Republished with the permission of Dr. James Arnett from his blog.
The Western history of Africa is full of aporiae.
“Africa has literature?”
I was working out at the gym a few weeks ago, during the local high school kids’ summer/Christmas break. That meant that a few conscientious, vain, and bored young men put in their appearance at the gym. One was a particularly serious specimen, and one day he tapped me on the shoulder.
“How old are you?” he asked with the blithe confidence of privileged youth.
“Older than you think I should be,” I responded.
“So, like, what, 28? 30?”
God bless you, child.
“And what are you doing here?” he continued, confident of his right to ask, and to know.
I’m teaching at NUST, down the road. The National University of Science and Technology, I clarified, since I’d ceased being surprised that white Zimbabweans were surprised that there was a legitimate university in town.
“What do you teach there?”
Well, I’m researching African literature, and teach that back in the States.
He looked genuinely puzzled. “But there can’t be much of that, is there? I mean, they’ve only known how to read for a few decades.”
I’ve gotten used to all manners of ignorances in all manners of places – at home in Tennessee, here in Zimbabwe. But that one still threw me for a loop. It occurred to me that a goodly number of white Zimbabweans receive little to no information at all about their fellow citizens, or their home’s long history. For many, history began with the arrival of the white settler column from South Africa. Because, fuck, Hegel said that Africa had no history, was outside of history. And because racism. And because privilege and private education. And because white people here, like white people everywhere, can live in absolutely conscious ignorance of their neighbours by pretending that they don’t actually meaningfully exist.
One of the wonders of the world is located here in Zimbabwe. A few, if you’re counting UNESCO World Heritage sites. There’s Mana Pools National Park – unspoiled wilderness tucked in the northeast of the country. Victoria Falls, one of the seven wonders of the natural world, thunders in the northwestern corner of the country. Khami Ruins, home to the diaspora cast out after the dissolution of Great Zimbabwe, near Bulawayo. And, of course, Great Zimbabwe.
Great Zimbabwe was “discovered” by Europeans at the end of the 19th century, by a man named Carl Mauch, which sounds like an awful lot like “Karl Marx” when a Zimbabwean says it. Zimbabwe, the country, takes its name from this site, whose name in Shona was “dzimbabhwe,” or house made of stone. (See Mawuna Koutonin’s remarkably thorough post detailing the history of the History of Great Zimbabwe: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/aug/18/great-zimbabwe-medieval-lost-city-racism-ruins-plundering).
Great Zimbabwe was settled between 1250AD and 1850AD, roughly, give or take a century or two. What remains lifts out of the plains of Masvingo Province, south of Lake Mutirikwe, among the great grey granite whalebacks that hump out of the surrounding plain and determine the flow of seasonal rivers. Great Zimbabwe was home to a settled culture of pre-Shona people, and inhabited three major complexes spread out at the site – a Hill Complex, where the King resided and the royal court was held; a Valley Complex, where more common people lived; and the Great Enclosure, the most complete set of ruins, home to the famous conical tower of Great Zimbabwe, and home to the junior wives of the King.
The architecture at the site is dry construction stonework. Granite was broken up when they set hot fires around an outcrop, superheating the rock before dousing it with cold water, creating almost instant exfoliation in the granite, which could then be hewn into roughly rectangular bricks. These bricks were carefully piled and arranged in thick walls without mortar, relying on design and gravity to keep the walls standing in place. In the Great Enclosure, the complete wall is 11 meters high – and more than a meter thick – and the small gaps in the carefully arranged walls reveal layers of other, carefully arranged stones behind those. There are drainage runnels carved into the stone flooring, and small pockets at the bottom of the wall to allow water to run out – showing tremendous foresight. The Conical Tower of the Great Enclosure is staunchly impressive, with a regular, bricked facade and great height.
