By Kwaku Person-Lynn, PhD.
The confusion and emptiness experienced among many people of Afrikan descent has a lot to do with the denial of self and one’s ancestral origin.
To analyze the above statement would take volumes of books on philosophy, history, economics, psychology, psychiatry, slave studies and a host of other disciplines. It is the nucleus of a problem that has caused a whole people to change the concept of who they are, their status in the world, and effectively erased the history and culture of their original homeland. The Afrikan was literally written out of the history books from the beginning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade onward. Adjoining those realities, Afrikans were brutally forced to abandon every tradition, custom, ritual, religion, culture, languages and names used for thousands of years. European names given to them were fashioned after the names of plantation slavers who owned them, or names the owners gave them. The slave tradition of people of Afrikan descent giving their children European names continues to this very day.
In essence, what occurred was the total and complete erosion of being full human beings. What ranks as one of the most bizarre debates in world history is the founding fathers of this country actually debated what percent of a human being Afrikan people were. After a vigorous and heated congressional discussion, the so-called founding fathers settled on a compromise of 3/5ths of a human being. Since Afrikans were no longer considered full human beings, they were not entitled to any of the rights or privileges afforded Europeans who migrated to America. Even European indentured servants had more rights and were not only restricted to primarily seven years or so contracts, but many were given land at the end of their service. Afrikans, for the most part, were committed to slavery for generations. If the mother was a slave, the child was also considered a slave. This is partly the genesis of how the term ‘Negro’ became common usage to describe enslaved Afrikans.
Spain and Portugal, in the 15th century, were battling over newfound territories almost causing all out war between the two. At the time, the Pope Alexander VI in Rome was perceived as the supreme ruler over Europe. To settle the dispute between the two nations, the Pope divided the world between his two most powerful Catholic nations; the East went to Portugal, while the West went to Spain. Portugal had already settled in the west with Brazil, so a separate arrangement, the Treaty of Tordesillas, allowed Portugal to continue ownership of Brazil. Later, England, Germany, France, Sweden, Holland and Denmark decided not to respect the Pope’s decision and began their own world exploration, ultimately involving themselves in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
As they all came upon new lands, assessing the value of their resources: human labor was required to turn these new lands into profit making ventures, establish new settlements and convert the so-called indigenous ‘pagans’ into Christians. The indigenous peoples (so-called Indians) of the western hemisphere did not work out for various reasons: unable to adapt to European diseases and labor regimen, unwillingness and/or inability to do the work, uprisings, runaways and suicides.
To solve this problem, in 1455, the Pope passed the papal bull edict stating, “You are authorized to reduce to servitude all infidel people.” Infidel people were defined non-Christians. This sentiment hit the continent of Afrika very hard, with the process later becoming a racial enterprise. This set in motion the beginning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade; illegally transporting millions of Afrikans to the Americas and West Indies for almost three hundred years.
The Spanish, who dominated the West for a time, did not call their enslaved Afrikans by the name of the nation or continent they belonged to, accept to record where they were captured or bought. They described them by the color of their skin. In the Spanish language, ‘Negro’ means black. Over the centuries, enslaved Afrikans were completely transformed into the human beings plantation owners wanted them to be. They adopted many of the same terms used by Europeans to describe themselves. Negro was used to describe a slave; being a slave was Negro; being Negro was a slave.
Unfortunately, people of Afrikan descent, up until the last three decades, knowingly and unknowingly, used this term as a symbol of pride, even naming some of their most cherished organizations with this term, giving witness that a slave tradition still existed. Collective descriptions of people are usually associated with their land of origin. There has yet to be found a Negroland. Every term possible has been used to avoid the only term that properly describes Black people, Afrikan. Min. Malcolm, in the 1960s, educated us to our root name, though many continued to resist, and fell subject to the terminology deemed acceptable by plantation owners and European colonizers.
Centuries of negative propaganda, books, articles, and films related to Afrika and its people caused this. While of elementary school age, a white boy, thinking he was cursing me, called me a “Black Afrikan.” At the time, that was equivalent to the infamous ‘n’ word. Even today, many people of Afrikan descent will cringe if called an Afrikan. This is due to lack of knowledge. Of course, if born in America, one is considered an American citizen, today that is; this was not always true for Afrikan people. It does not define one’s ancestral origin. The term American Afrikan, American born Afrikan, accurately describes the twoness of the geographical realities.
Every level of scholarship, not necessarily in this manner, states that the Creator decided that the original human beings would be Afrikans, and that all human beings evolved from Afrikan people. Realizing that civilization started in Afrika: philosophy, science, mathematics, medicine, architecture, agriculture, spiritual thought, along with a host of other human gifts, can restore a person of Afrikan descent’s concept of self, and completely eradicate any sense of collective inferiority or low self-esteem. Knowing that virtually all world cultures owe some aspect of their existence to Afrika can resurrect a worldview entirely different from the European-centered orientation most have been educated in. Those facts allow the mind to open to the possibility of feeling what it is like to begin to understand what it is to be Afrikan, while also understanding that this begins with a spiritual core. Until that happens, too many of us will grin and shuffle along, actualizing the world’s most meaningless term: Negro.
Dr. Kwaku’s 90 minute documentary, Afrikan World Civilizations, will screen Sunday, May 21, featuring the history, culture and accomplishments of black people around the world, at the Malcolm X Festival, Audubon Middle School, Los Angeles. Admission free.