters of political theory and science, which can similarly be grotesquely exaggerated. Some of them claim that the ancient Egyptians knew about quantum physics and gravity and that the Tanzanians had semi-conductors. At the same time they are active researching and promoting various Blacks figures they believe were great scientists. Again, these figures, who could, like Benjamin Banneker, be genuinely impressive in their real lives, and their achievements are often wildly exaggerated.

Unsurprisingly there’s much racism mixed up with this. There’s a bitter hatred of Whites, as well as, Jews and Arabs. One Afrocentric writers claims the latter has been attempting to destroy African civilisation and enslave its peoples for 5,000 years. Which is quite incredible, considering that I think the Muslim Arabs only conquered north Africa in the 7th/8th century AD. There’s also a bitter hatred of homosexuality and strong rejection of feminism. In the early 1960s one Afrocentric group insisted that female members should show their submissiveness by crossing their arms and lowering their heads when one of the men passed them. There’s also an insistence on traditional family structures. At the same time, some believe that Blacks are intellectually and emotionally superior to Whites because of the greater amount of the melanin pigment in their brains.

At their heart, this is an attempt to compensate for the massive racial oppression and disparagement Blacks and their civilisations have suffered over the centuries, far more than any other ethnic group. Yet much Afrocentric scholarship is based on the severely dated writings of 19th and early 20th century European colonial officials and anthropologists, as well as other White writers, who definitely believed that Blacks were inferior. For example, Afrocentric scholars assert that, while Whites and Europeans are logical and rational, Blacks are emotional and intuitive. Which is very much like the old imperialist claim that Blacks were inferior because they weren’t rational and logical. The claim that ancient Egyptians were responsible for the colonisation of Africa and every advance made by the peoples of the continent also derives from 19th and early 20th century White sources. The only difference is that those writers believed that the Egyptians were part of a superior, ‘Hamitic’, White civilisation. And also mixed up with it are various occult, Masonic and New Age ideas. Some of these derive from Albert Churchward, a freemason, who believed that there was a war going on between freemasonry and socialism, and only the former could defend civilisation from the Red Menace. Other figures in the New Age part of the Afrocentric movement include Credo Mutwa, a genuine Zulu shaman, honest guv, and apologist for the South African apartheid state.

Howe’s book traces the history of these ideas, some of which have been around for longer than I thought. I was aware that the claim that the ancient Egyptians were Black and therefore equal to or superior to White civilisation began in the 19th century. I was surprised, however, to find that Black Americans, largely clergymen, were making the claims as early as the 1820s. He carefully distinguishes between those writers, like the Senegalese mathematician and nuclear physicist Cheikh Anta Diop, who, while wrong, nevertheless were diligent researchers and produced significant insights, and others who were far less impressive. Some of the latter can only be described as cranks, like the female Afrocentrist who claims that nearly everything, including Christmas trees, are representations of the Black male genitals. Some of the most virulently anti-White racist material comes from White writers, such as the assertion that Whites are inferior because we’re all descended from the Neanderthals, who are given a whole series of unpleasant traits. Some Afrocentrists seem to have set up their own Stalinist ‘cult of personality’. Molefi Asante, for example, has his own academic department and institute, who members and scholars always pay generous tribute to him for guiding them on their intellectual quest, and largely don’t say anything that wasn’t already said by the master. Quite a number give themselves impressive African names, meaning things like ‘Bearer of Enlightenment’, and a number have also claimed to have been African princes or holy men. Their real identities and backgrounds, however, tend to be much more prosaic. He also notes the connection and major differences with other major figures in Black scholarship and anti-racist campaigning, like Franz Fanon and W.E.B. DuBois, and the French Caribbean Negritude movement.

There are some significant difference between the scholars discussed here. Cheikh Anta Diop believed that ancient Egypt was the source of western culture and I think he wanted Greek and Latin replaced as languages by ancient Egyptian. But while his thinking was highly racialised, he wasn’t a racist. He wanted Blacks to join the global community of peoples as equals. He also believed that civilisation was cyclical, and that as Europeans supposedly took their ideas from Africa, so Africans should now learn from Europeans. Others were definitely racist, such as the speaker at the first Black History Month in 1986 who seemed to advocate shooting Whites, although he couldn’t tell his audience when, where and whom. In the case of Marcus Garvey’s son, this went into pure Black Nazism. When Jamaica celebrated Garvey’s birth in the 1970s, his son called for Garvey’s movement to become a Black National Socialism, because Africa also needs its lebensraum.