For decades after the site was “discovered,” white European archaeologists discovered a host of well-made iron tools, delicate goldwork, blue and white porcelain, glass beads, Portuguese coins, Chinese jewelry, Arabic filigree. Great Zimbabwe was obviously a deeply cosmopolitan site – in spite of being located hundreds of miles in from the East Coast of Africa, it did heavy trade with a range of powerful mid-CE trading partners.
But for decades after the site was “discovered,” it became a pet theory of archaeologists that, given that these were the most accomplished and ambitious city ruins “discovered” in Africa, they were somehow exceptionally unAfrican, which is to say, not Black. It was initially thought that the ruins were of the Bible’s Queen of Sheba, or that it was built by far-ranging Phoenicians. These ideas retained currency in colonial Rhodesia well after archaeologists had proven the ruins the work of the forebears of the Shona people in Zimbabwe.
Susan Buck-Morss, the American historian, explains that “When national histories are conceived of as self-contained, or when the separate aspects of history are treated in disciplinary isolation, counterevidence is pushed to the margins as irrelevant. The greater the specialization of knowledge, the more advanced the level of research, the longer and more venerable the scholarly tradition, the easier it is to ignore the discordant facts” (Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History 22). Rhodesia was a defensive state to begin with, grounded in apparent dispossession and a quieter apartheid than its neighbour to the south. Rhodesia saw itself, like Kenya, and other Anglo-African settler colonies, as a besieged minority struggling valiantly to bring civilization to a place where there was none. So its national identity cohered around a rejection of the values of Black culture, history, aesthetics, architecture. Great Zimbabwe could not, therefore, be Black.
In the schema of white racism, the pyramids in Egypt must have been built by ancient aliens instead of by the real and darker, you know, historical Egyptians. The schema of white racism has turned the History Channel into a production that it is 40% ancient aliens, and 60% Hitler porn.
It’s hackneyed to say we need Black History Month because all of the other months are basically White History Month, even if it’s true. But we need Black History Month because for too long, whitefolk have imagined that History is their domain, a narrative of triumphalist, messianic progress that has erupted in Their Benign Supremacy. Lots of this is Hegel’s fault, and his Philosophy of History is a foundational white supremacist document that has paraded as a benign philosophical text for too long. It asserted that Africa was “outside of” History, untouched by it, and this casually racist shove-aside did a lot of labour in the defense of European colonialism and violence for the past couple of centuries.
Buck-Morss seeks to fundamentally challenge this Eurocentricity by arguing that the Haitian Revolution was not just a paradigmatically “modern” event (it is normally excluded from being so in narratives that prize the French Revolution and the American Revolution for their contributions to political science and philosophy), but that it was the very first such modern event. Because of the Haitian Revolution, she explains, “radical antislavery” became a universal inheritance, and as such, a foundational historical force. Thus, the Haitian Revolution was indeed the very thesis of universal history; “Universal history engages in a double liberation, of the historical phenomena and of our own imagination: by liberating the past we liberate ourselves. The limits to our imagination need to be taken down brick by brick, chipping away at the cultural embedededness that predetermines the meaning of the past in ways that hold us captive in the present” (149). Her organic use of the “brick by brick” metaphor accords powerfully with the materiality of Great Zimbabwe. Narratives of white supremacy – in all forms, especially in the teleological narratives of white triumphalism – need to be chipped away at through active labour. “Nothing keeps history univocal but power,” Buck-Morss reminds us (150).
“How dare Others have the audacity to excel in spite of the very supremacist construction of the discourse of History itself?”
