A continuation of my previous post series. As always terms are as I personally use them, not necessarily how they’re commonly understood: Continue reading Some notes on how I use common terms 6
(reposted from Ayanna’s http://www.rootswomen.com/ayanna/articles/10022004.html)
Islam, Colourism and the Myth of Black African Slave Traders
February 10, 2004
Africans in the Diaspora have the challenge of rewriting a history that has been stained by years of distortions, omission and downright lies. One of the biggest challenges of rewriting this history has been the Atlantic Slave Trade, and one of the biggest sore points has been the idea that “Black Africans sold their own into slavery”. A lack of information, a paucity of expansive scholarship and an unwillingness to have a serious discourse on Colourism as it existed in Africa even before European intervention, has contributed to this. Diaspora Africans are often quite naïve and will do anything to hold fast to the illusion that ” we are all Africans” and ignore the racism that has existed among a group that is far from uniform.
In looking at the issue of Colourism I could not help seeing the links between the role of Islam in Africa and the role of Africans in the slave trade. The book, Islam and the Ideology of Slavery by John Ralph Willis is very helpful in looking at the almost imperceptible link between the enslavement of ‘kufir’ non-Muslims or infidels, and the belief that Black Africans were not only heathens but inherently inferior. This is not a new thought and certainly not one that originated with the Muslims coming into Africa. Several Jewish exegetical texts have their own version of the mythical Curse of Ham being blackness. Given the common origins of these two major religions, it is thus not surprising that both Jews and Muslims played some of the most important roles in the enslavement of Black Africans next to the Europeans.
In an article by Oscar L. Beard, Consultant in African Studies called, Did We Sell Each Other Into Slavery? he says “Even the case of Tippu Tip may well fall into a category that we might call the consequences of forced cultural assimilation via White (or Red) Arab Conquest over Africa. Tippu Tip’s father was a White (or Red) Arab slave raider, his mother an unmixed African slave. Tip was born out of violence, the rape of an African woman. It is said that Tip, a “mulatto”, was merciless to Africans.”
The story of Tippu Tip who is one of the most widely known slave traders has always posed a problem for historians, especially Afrocentric historians in the Diaspora trying to find some way to reconcile themselves to the idea of an ‘African slave trader’. The fact that Tippu Tip was not only Muslim, but ‘mulatto’ is vital. The common ideology of Judaism and Islam where Black Africans are concerned is certainly no secret. While in some Islamic writings we see an almost mystical reverence for Africans, especially an over sexualized concept of Ethiopian women who were the preferred concubines of many wealthy Arab traders and Kings, in others there is distinct racism. Add to this the religious fervor of the Muslim invaders, their non-acceptance or regard for traditional African religions, and the obvious economic and political desires for which religion was used as a tool, and we get an excellent but little spoken of picture of Islam in Africa.
Historians did not often record or think of the ethnicity of these ‘Africans’ who sold their brothers and sisters into slavery. As part of our distorted historical legacy, we too in the Diaspora buy the idea that all Africans were uniform and ‘brothers’, but the true picture, especially at this time was not so. Centuries of contact with Europe, Asia, North Africa produced several colour / class gradients in the continent, divisions fostered by the foreigners. This may have been especially prominent in urban and economic centres. When we combine the converting, military force of Islam sweeping across western and eastern Africa placing a virtual economic stranglehold on villages and trading centers that were Kufir, with the intermixing of lighter-skinned Muslim traders from the North and East Africa creating an unprecedented population of mixed, lighter skinned Africans who began to form the elites of the trading classes we can see how a society begins to change.
Some historians have tended to downplay, or completely ignore the potential for change in scenario. It has even been suggested that one cannot transplant a modern day problem outside of its historical context. However, we see this creeping problem of colourism occurring all over the continent. In the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique where European traders and administrators were encouraged to intermarry, the elitist, trader class was largely Mulatto and Catholic. If we look at the situation in Ethiopia with the age-old oppression of the original Ethiopians, the Oromo of indigenous Cushitic stock, by the more Arabized Amhara this too has its roots in colour prejudice. There were hints of this occurring in many other instances at crucial points of contact between indigenous black Africans and lighter-skinned foreigners or mixed Africans and the most significant of these were in the areas of severe Islamic incursion.