Among the researchers and writers examined and critiqued is Martin Bernal, the White author of Black Athena. This caused a major stir when it was published in the 1980s, possibly because, as Bernal himself suggested, he was White. Bernal was able to assemble a massive amount of information and was extensively criticised at the time. But he was also controversial because he believed that ancient Greece was also strongly influenced by the Semitic peoples, specifically the Phoenicians and the Jews. This was in fact based on contemporary Israeli scholarship, and was itself highly controversial. As a result, some of the criticisms of him and his work have a very nasty element of anti-Semitism.

The book is a thorough examination and demolition of Afrocentric scholarship with considerable sympathy for the genuine achievements of Black scholars, some of whom have made very trenchant criticisms. One Ghanaian or Nigerian philosopher lampooned the claim that there is a single, African philosophy based around a transcendent life force. In a spoof article he argued that the English, and therefore all westerners, venerated the mystic force ING, because English verbs often ended in ‘ing’, like ‘doing’ or ‘being’. In fact the claim that there is a single African philosophy comes from Tempels, a Belgian Roman Catholic priest, who only researched a single Bantu tribe, and the anthropologist Griaule and his Dogon informant, Ogotommeli. The latter two have become notorious because of their books’ claim that the Dogon had an advanced knowledge of astronomy. They knew that the planets circled the Sun in ellipses, and that Sirius had an invisible companion star. For R.K.G. Temple in the 1970s, it was because they’d been visited by aliens. For the Melanists, it was because they had intuitive knowledge of it through their pineal gland. Howe suggests that Ogotommeli probably knew about it from visiting colonial officials with an interest in the subject, and made the claim that all this was known to the Dogon as a way of pulling this arrogant colonial anthropologist’s leg.

The book also argues that Afrocentric views of Africa are themselves also damaging. They present the continent as a static, unfied culture, which has never suffered war and conflict between its peoples before the advent of Europeans. In fact it’s a continent of many different peoples and cultures. There’s no evidence that it was ever colonised by the ancient Egyptians. Only six ancient Egyptian artefacts have been found outside Egypt and Nubia. And rather than the ancient Egyptians introducing agriculture to the rest of Africa, there is evidence that it was independently discovered in six different places on the continent. As for the assertion that ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs are the source for various African writing systems, such as the Vai of Liberia, some of these are known to have been invented by specific individuals in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some African peoples are happy to promote the idea that they are descendants of the ancient Egyptians, while others very definitely are not. The problem here is that Afrocentrist claims of Egyptian primacy are obscuring the real achievements of Africa and its peoples.

As for the question of the racial origins of the ancient Egyptians, the book notes that this is a subject of near to Zero interest to professional, mainstream Egyptologists. A number of academics books and journals he surveys make no mention of it. When one does, it is simply to say that it is a distraction from the real issues Egyptologists want to examine. Genetic and craniological examination, however, suggest that the ancient Egyptians were racially identical to other peoples in that part of Africa. They show genetic links to the peoples of Neolithic Europe, the Middle East and India, and lesser genetic connections to the peoples further south. The Egyptian scholars themselves, however, see themselves as racially mixed and there was an argument at a conference in Cairo when the Black Americans insisted that they were Black. I also find some of the Afro-centrists’ concern to establish the racial identity of the Nubians rather odd. One Afrocentric writer hoped that one day science would be able to reconstruct the features of the Nubian pharaoh Taharqa from its skull fragments, and that these would show he was Black. I found this quite puzzling, as I’ve always assumed that the Nubians were Black. In fact I’ve never seen anything said to the contrary. When TV documentaries refer to Egypt’s Black pharaohs, they usually refer to the period when the country was conquered and ruled by Nubian kings. I honestly don’t know who these people are that assert that the Nubians were White, unless it’s some of the White writers the Afro-centrists have discovered in their search for suitable sources.

This pseudo-scholarship is spreading massively. The book notes the large number of university departments teaching it, as well as college and private schools and the torrent of books published, some of them also aimed at schools. It’s alarming that such pseudo-scholarship has become so widespread. And rather than liberating, as Afrocentric scholars believe, he makes the point that the subject is deeply racist, drawing on the same sources as White racists.

But rather than be angered by it, he finds it immensely sad.