A successfully polemical blog post [http://siliconafrica.com/terra-nullius/] went viral a few years ago, promising to detail the 100 African Cities that Europeans plundered, destroyed, displaced, refused to acknowledge, etc – and was handsomely compiled. It was an effective document, and remarkable in its fluency with panAfrican histories and historiographies. It sought to explain why there was so little evidence standing in the present of Africa’s great and tumultuous human history. After all, much of the justification for the colonizing of Africa was in line with Conrad’s Marlowe’s “blank spot on the map,” the presupposition of the absence of meaningful History in Africa. So much of this was cynically grounded in the apparent absence of proof of civilization in Africa – too few ruins of great cities, nothing like the monumental sprees of the Greeks and Romans, hewing everything out of stark stone, etc. But this impulse, to evaluate the value of a civilization by the permanence of their artifacts, or the endurance of their mythos, is ludicrous, Buck-Morss explains,
For the other great Hegelian inheritance with regards to history is his belief in its teleological self-perfection – that the progress of civilization as History is a narrative of rarification and advancement. This is a much-beloved and rarely-acknowledged bias of the present, to imagine with the aid of Faux Darwin that existence, presence, is proof of power and perfection/perfecting.
In other words, History needs to be fundamentally rethought. And we need to liberate ourselves from the blinders of History to the broader spaces of histories; recognizing multiplicity, diversity, variability and ingenuity, are all crucial to a reimagination of collective self-narrations. For this, Buck-Morss issues a call to action:
“The fight to free the facts from the collective histories in which they were embedded is
one with exposing and expanding the porosity of the global social field, where individual
experience is not so much hybrid as human.” (149)
[read more – Black Panther spoiler alerts]
“Wakanda has hoverboards?”
Just before the white CIA officer, Everett Ross, is entrusted with shooting down a cargo ship filled with advanced technology destined for poor African countries, he looks at Shuri, Wakandan Tech Goddess, when she asks him to fly their advanced stealth plane. “It’s just like riding a hoverboard,” she says. “Wakanda has hoverboards?” he asks, incredulous.
One of the gambits of Wakanda in the Black Panther movie mythology is that it cloaks itself as a backwards, humble, and uninteresting African country in order to protect its wild riches. Their proactive defense against centuries of colonialism is to pretend that they have nothing worth stealing, even as they sit on the most potent resource in the world. The illusion is distressingly easy to maintain, although we don’t ever see the workings of the mechanism itself – which projects a hologram of labouring peasants on top of their stunningly developed capital city. Ulysses Klaue, the stand-in for white African colonial expropriators, has a hard time trying to convince anyone that Wakanda is worth stealing from, and so does it himself – a kind of modern-day Rhodes. While we stare at Wakanda in its generic pan-Afro-futurist glory, the movie riffs on our refusal to believe in the marvels we see. In fact, the whole movie is premised in this: that there is Black excellence and greatness amongst us that is perpetually refused or unacknowledged, and which is ultimately only useful inasmuch as it can be put to the service of the perpetuation of exploitative, extractive neo-colonial capitalism.
Wakanda is real/not real. It is the concentrated manifestation of the possibility of the realization of Black excellence without the active interference of pernicious racist ideologies. It allegorizes the tremendous wealth contained in Africa – and in its creditor relation to the rest of the world via the mechanisms of global capitalist extraction, which offshores and appropriates African wealth.
The movie Black Panther is important. One of its most powerful statements is in the presentation of its world: it is a world inhabited by black African peoples, aloof from neo-colonialist or white supremacist machinations on its “development” or “progress.” Much of the celebratory rhetoric around Black Panther revolves around “seeing”: seeing a world of Black people, seeing a world of African technological advancement, seeing strong Black women in positions of self-determination and power.
“Wakanda has hoverboards?” Everett Ross asks, surrounded by a host of other supremely advanced technologies, beneficiary himself of vibranium’s life-saving properties. Is he blind? Like, no, really, is he? I’d have to rewatch to gauge the degree of irony there, and the line is delivered as a punchline, but it’s a bitter pill to swallow. The persistence of white disbelief in Black excellence in spite of all evidence to the contrary: what a familiar trope! “Africans can’t have built that,” it was so fashionable for so long to say of Great Zimbabwe. How dare they, in other words? How dare Others have the audacity to excel in spite of the very supremacist construction of the discourse of History itself?