Many towns and villages converted to Islam because of the protection that the military banner of Islam could offer them in a changing economic, political and social landscape. But the more damaging result was the many light skinned, converted Africans, children of mixed encounters that now felt a sense of superiority over their dark skinned, black African counterparts. Colourism is indeed of ancient vintage. The truth of the matter is that fair skinned Arabs’ racist attitude towards Blacks existed even before they invaded Africa. The evidence for this can be found in how they dealt with the Black inhabitants of Southern Arabia before they entered Africa as Muslims. Discerning readers and thinkers can look at this and many other accounts of this time and get a clearer picture of the inherent racism of this situation. When we combine this with the desire for African slave labour by Europeans it was no large feat for these often lighter skinned, Islamized Africans to enslave the black kufir, whom they barely endowed with a shred of humanity. And of course jumping on their bandwagon would have been those black Africans with deep inferiority complexes, who would have been only too eager to do the duty of the ‘superior’ Muslims in an effort to advance themselves. These facts are certainly not hidden and the patterns are everywhere, even today but it is we who do not like to see. For centuries we certainly have not been conditioned for Sight.
This leads us to another direct way colourism played itself out in the slave trade and this is in the ‘type’ of Africans who were enslaved. The biggest victims of slavery were undoubtedly the darkest Africans of what was called the “Negroid” type. If you look at old maps and documents by early European explorers you can note that the parts of the continent that they explored was divided by their crude definitions of what they saw as different African ethnicities. The regions of West and Central Africa were seen as the place of the “Negroes” which was distinct from Ethiopian Africans and even more so the lighter, more Arabized North Africans. We cannot say that NO Africans we taken from the north, but by and large most slaves that came to the West Indies, Americas etc were of the type mentioned above.
Beard continues, “In reality, slavery is an human institution. Every ethnic group has sold members of the same ethnic group into slavery. It becomes a kind of racism; that, while all ethnic groups have sold its own ethnic group into slavery, Blacks can’t do it. When Eastern Europeans fight each other it is not called tribalism. Ethnic cleansing is intended to make what is happening to sound more sanitary. What it really is, is White Tribalism pure and simple.” But the thing is that this thing we call ‘slavery’ never was a uniform institution. When people speak of slavery they immediately think of chattel slavery as practiced as a result of the Atlantic Slave Trade and apply this definition to indigenous African servitude systems, which bore little or no resemblance to chattel slavery. It is misleading to say, “Every ethnic group has sold members of the same ethnic group into slavery. It becomes a kind of racism; that, while all ethnic groups have sold its own ethnic group into slavery, Blacks can’t do it” as it denies the complexities of that particular colonial, chattel slavery situation that existed between Africans and Europeans.
Servitude systems that existed in Africa, and in other indigenous communities cannot be compared to racist slave systems in the Western world and to this day we attempt to try to see this slavery in the same context. People bring up accounts of Biblical slavery, of serfdom in Europe and yes, of servitude in Africa and attempt to paint all these systems with the same brush. However NO OTHER SLAVE SYSTEM has created the never-ending damaging cycle as the Atlantic Slave Trade. West Indian poet Derek Walcott has stated his feeling that our penchant for forgetting is a defense mechanism against pain, that if we were to take a good hard look at our history, at centuries of victimization, it would be too much for us to handle and we would explode. Well I say we are exploding anyway and in many cases from bombs that are not even our own. We have begun the long hard road of rewriting our ancient history, of recovering our old and noble legacy. Let us not stop and get cold feet now when the enemy now appears to take on a slightly darker hue. We must look at the slave trade in its OWN context, complete with all the historic and psychological peculiarities that have made it the single most damaging and enduring system of exploitation and hatred ever perpetrated in the recent memory of mankind. Until we do we will not escape its legacy.
Did We Sell Each Other Into Slavery?
A Commentary by Oscar L. Beard, Consultant in African Studies 24 May 1999
Charles Darwin in his youth
This is a question believers in his theory of evolution, both scientists and laypeople alike, like to dismiss as an irrelevant or misleading point. It gets very little if any media attention, far less than the overall theory at hand, ie. that all biological life forms gradually and incrementally changed over the millions of years from a primordial soup (inanimate) to all the different forms that exist now, and more that existed before. Despite how widely referenced and believed his theory is, and the number of times it’s called scientific fact, there is no real evidence to support it. It’s just a theory, but I will restrict myself specifically to the racism therein. When the topic of Darwin’s racism does come up, however, some common defences are regurgitated:
- Some claim however racist he MIGHT have been, his contemporaries were worse – true but irrelevant because the discussion isn’t about his peers. The way that point is used is to excuse or hide it, as if others’ crimes make one’s own OK.
- Some claim that 1- he wasn’t racist at all and 2- the parts of his theory that have been used to support racism were used by other people with their own agendas and interpretations. In other words, taken out of context. This point is false, both 1 & 2, as will be shown below.