Simon Webb on Black History’s Appropriation of Other Cultures

November 24, 2021

In this video, Simon Webb of History Debunked critiques another Black history book promoting racial propaganda and fake history. The book’s Black History Matters, published by Franklin. The book follows Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, published in the 1980s, in viewing ancient Egypt as not only a Black civilisation, but the ultimate source of western civilisation as its cultural achievements were taken over by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Webb states he read the book in the 1980s, and while it was interestingly written he thought it was a load of rubbish. Since its publication there has been further research into the ethnic origins of the ancient Egyptians, including DNA analysis. This has found that the ancient Egyptians didn’t descend from Black Africans, but were genetically related to the people’s of the ancient Near East, such as Mesopotamia. The Black component of the modern Egyptian genome was introduced later during the Arab occupation. The book has pages on ancient Egypt,, and at one point declares one of the manuscripts recovered to be a ground-breaking medical compendium. Well, sort of, but not really. It’s a collection of spells for use against various diseases. This was pretty much the standard practice in the ancient Near East at the time. Similar spells against disease are known from Babylon and the Hittite Empire. But it ain’t medicine as it’s now understood, Jim.

The book goes on to discuss Ethiopia, but neglects to mention that this was an Arab colony, as shown by the Semitic nature of its languages, Amharic and Tigrinya. These are descended from various South Arabian languages, like Sabaic, the language of the ancient kingdom of Sheba, now Marib, in Yemen. The book also discusses the Swahili civilisation without acknowledging that it, too, was the result of Arab colonisation. The Swahili culture was founded by Arabs from the Sultanate of Oman, who were also responsible for setting up a slave trade in east Africa. However, while there is plenty of material in the book on the transatlantic slave trade, there is absolutely nothing whatsoever on the Arab slave trade. This is despite the fact that the Arab slave trade captured and transported the same number of slaves as White Europeans.

The belief that the ancient Egyptians were Black and were the ultimate source for western culture is widespread in the Black community and passionately held. Much of it comes from the Senegalese Afrocentrist scholar, Cheikh Anta Diop in the 1960s, and Webb has also made a video debunking this fake history. It goes back further back, however, to Black American travellers to Egypt in the 19th century. It’s understandably based on a simple syllogism: Africa is the home continent of the Black race. Egypt is in Africa, therefore the ancient Egyptians were Black. There’s also a psychological need behind the identification of the ancient Egyptians as Black: much western scholarship before the rise of the modern Black power movements scorned African culture as worthless, and Blacks themselves as racially and intellectually inferior. This has created a need amongst Black activists to demonstrate their cultural and intellectual equality, if not superiority to Whites. And as the best known, and most magnificent ancient African civilisation, ancient Egypt fits this requirement. There also seems to be a conspiracy grown up about the Black identity of the ancient Egyptians as well. I remember being told by a Black American exchange student at College that the reason so many statues from Egypt missed their noses and lips was because they had been hacked off by those evil imperialist Victorians determined to hide their true race. As noses and lips are some of the features most likely to be chipped off over time, regardless of the race of the statue, I don’t believe that at all. But it shows the paranoia and racial suspicion among some Afrocentrists.

There have been a number of attempts outside of Afrocentric history to find an African component in ancient Egyptian civilisation. A few years ago archaeologists examining a number of mummies found that the features of their occupants were more characteristically African than the portraits on the cases. This fuelled speculation that, due to first the Greek and then the Roman domination of Egypt, indigenous Egyptians were deliberately having themselves painted to appear more European. If this was the case, it would come from the oppressive system of apartheid the Romans operated which reduced indigenous Egyptians to second class citizens. A head of Queen Tiyi, which has rather African features, was also adduced as proof that the ancient Egyptians were Black, or had some Black ancestry.

In the 1990s New Scientist also published a piece speculating about a prehistoric sub-Saharan contribution to ancient Egypt. An ancient stone circle had been found further south, and the central stone seemed to be roughly carved to resemble a cow. The archaeologists behind the discovery speculated that the circle dated from the time when the Sahara was still green and had been made by a Black, pastoralist people. As these people’s livelihood and culture was based on their cattle, they naturally worshipped a cow goddess. As they climate changed and the region became a desert, the herders moved north to join the White ancestors of the Egyptians, and the cow goddess became the ancient Egyptian goddess Hathor.

There were also programmes by the Beeb at the same time that claimed that the Egyptians were Black until the race became lighter following the Arab conquest. On the other side, I don’t recall any of the Roman or Greek authors, like Herodotus, who visited ancient Egypt, describing its people as Black.

