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American Democracy Through African Eyes

Africa Map Photo by James Wiseman on Unsplash

When I hear of yet another ruling prohibiting the mention of the words race or slavery, I begin feeling queasy. I think back to 21 years ago when a white colleague informed me that my use of the word liberation was outdated. It was a throw-back to a bygone era. Blacks, this white woman informed me, were no longer in need of liberation.

In her, I recognized a woman reluctant to move forward. What knowledge did she possess in her arsenal to challenge not just those whom she would identify as outliers, white supremacist, with or without their white robes and hoods, but also those who looked like her? Who spoke like her of being a friend to others? Did she recognize her privilege as an American, and an inheritor of a dream denied to people who looked like me and whose ancestors labored, in bygone years, on plantations in the so-called New World? Frozen in her tracks, she believed she had arrived at a wish-for destiny. Perhaps, she had! Ironically, her allusion to Black people no longer in need of any further liberation from white supremacy might be true.

In Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War(2021), the professor of journalism, Howard French, writes that the site of forgetting “has been the minds of the people in the rich world.” Born in Blackness is an account of that “forgotten European contests over control of the African bounty that built the modern world.” Any account of the forgotten includes the “violent exploitation of people extracted from Africa” and taken to the New World to labor on notorious plantations—for the benefit of generating wealth for western nations.

Africa, writes French, becomes “a big net recipient of ideas” that flowed to Europe. As Toni Morrison noted, Africa was the land where “whites went for self-realization, self-discovery, and loot,” “The Foreigner’s Home,” in The Source of Self-Regard. It’s only a matter of time before the “brutal arrangement” of a global economy sets into motion the birth of the “‘modern’” world.

To research for his book, French first follows the maps, beginning with the 1339 map that survives today. Named after the cartographer, Angelino Dulcert, the Dulcert map, writes French, served as the founding document for the “so-called Majorcan school” of cartography as it would launch “what would become the Age of Discovery” for the whole of Africa.

In describing Africa, Dulcert's map appeals to veteran and would-be explorers who would land on the coast of Africa and cash in on the treasure troves of gold.

Dulcert’s map, in other words, “depicts the ‘road to the land of the Negroes.’” The appearance of the Dulcert map begins the process of disappearing the lived experience of Africa, Africans, and their descendants.

Cartographers, after Dulcert, map out the world according to the location of gold. By the time of the Catalan Atlas, it was the mapmakers guiding European royalty to “the world’s greatest source of the precious metal.” And the European explorers landed, and, through the prism of greed, saw not only the gold, but humans who could be made to labor, globally.

In the following century, Portugal, writes French, “won Church-sanctioned control of all of Sub-Saharan Africa” while Spain was granted control of over the Canary Islands. In time, Portugal could brag of “obtaining 8000 ounces of gold annually” from the castle at Elmina. The Vatican-brokered deal meant that Portugal, in the long run, “became the much more powerful engine of modernity.”

Traveling forward to the door of no return, French finds himself sitting at the airport in Lisbon, experiencing an “uncomfortable” layover. Aircraft, arriving and departing at their gates, he writes, proudly displayed “their fat bellies…emblazoned with the name of the country’s most celebrated men of discovery…Bartholomew Dias, Vasco de Gama, Fernão de Megalhães (Ferdinand Megellan), and Padro Álvares Cabral.” A traveler among travelers, he recognizes the names of 17th Century “explorers” and “discovers.” Landing along the coastal area known as the Blight, these were the conquerors who captured “nearly half a million people.” Half a million Africans! His ancestors! Yet the names of the ancestors were lost in this recasting of heroes.

“I would be remiss,” writes French, “if I didn’t make clear that the most egregious forms of historical erasure do not involve an assortment of mostly small, former slave-trading or plantation societies scattered around the Atlantic Rim.” Yet, brick and mortar structure, the castle named Elmina exist still today. In the 15th Century, the Portuguese castle was the site of cruel practices.

“From atop the steep hill that overlooks it, Elmina today is the very picture of a sleepy African town,” writes French. Isabella and Ferdinand encouraged expeditions to this castle in search of more loot: “the fabulous wealth pouring forth from this region.” Ships arrived on a regular basis filling their holds with gold. “Framed at its simplest,” writes French, “gold had led the Portuguese to slaves, and slaves drove the expansion of a lucrative new industry, sugar, which would transform the world like few products have in history, and in doing so would also produce one of the history’s greatest human tolls.”

Today, visitors tour “the castle’s breezy upper floors.” But, in the dungeons below, writes French, there’s a famous sign that reads: “‘Door of No Return.’” The kidnapped Africans wouldn’t have been able to read the sign in Portuguese or English, but they would have known their entrance in the castle as Black people meant they were no longer seen by their captors as autonomous human beings. I have been to Africa but never to such a site. I imagine fellow descendants of these Africans lingering in the now empty dungeons and, as if magically, the empty space becomes overwhelmed with what Morrison called the “unspeakable.”