- Some claim that racism has existed long before Darwin – true but also irrelevant. Darwin didn’t start racism, not even scientific racism, but he did maintain and support it. Whether that was deliberate or not is debatable.
- It’s also claimed that he wasn’t racist because he was against slavery. While it is TRUE he was against slavery in theory, he did nothing to oppose it. Back then, as is still the case now, if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem. Furthermore, this doesn’t negate his racism, as will be explained below.
OK that’s enough. You can stop now.
There is a multitude of evidence to show that he was racist. Not just in his private life, but that racism is also part & parcel of his theory.
- In Chapter 7 of his book The Descent of Man he describes the “Negro” (ie. ‘black’ African) & the “Australian” (‘black’ Aborigine, not ‘white’) as occupying an intermediary position between gorillas & the “Caucasian” (ie. ‘white’ European).
(On a point of fact, this is what led to the extermination of the Aboriginal Tasmanians & subsequent digging up of their skulls to be displayed in British museums as proofs of their supposed intermediary position. It was also the inspiration for human zoos, the most famous victim being Ota Benga but that deserves its own post.)
- In that same chapter he hopes that “Caucasians” will soon evolve into something even higher and break his link to the great apes (& “Negroes” & “Australians”).
This is the hierarchy Darwin believed in (he didn’t draw this, it was made by Josiah Clark Nott & George Robins Gliddon, 1857). Note how the “Negro’s” jaw is ridiculously elongated, to make us look more ape-like than apes!
- In that same book he ponders over the concept of a race war, whether it’d be beneficial or not. He then answers yes, because by his theory evolution of the more evolved can only happen if they eliminate their less evolved predecessors. In other words, ethnic cleansing.
- In no uncertain terms he referred to Turks & Irish as “lower races”, and he found it hard to believe Fuegians (people of Tierra del Fuego, island just below Chile) were humans at all.
- As mentioned above, it is true that he was against slavery. However, that’s because he believed it would hinder our evolution because evolution only works under natural conditions. He basically believed that ‘black’ and other non-‘white’ people should be left to evolve into ‘white’ people in their own good time, thus he still saw us as inferior. Even in this very day the theory of evolution says this, though tries to soften the blow by combining it with the Out of Africa theory, thus mixing truth with falsehood.
(Another point of fact: in Mein Kampf, Hitler mentioned that Darwin was his inspiration. And with what he espoused, it’s easy to see why.)
Charles Darwin was definitely not the founder of scientific racism but he became one of its greatest proponents. He was also a main reason for the spread of Nazism, fascism, globalised racism & arguably even plain old capitalism.
Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man.
Human hair naturally comes in different textures:
Afro-haired woman from Nossi-bé, Madagascar
Curly, also called coiled, spiralled or type 3. Though some like to think so, I don’t really think of afro hair (also called kinky, nappy, type 4 and less commonly crisped, woolly, fleecy, frizzy or crinkly) as separate from curly. To me it’s just the extreme end of curly so I refer to it as such, although it too can be divided into further gradations.
Wavy, also called type 2.
Straight, also called wiry, lank or type 1.
This is partially because the follicles they grow from come in different shapes; curly & wavy hair grows from oval follicles, straight from circular ones. However, at least for some, hair naturally changes texture because the hair follicles change shape (though why this happens is unknown). It’s also partially because of the proteins in the hair strands themselves, which are joined together by disulphide bonds. The more of these bonds, the curlier the strand.
Though type 4 hair is most common in indigenous Africans and their diasporic descendants, it is not exclusive to us nor is it the only texture we possess. As for type 1, it is most common in Easians but not exclusive to them nor is it their sole texture. Types 2 & 3 are pretty much the norm everywhere else.
Chinese girl exemplifying type 1 hair
Hair also comes in different colours; black, brown (aka. brunette), orange (aka. ginger), yellow (aka. blond/e) and overlaps. This is because of different amounts of a group of pigments collectively called melanin, of which there are 3 types – black eumelanin (technically isn’t black but very dark brown), brown eumelanin (more obviously brown, like reddish/ chocolate) and phaeomelanin (yellowish-orange). Globally black is the most common hair colour, followed by brown, blond/e and ginger. White and grey hair can result either from old age (during which the hair typically produces less melanin of any kind) or from congenital lessened or aborted melanin production, such as the more extreme forms of albinism.
So what’s all the fuss about? All people naturally have hair, right? Why should a post be made about it?