To be fair, not every Black intellectual believes this. Caryl Phillips wrote a book, Afrocentrism, debunking it way back in the ’90s/ early 2000s, which was reviewed in the Financial Times. I’ve seen the Egyptians as a race somewhere between White and Black. They certainly portrayed themselves as darker than Europeans. Ancient Egyptian art stereotypically shows men as reddish-brown in colour, and women as yellow. European cultures, like the Minoans, painted themselves as pink. The Egyptians also, however, painted the Black cultures further to the south as Black. However, it makes more sense to see ancient Egypt as part of the ancient Near East because it was part of that geopolitical and cultural area. Basil Davidson, a White Afrocentrist, defended his view that the ancient Egyptians were ultimately the source of Greek and Roman culture and science by stating that it was what the Romans themselves said. Perhaps, but the majority of the foreign contribution to Greek science actually comes from the Middle East, such as Babylonia and Phrygia, rather than Egypt.

Davidson also wrote an interesting history of the Swahili culture, which I found in Bristol’s Central Library years ago. This was written as a kind of ‘bottom-up’ history. Instead of viewing it as an Arab culture that had been imposed on Black Africans, he saw it as Black Africans accepting Arab culture. However, he did not deny or omit the Arab contribution, as this book appears to do.

The book’s title clearly shows that it’s been rushed out to cash in on the Black Lives Matter movement. Unfortunately, instead of being proper history it’s just pushing racial, if not racist, propaganda. I’d argue that any attempt to argue that Black Africans are the unacknowledged source of White culture and dwelling on the transatlantic slave trade while saying nothing about the Arab is racist against Whites.

African culture and history is genuinely fascinating without its reduction to myths and racial propaganda, and there are a number of excellent books about it. Unfortunately it looks like they’re going to be ignored in favour of extremely flawed and biased treatments like this.

Old ‘Financial Times’ Review by Caryl Phillips of Books on Afrocentrism and Black Identity

August 1, 2020

This is another very old clipping from my scrapbooks. Titled ‘Burdened by white men’s perceptions’, its a review by the Black British writer Caryl Phillips of the books Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes by Stephen Howe, and Masks: Blackness, Race and the Imagination by Adam Lively. Its from the Financial Times’ edition for August 15th/16th 1998, and so nearly a quarter of a century old. Nevertheless, these are issues that are still present and which are still strongly influencing contemporary racial politics and motivating activist movements like Black Lives Matter.

Phillips begins his review with the book on Afrocentrism. This is a Black historical view that sees ancient Egypt as a Black African civilisation and the true source of the western cultural and intellectual tradition, which was appropriated by the ancient Greeks and Romans. He then moves on to the second book, which is about the issue of Black identity in majority White culture and the effects of White perceptions. Phillips writes

Stephen Howe’s candid book goes right to the heart of one of the most vexing of contemporary America’s problems: the question of “Afrocentrism”, and its legitimacy as an alternative system of thought to the “white racism” which has dominated American intellectual, social and political life. Howe (who is white) quotes the African-American professor, Manning Marable, who defines Afrocentrism as a system of thought which “looks to a romantic, mythical reconstruction of yesterday to find some understanding of the cultural basis of today’s racial and class challenges.” Howe agrees with Marable that Afrocentrism is not only romantic and mythical, but he sees it as ultimately dangerous.

His book is divided into three parts. In the first section Howe looks at the “roots” of Afrocentrism, rightly identifying the writings o the 19th-century writer Edward Wilmot Blyden as being perhaps at the head of this tradition. In 1866 Blyden travelled to Egypt, determined to see evidence of great Black achievements. He was overwhelmed by a sense of racial pride on first seeing the Pyramids: “This, thought I, was the work of my African progenitors … Feelings came over me far different from those I have ever felt when looking at the mighty works of European genius. I felt that I had a peculiar heritage in the Great Pyramid built … by the enterprising sons of Ham, from which I am descended …”

In the second part of his book, Howe focuses largely upon the Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop (1923-86), identifying him as the originator of many of the ideas that form the basis of modern Afrocentrism. Diop believed that the biological origin of humanity took place in Africa, and that Egypt was the cradle of a Black civilisation that was appropriated by the Ancient Greeks. His writings and scholarship all speak to a need for those of Africa to see beyond the obfuscation created by European racism and colonialism,  and reclaim their glorious past.