The Africans would be sent off on a journey in the opposite direction, boarding in shackles, ships bound for “the Caribbean, Brazil or, later, Britain’s North American colonies.” This unspeakable violence, sets “in motion all that followed, from the New World discoveries of Spain to the launching of plantation economies that almost literally vacuumed up enchained Africans for shipment off to the far shores of Atlantic.” Yet, as French observes, the castle at Elmina today is “reduced to a mnemonic of slavery,” without any mention of “the gold trade at all.”

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French discovers a similar situation at São Tomé, an island off the coast of West Africa. Plantations there “were designed for and run exclusively on the basis of the violent domination of Black African slave labor.” Think “chattel slavery.” Here, writes French is the first site “for the conversion of Black men and women into chattel.” Here is where the “first Portuguese shipments of commoditized slaves from Africa to the New World took place.” Here is where slavery is racialized.

French reminds us that the accumulation of gold from this site of violence secured the purchase of more Africans to labor in the development of the sugar and cotton industries.Yet, French writes, tourists can drive around São Tomé, “searching in vain for prominent landmarks or public memorialization of this history.”

Portugal wasn’t alone in the looting. The Spain-funded expedition landed a lost Columbus in the New World. Back in Europe, royalty and explorers saw gold in their mind’s eye. The Indigenous inhabitants were slaughtered at will, if they weren’t overcome by disease. The Dutch, a rival of Portuguese royalty, controlled colonies in “present-day Massachusetts to Delaware, then known as New Netherlands, and New York, then New Amsterdam.”

Meanwhile, in the English-speaking New World, the frenzy surrounding the production of sugar in Barbados led “civil authorities” to decree in 1636 a rule, writes French, “that became common in chattel system throughout the hemisphere.” In other words, enslaved Africans would remain “in bondage for life.” By 1661, the Black codes made it so that Black people had no protection from abuse by law. “Antigua, Jamaica, South Carolina, and, ‘indirectly,’ Georgia adopted it [the Black codes] in its entirety, while the laws of many other English colonies were modeled after it.”

Thanks to free labor, profit-making became an obsession among the aristocracy as well as the merchant class. Black bodies laboring, suffering, and dying on the sugar and cotton plantations gave birth to new ideas.

In turn, adding sugar to the English diet, French writes, generates a cuisine, of sorts, consisting of “cakes and tarts.” Tasty treats at the dinner table. Tradable treats at market. Sugar paved the way for caffeine-containing beverages, including cocoa and tea. It’s 1650 when the first coffee shops opened for business in Oxford. In Germany, newspapers made their first appearance just in time for Europeans to read the latest news while sipping tea or coffee.

The darkness of dungeons, ship holds, and slave markets receded while the brightly lit public spheres, landmarks of “civilized” nations, gave citizens permission to meet and talk about anything other than the peculiar business that helped build the ground on which they sat to chat. Ultimately what emerged during the Enlightenment, writes French, is “a richly enhanced shared sense of public affair and citizen participation.”

In the US, how many public spaces, churches, school, recreation centers, and municipal buildings, for example, came into existence through free Black labor?

Some 12.5 million Africans survived the transatlantic voyage to the New World. “Another 6 million Africans are thought to have left the continent by human trafficking via North Africa, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean,” writes French. As for those who perished, scholars estimate that as many perished as survived the transatlantic passage. “Taking into account the number of Africans who died aboard the floating tombs that ferried them across the Atlantic, perhaps as few as 42 percent of the people ensnared into the trade survived long enough to undergo sale in the New World.”

And then the migration if millions of enslaved Blacks from the Upper Southern states to the sugar and cotton plantations was roughly, writes French, “twice the number of Blacks who had been landed in British North America from Africa.” Of these unfortunate beings, they were “marched or shipped” further South, adding to their misery. And the death toll. This migration was “a mass deportation,” French explains, “that ensnared more Black people than the number of whites who undertook the wagon train settlement of the American West.” 

Born in Blackness doesn’t end with the exploits of the Portuguese explorers. Portugal’s long voyage to the New World results in the establishment of brutal plantations in Brazil. Other European nations followed, landing and cashing in on the gold and the profits to be gained from the sweat of Blacks working in the sugar fields. Spanish, French, and English plantations in the Caribbean, particularly in Barbados, only recently “freed” from the United Kingdom’s monarchy, served to maintain the rule of white supremacy in a majority diverse world.

French has miles yet to travel as he traces the sites where Europe’s and the New World’s dreams of wealthy depended upon the degradation and subjugation of Black people.

The legacy of this era of atrocities lives on in the 21st Century. How else to explain the fear felt by law enforcement when a Black, for example, dares to drive or jog or sleep in the US? What is the reason newly created obstacles for voting disproportionately target Black Americans?

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It’s no doubt that a change is in order. Liberation from anti-democratic forces is in order. The US, in particular, the world’s most influential nation, must find a way to liberate itself from the sanctioning of collective amnesia. French concludes that the sooner America understands “the large and foundational role that slavery played in creating American power and prosperity” the better it will be for a country, spiraling away from democracy.

Fascism is knocking!

Lenore Daniels