Well, here’s the deal. For ‘black’ people (especially women nowadays) it is often a self-esteem issue. Our story starts from the trans-Atlantic slave trade (TAST). When ‘white’ people captured Africans one of the first things they did was shave their hair. This may be no big deal to us but in some African belief systems the hair is on the head, and because the head is the highest part of the body it is therefore closest to God. This effectively meant that head hair was a symbol of connection to God. Therefore for the hair to be cut off and discarded like filth was, in a word, traumatising.
However it gets worse. Soon after the slave trade started both ‘white’ and ‘black’ people were being worked like nobody’s business. However, while the elites started passing laws to stop them uniting and rising up they tried to find ways, no matter how trivial or fantastical, to justify the laws. They thus declared Africans to be naturally inferior and fit for eternal service, and one of the MANY ways they ‘evinced’ this was to pass judgments on the differences between Africans and Europeans. Nose shape, skin colour, language differences, lack of Christianity* and the like were all used (and this is also when the negative stereotypes started being invented), but for the purposes of this post we’ll focus on hair texture. The respected scientific minds of the time espoused that our natural hair texture was more bestial (beast-like), suited for jungle & wilderness and overall hideous and revolting. The church authorities agreed, claiming that our hair was part of the curse of Ham – even though the Bible doesn’t mention the nature of this curse.
* This was ignoring the newly converted slaves, and that Christianity came to Africa about 500 years before Europe.
As such, many ‘black’ people were convinced that their natural afro hair was cursed and ugly. They could have tried styling their hair, but as slaves they barely ever had the time and usually just covered it in a headwrap. The only way for them to have hair closer to ‘white’ people’s (what became known as “good hair”, a very common phrase in USA & the Caribbean) was to have children with a ‘white’ person. This meant that either:
1 – ‘Black’ men would have to have children with ‘white’ women (which as far as I know never happened back then. It would’ve been absolutely forbidden and the man could be killed/ mutilated for it), or,
2 – ‘Black’ women would have to have children with ‘white’ men (this was very common, and pretty much always happened without the women’s consent – in other words ‘white’ men raped ‘black’ women and their mulatta children, especially in the southern states of USA. And were never punished because raping ‘black’ women wasn’t considered a crime).
Almost ironically, the ones who worked indoors (who were usually the products of rape anyway and thus had “good hair”) were the ones who had the time to style.
Al Sharpton, ‘black’ man with straightened hair. Yes, even at that age
Even after the TAST was abolished and the Civil War had ended, the psychological damage therefrom was ignored. This damage has been passed down to near enough every member of the African diaspora since. The desire for straight hair gained strength and prominence in mainstream media since the 1900s, when it was considered a sign of prestige and changing from “country” life to city life.
Note: the desire for straightened hair infected the men’s and women’s minds.
This explains why so many subscribe to the belief in euro & mixed hair as good & afro as bad. Obviously not all of us believe it but we all are familiar with it, and most of us know why. The Black Pride movement of the 50s and 60s worked well to counter this damage – for the time being. However it didn’t last and the ‘white’ media pushed the image of straight hair as beautiful with a vengeance. This is why the vast majority of ‘black’ women now either straighten their hair* or wear weaves/ pieces. Funnily enough, ‘black’ men no longer do it (except Al Sharpton) but most of us have been brainwashed into preferring our women with long silky straight hair.
* To do this they can use hot combs, but the much more common – and more damaging – way is chemical straighteners. Some ‘black’ Americans call it creamy crack, because its use is compulsive despite the health problems often brought with it. See Chris Rock’s Good Hair for elucidation, as well as its psychological & financial effects on ‘black’ women. And ‘black’ men, even though most of us don’t use it.
Because of colonialism and globalisation, even many women on the African continent itself (especially in the industrialised areas where Western media flourishes) hide their natural hair texture under blatantly fake weaves. Luckily, natural afro hair is making a comeback throughout the African diaspora, through the sporting of African/ afro-hair-friendly hairstyles or not styling at all. Most ‘black’ women are somewhat scared to do this because they think afro hair doesn’t grow and therefore looks manly. Afro hair can grow to awesome lengths, you just have to know how to look after it.
Even short afro hair looks good and feminine
LONG natural hair
However, there’s another phenomenon taking place. It’s highly counterproductive and I don’t know how prevalent it is so I’m not going to call it a trend, but there are cases of women with naturally non-afro hair (including ‘black’ women) getting it chemically treated to resemble afro hair! What the hell?
But anyway, long story short (tee-hee!), everyone should love their natural hair texture, ‘black’ women especially.