The final part of Howe’s book looks at the current manifestations of Afrocentric thought, particularly in American academic life. He rightly castigates the anti-Semitism of Afrocentric “scholars”  such as Leonard Jeffries and Tony Martin, and is tough but even-handed in his case against Molefi Asante (whom Howe calls the “Godfather of Afrocentrism”). The pseudo-scientific racism, the homophobia, and the lack of any serious scholarship which underpins the work of modern-day Afrocentrism is laid bare in a devastating, and at times humorous manner.

This book performs a great service for all who are interested in the intellectual study of race and racism in the US. Howe builds his case upon facts, which most Afrocentric “scholars” seem incapable of doing. However, what Howe does not do is to ask the pressing question which arises out of his book: why is it that so many African Americans both leaders and followers, are prepared to invest in such an ahistorical sense of their world and their history?

The first half of Adam Lively’s book provides some kind of an answer, castigating as it does the European attempts to place Africa and people of African origin at the bottom of the evolutionary chain. Lively traces what he terms “the invention of race” in the modern world, and looks at racial theories in 18th and 19th-century Britain, examined how they clashed with Christianity, and Darwinism.

The second half of the book turns to the US. Lively announces his shift of locale and time, by stating that in the earlier period “If the African answered back, the European didn’t hear. In America by contrast … the American Negro could and did answer back to the White man.” This is not strictly true. Olaudah Equiano’s autobiographical narrative published in 1789 went into eight British editions, and was also published in German, Dutch and Russian. Equiano was but one of a host of contemporary Black writers who were undoubtedly heard by Europeans.

The American half of Lively’s book is largely composed of readings in 20th century American literature which support his central thesis that the contemporary imagination has great difficulty coping with a blackness that has been so deeply demonised by theories which originated in earlier centuries. However, whereas the first half of his book is underpinned by solid research, the second half becomes more speculative.

The book concludes with a short epilogue entitled “Beyond Race?” Unfortunately, here the text collapses into the infuriating academic doublespeak that the author has so eloquently avoided. “The idea of postethnicity accords with the modern tendency to see ethnicity as performative than essentialist. Blackness becomes a cultural style, a signifier that has floated free of its moorings in pigmentation. Stripped of any deterministic associations, its gift is the freedom (or, negatively, the alienation) of the mask.”

Blackness is not, and never will be, simply “a cultural style”. Being Black in the western world still means that one is burdened by White people’s perceptions of  one as either an object of taboo or one of sentiment. To scamper off into an imagined past of Afrocentric “achievement” is as foolish as the attempt to construct an imagined present of redemptive cultural equality based around baggy jeans and rap music. Lively ends his book with the following sentence: “The racial past cannot be erased, but it can be rendered impotent.” Neither Lively’s faith in postmodernism nor the Afrocentric’s “fake” history, will produce any viable solution to a problem that will dog us far into the next millennium.

I hope this prediction is far too pessimistic, and that this millennium won’t be as burdened with issues of race and racism as the previous. Regarding Afrocentrism, there is a serious point behind the romanticism. Egypt is geographically part of Africa, and the ancient Egyptians certainly portrayed themselves as darker skinned than the European peoples to the north. They traded extensively in the Mediterranean, including as far west as Spain, and did influence Greek and Roman culture. The White Afrocentrist historian, Basil Davidson, states that he believes that the Romans took their intellectual culture from Egypt because the Romans themselves said they did. On the other hand, it appears that the ancient Greeks took their mathematical knowledge from the ancient Near East, particularly Phrygia, rather than Egypt.

My problem with Afrocentrism is that, at its extreme, it just becomes a form of anti-White racism, the mirror image of White racist views of Black and African history. In the view of Afrocentric writers like Garakai Chengu, ancient Egypt was a superior Black civilisation that bestowed culture and learning on the backward White tribes of Europe. The Moors of Islamic Spain were ‘obviously Black’, and through their conquest brought backward, superstitious White Europeans enlightened philosophy and science. This isn’t history so much as a Black racist fantasy of imperialism and benign colonialism projected into the past. Chengu has apparently taught at Harvard, but when Counterpunch saw fit to publish a piece by him on their website the standard of scholarship was so poor that I really wondered how he got the job.

Ancient Egypt and the other great civilisations of Africa are awesome, inspiring and worth studying along with all the world’s great cultures. But this needs to be done without the grotesque distortions of racism, whether by Whites or Blacks.

