African-American Studies: The Origin of Racism

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In his article “The Origin of Racism”, Dibay Tadesse tries to the best of his knowledge, both studied and experienced, to share his understanding of the genesis of racism mainly in the American context. He gives a good account of the cradle of Black people or African-Americans and their origins in Africa. He traces their arrival particularly in the Americas back to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade that took place over the course of four centuries – from the 16th to the 19th Century.

Most importantly, Tadesse points out that no one has ever disputed the fact that Africa is the birthplace of Africans and the black race. The genesis of racism, he points out, began with the attitude that other races, particularly European scholars, have had toward the African race. At the top of his list, there is their stripping of Africa’s achievements and refusing to credit its successes. He points out that European scholars and historians have denied for a long a time that Africa is the birthplace of humanity and civilization even though firm evidence validated this and held their assertions to the contrary.

Where did racism against Africans take root? Tadesse argues that even after coming to accept that Africans were indeed human beings (they were previously considered sub-human), the European scholars found it difficult to believe that Africans could be responsible for any remarkable forms of civilization (Hatt, 2007). The negative outlook by the European academicians and scholars that placed Africans below the conventional human beings is thus attributed to two historical events, which are the aforementioned Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the European colonization of Africa in the 19th Century.

The Trans-Atlantic slave trade alone resulted in the forceful translocation of millions of Africans to provide cheap labor in the plantations of the New World as slaves. This was part of the dehumanizing facets of racism meted against the African races. Tadesse does not provide the exact numbers of how many Aricans were brought to the New World as a result of these fateful historical injustices, but some sources estimate that between 10 and 28 million Africans were forcefully plucked from the African continent (Hatt, 2007). The BBC estimates that 12 million people were shipped through the brutal and infamous Middle Passage of the Atlantic to the Americas.

As the Africans were subjected to the merciless whips of their slave masters in the New World, Tadesse notes that over a hundred books about Africa and its people appeared in Europe, but did the authors do the Africans any justice as human beings? He disagrees. Some of the authors, he notes, were themselves slavers and had vested interest in the slave trade; therefore, they only served to fuel stereotypes and ridiculous myths to continue dehumanizing the Africans. Tadesse quotes writers such as John Houston who described Africans as “exactly resemble their fellow creatures and natives, the monkeys”. The famous philosopher David Hume was none the better with his racist reference to Africans as “naturally inferior to the white”. Today, we still have footballers of the African descent having bananas thrown at them to insinuate they are monkeys?

In his argument, however, Taddese fails to show what exactly vested interests the cited writers had in the slave trade and keeping slaves. He still remembers to highlight the reality showing that as Africans suffered under the yoke of slavery, the free labor formed the backbone of the prosperity of the capitalist European and American societies. According to Tadese, these same writers, philosophers, and historians were not ignorant of the achievements of the Africans but willfully chose to demean them.

The splendor of the ancient African civilization such as the kingdoms of Axum, Songhai, Ghana, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe were all well known, but these historians from their pedestal of racism chose to push the knowledge that would otherwise elevate the status of the Black man to the sidelines. In fact, though the author does not cite this, Ethiopians beat the coloniallist and were never colonized. The author still manages to field a strong lineup of the respected European scholars who, despite their depth of knowledge and respect they commanded in the scholarly circles, showed their warped and biased attitude that outshone their intellect.

Remarkably, Tadese has done his research well going by the quotes he manages to marshal. He ably points out that even in the 20th Century, white scholars continue to display unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of African history. For example, Prof. Trevor-Roper, Regius professor at Oxford University, is quoted in 1963 as saying, “Nowadays, undergraduates demand that they should be taught African History.  Perhaps in the future there will be some African History to teach. However, at the present, there is none; there is only the history of Europeans in Africa.  The rest is darkness, and darkness is not a subject of history…”

Likewise, anthropologists and historians, as the writer demonstrates, have continued to deny the presence of an African past. Instead, they have clung to the notion that African history can only be written within the context of the European colonization in the 19th Century (from 1885 onwards). On the other hand, anthropologists who have attempted some research on Africans have often singled out remotely isolated African communities (which they call ‘tribes’) perhaps in the hope to find material that was close to their stereotypical “backward” African society. The writer notes that these anthropologists cleverly avoided highlighting the complex and highly advanced African civilization like that of Ethiopia, Mali, Songhai, and Axum instead skewing their studies to propagate the assertion that developed civilizations in Africa had a lot to do with Hamitic (or European) influences. For example, Ethiopians are said to be of Semitic origin (to imply they are of Middle Eastern extraction not African) yet their language and Geez alphabet have been in existence in Africa between 2000-5000 BC with no trace of the same in the Middle East (Hatt, 2007).

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