A British Colonial Governor’s Attack on Racism

July 31, 2020

Sir Alan Burns, Colour and Colour Prejudice with Particular Reference to the Relationship between Whites and Negroes (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd 1948).

I ordered this book secondhand online a week or so ago, following the Black Lives Matter protests and controversies over the past few weeks. I realise reading a book this old is a rather eccentric way of looking at contemporary racial issues, but I’d already come across it in the library there when I was doing voluntary work at the Empire and Commonwealth Museum. What impressed me about it was that it also dealt with anti-White racism amongst Blacks as well as the book’s main concern with anti-Black racism, discrimination and growing Black discontent in the British Empire.

Burns was a former governor of Ghana, then the Gold Coast. According to the potted biography on the front flap of the dust jacket, he was ‘a Colonial Civil Servant of long and distinguished experience in tropical West Africa and the West Indies.’ The book

deals with the important question of colour prejudice, and pleads for mutual courtesy and consideration between the white and the coloured races. Sir Alan analyses the history and alleged causes of colour prejudice, and cites the opinions of many writers who condemn or attempt to justify the existence of prejudice. It is a frank analysis of an unpleasant phenomenon.

He was also the author of two other books, his memoirs of colonial service in the Leeward Islands Nigeria, Bahamas, British Honduras, the Gold Coast and the Colonial Office, Colonial Civil Servant, and A History of Nigeria. The Gold Coast was one of the most racial progressive of the British African colonies. It was the first of them to include an indigenous chief on the ruling colonial council. I therefore expected Burns to hold similar positive views of Blacks, given, of course, how outdated these would no doubt seem to us 72 years later.

After the introduction, the book is divided into the following chapters:

I. The Existence and Growth of Colour Prejudice

II. The Attitude of Various Peoples to Racial and Colour Differences

III. Negro Resentment of Colour Prejudice

IV. Political and Legal Discrimination Against Negroes

V. Social Discrimination Against Negroes

VI. Alleged Inferiority of the Negro

VII. Alleged Shortcomings of the Negro

VIII. Physical and Mental Differences between the Races

IX. Physical Repulsion between Races

X. Miscegenation

XI. The Effect of Environment and History on the Negro Race

XII. Lack of Unity and Inferiority Complex Among Negroes

XIII. Conclusion.

I’ve done little more than take the occasional glance through it so far, so this is really a rather superficial treatment of  the book, more in the way of preliminary remarks than a full-scale review. Burns does indeed take a more positive view of Blacks and their potential for improvement, but the book is very dated and obviously strongly influenced by his own background in the colonial service and government. As a member of the colonial governing class, Burns is impressed by the British Empire and what he sees as its benevolent and highly beneficial rule of the world’s indigenous peoples. He is in no doubt that they have benefited from British rule, and quotes an American author as saying that there is no other colonial power which would have done so for its subject peoples. He is particularly impressed by the system of indirect rule, in which practical government was largely given over to the colonies’ indigenous ruling elites. This was peaceful, harmonious and had benefited the uneducated masses of the Empire’s indigenous peoples. These colonial subjects appreciated British rule and largely supported it. He did not expect this section of colonial society to demand their nations’ independence. However, this governmental strategy did not suit the growing class of educated Blacks, who were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their treatment as inferiors and demanding independence.

As with other, later books on racism Burns tackles its history and tries to trace how far back it goes. He argues that racism seems to go back no further than the Fifteenth century. Before then, culture and religion were far more important in defining identity.  He’s not entirely convinced by this, and believes that racism in the sense of colour prejudice probably existed far earlier, but there is little evidence for it. There have been other explorations of this subject which have attempted to show the history and development of racism as a cultural idea in the west. Other historians have said much the same, and I think the consensus of opinion is that it was the establishment of slavery that led to the development of ideas of Black inferiority to justify their capture and enslavement.

Burns is also concerned at what he and the other authorities he quotes as the growth in anti-Black racism that came following the First World War. He compares this unfavourably with a comment from an African lady, who went to a British school during Victoria’s reign. The women recalls that she and the other Black girls were treated absolutely no differently from the Whites, and that the only time she realised there was any difference between them was when she looked in a mirror. This is interesting, and a good corrective to the idea that all Whites were uniformly and aggressively racist back then, but I expect her experience may have been very different from Blacks further down the social hierarchy. Burns believes the increase in racism after the First World War was due to the increased contact between Blacks and Whites, which is probably true following the mass mobilisation of troops across the Empire.

But what I found as an historian with an interest in African and other global civilisations is the book’s almost wholly negative assessment of Black civilisation and its achievements. Burns quotes author after author, who states that Blacks have produced no great civilisations or cultural achievements. Yes, ancient Egypt is geographically a part of Africa, but culturally and racially, so it is claimed, it is part of the Middle East. Where Black Africans have produced great civilisations, it is through contact with external, superior cultures like the Egyptians, Carthaginians and the Arabs. Where Blacks have produced great artistic achievements, such as in the Benin bronzes of the 16th/17th century, it is claimed that this is due to contact with the Portuguese and Spanish. This negative view is held even by writers, who are concerned to stress Black value and dignity, and show that Blacks are not only capable of improvement, but actually doing so.

Since then a series of historians, archaeologists and art historians have attempted to redress this view of history by showing how impressive Black African civilisations were. Civilisations like ancient Nubia, Ethiopia, Mali and the other great Islamic states of north Africa, and advanced west African civilisations like Dahomey. I myself prefer the superb portraiture in the sculptures from 17th century Ife in west Africa, but archaeologists and historians have been immensely impressed by the carved heads from Nok in Nigeria, which date from about 2,000 BC. Going further south, there is the great fortress of Zimbabwe, a huge stone structure that bewildered western archaeologists. For years it was suggested that Black Africans simply couldn’t have built it, and that it must have been the Arabs or Chinese instead. In fact analysis of the methods used to build it and comparison with the same techniques used by local tribes in the construction of their wooden buildings have shown that the fortress was most definitely built by indigenous Zimbabweans. There have been a number of excellent TV series broadcast recently. Aminatta Forna presented one a few years ago now on Timbuktu, once the centre of a flourishing and immensely wealthy west African kingdom. A few years before, art historian Gus Casely-Hayford presented a series on BBC Four, Lost Civilisations of Africa. I think that’s still on YouTube, and it’s definitely worth a look. Archaeologists are revealing an entire history of urban civilisation that has previously been lost or overlooked. Nearly two decades or so ago there was a piece by a White archaeologist teaching in Nigeria, who had discovered the remains of house and courtyard walls stretching over an area of about 70 km. This had been lost as the site had been abandoned and overgrown with vegetation. He lamented how there was little interest in the remains of this immense, ancient city among Nigerians, who were far more interested in ancient Egypt.

This neglect and disparagement of African history and achievement really does explain the fervour with which Afrocentric history is held by some Blacks and anti-racist Whites. This is a view that claims that the ancient Egyptians were Black, and the real creators of the western cultural achievement. It began with the Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop. White Afrocentrists have included Martin Bernal, the author of Black Athena, and Basil Davidson. Following the Black Lives Matter protests there have also been calls for Black history to be taught in schools, beginning with African civilisations.

More positively, from what I’ve seen so far, Burns did believe that Blacks and Whites were equal in intelligence. The Christian missionaries Samuel Crowther, who became the first Anglican bishop of Africa, and Frederick Schon, had absolutely no doubt. Crowther was Black, while Schon was a White Swiss. In one of their reports to the British parliamentary committee sitting to examine slavery and the slave trade, they presented evidence from the African missionary schools in the form of essays from their pupils to show that Blacks certainly were as capable as Whites. Possibly more so at a certain age. As Black underachievement at school is still a very pressing issue, Crowther’s and Schon’s findings are still very important. Especially as there are real racists, supporters of the book The Bell Curve, keen to argue that Blacks really are biologically mentally inferior to Whites.

Burns’ book is fascinating, not least because it shows the development of official attitudes towards combating racism in Britain. Before it became such a pressing issue with the mass influx of Black migrants that came with Windrush, it seems that official concern was mostly over the growing resentment in Africa and elsewhere with White, British rule. The book also hopefully shows how we’ve also come in tackling racism in the West. I’m not complacent about it – I realise that it’s still very present and blighting lives – but it’s far, far less respectable now than it was when I was a child in the 1970s. My concern, however, is that some anti-racism activists really don’t realise this and their concentration on the horrors and crimes of the past has led them to see the present in its terms. Hence the rant of one of the BLM firebrands in Oxford that the police were the equivalent of the Klan.

Burn’s book shows just how much progress has been made on, and makes you understand just what an uphill struggle this has been.