Akala | Oxford Union
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AKALA: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen; how you feeling? Yeah, good? Excellent. Now, I'm gonna presume - seeing as there's not a clicker here waiting for me - that someone's gonna press next slide every time I call for that? Yeah, fantastic.
Okay, so ladies and gentlemen; the subject of the talk today being black history, as the “lost pages of human history”. Actually, the quote itself comes from the great pan-Africanist historian, Dr. John Henrik Clarke; who spoke about black history in this way, and looked at the way in which the history of people of African descent - and of Africa itself - had to be functionally distorted to justify transatlantic slavery and colonialism, in a way that we kind of can't fully comprehend or understand today.
If we think about a time just over 100 years ago, when African human beings were literally kept in zoos in London, in New York, in Paris; that gives us a sense of the strength of colonial propaganda, and how deeply it had taken root in this society and others. To the point that it was actually argued by hard science - by people who consider themselves serious academics - that black people were more closely related to monkeys than to other human beings. But what we know, just as we can see today, that dishonest scholarship can be a tool for profitable foreign policy; so is the case in the past. I think a lot of the time, we're led to believe that people actually believed the propaganda of the time - those scholars we're talking about - when we know, just as we can see today, people have more knowledge about what's going on in some country in Africa or Asia that we might be preparing to go to war with. So did they know more back then than we're led to believe; there was no magical time when people who really had knowledge about the world didn't know what was really going on the ground.
History was distorted deliberately in particular ways, and that legacy is still with us in many ways; to the point that - even for someone like me who I'd like to feel, lots of my followers are socially engaged and know about the world - when I posted pictures…. I was in Zimbabwe a couple of weeks ago, this just gives you an example. When I post pictures of the capital city of Zimbabwe, Harare - they’ve got skyscrapers and nice hotels, and the beautiful Jacaranda trees; if you've ever been to Harare you'll know this, nice restaurants - people are like, ‘Wow, they've got skyscrapers in Africa!’
I don't know if people think people in Africa still live in mud huts. I don’t know if people believe - as you're going to see over the next half an hour - there was ever a time when everyone in Africa lived in mud huts; but the strength of propaganda - even with people of African origin - is still with us to that point, that we have this thing called 'Black History Month.'
Now for those who don't know, the idea for Black History Month was invented or came up with by an African-American scholar called Carter G. Woodson. He wrote a book called `’The Mis-Education Of The Negro’, which looked at the way in which African-Americans had to be functionally mis-educated for transatlantic slavery - and then the subsequent Jim Crow apartheid - to function in America. But I would take what Woodson was saying, although I agree with him, one step further; and I would say that for racism to function in human society, full stop, everyone has to be functionally mis-educated about the human story. And no part of the human story, in my view, has been more distorted than the history of the African continent and then its descendants. I'm going to try and share in half an hour, tens of thousands of years of history with you very quickly; some of the snapshots of what we should be teaching. Because if we're not careful, what happens is Black History Month comes around and we do exactly what it was not supposed to be intended to do. We subtly reinforce the idea - which was argued by serious historians at one point - that Africa has no history; by teaching Transatlantic Slavery and Martin Luther King. With the greatest of respect to Dr. King - brave and and courageous as he was - I’m fairly sure if he was alive today, he would go spare at the idea in that he was the sum total of black people's contribution to the human story. So it's important that we look at what we should be teaching during this month, to correct some of these misconceptions; because people cannot be blamed for their ignorance if they are genuinely ignorant. People can be blamed if they've had a different set of information and still choose to remain ignorant; so can I go on to the first slide, please?
This is where I've chosen to start the story. We could have started the story anthropologists are still telling us - that the oldest human remains ever found there in Africa; that we are all common ancestors of the `Ethiopian Australopithecus called Lucy, or Dinkinesh - but I've chosen to start the story here. For those who don't know, the Sahara was not always a desert; so it expands and contracts, in my basic, geological understanding. As the rains migrated South, the Sahara expanded; when those tropical rains migrated back North, the Sahara contracts, over thousands of years this process goes. So across the Sahara - all across North Africa - we find some of the oldest cave art in human history. Pictures like this, all across North Africa; next slide, please.
We also find many, many examples of this. This is an astronomical observatory; in this case, arguably the oldest astronomical observatory in the history of humanity. Scholars believe somewhere between 7,000 and 9,000 because, so possibly as old as 11,000 years ago. Two American physicists called Thomas Brophy and Robert Bauval wrote a fantastic book called ‘Black Genesis’, looking at the relationship between this astronomical observatory and the evolution of the ancient Egyptian religion and subsequent civilisation; next slide, please.
Which brings us onto the first point of contention in ancient African history. Can you see here, for anyone who didn't see this film - and I didn't see this film; I'm not in the habit of watching propaganda - that Hollywood is trying to convince us that in ancient North East Africa, Anglo-Saxons were the ruling elite. People that look like Christian Bale. Now, for anyone who saw the film - which I didn’t, but people told me - in this film, all the slaves and the servants were black. Now for anyone who understands the way film and TV works, that doesn't happen by accident. There's a thing called a casting agent, and a casting agent decides who's gonna get what roles; so some casting agent said ‘The ruling elite in ancient Egypt are all going to be white, and the slaves and the servants are all going to be black. We're gonna project apartheid South Africa back 5,000 years into North African history.’ How accurate is this picture of ancient Egypt? Let's see; next slide, please.
Follow a little more, National Geographic Channel. This image here of King Tut; I don't know why we need a scientific reconstruction of King Tut. We have copious amounts of carvings and paintings of King Tut from his actual life, but apparently this is a French reconstruction based on his skull. This is apparently what King Tut looked like; we're gonna see how inaccurate that is in a minute. On the other cover; this was an article that came out a couple of years ago called ‘Black Pharaohs: Conquerors Of Ancient Egypt’. Essentially what the article said - which is the revised new propagandistic position in relation to ancient North East Africa, aka Ancient Egypt - that black Pharaohs came into ancient Egypt right at the end of the civilisation, in the 25th dynasty. And they conquered Egypt, and 'cause of racism no one's ever told their story till now; but guess what, we're here to tell you that in the 25th dynasty - 3,000 years after the founding of ancient Egypt - black people finally got involved in the game, and the only people that believe different are crazy Afrocentric black people trying to make themselves feel better. This is almost exactly what the article says; even though I’m, of course, being sarcastic. Let's again see how accurate that is; next slide, please.
Now this is the British reconstruction of Tutankhamen, based on the same skull. Can you see that if the French and the British were both using scientific techniques; how come the British scientists came up with this, and the French ones came up one that looks French? Next slide, please. But again, there's no need; this is Tutankhamun in his own life. We've got to make up our mind; was he jet black or was he red? Now if you know much about ancient Egyptian art or even ancient Nubian art, you will know that red was a symbolic colour. I don't know what it meant and we don't know what it meant, but all throughout ancient North East African history - even among the Igbos in Nigeria - you find in their art; men painted red, women painted yellow. I've seen this in Nubian temples; no one's arguing that that meant the Nubians were red. Of course there are Africans like Somalians and Eritreans that have a dark red complexion, they're just as African as anyone from Nigeria; but Tutankhamun clearly couldn't have been both red and black, so we need to figure out which one he was. Next slide, please.
Now, no one disputes these invasions; when we talk about who the ancient Egyptians were, there's consensus that Egypt has been invaded over half a dozen times. I haven't even included in this list the Ottoman invasion; I haven't included the French or the British Invasion, all came after this. But the Arab invasion, in the 7th century of the Common Era; then the Vandals - which is where the word vandalism came from; because they was a bit mad, to use the technical term - that came in the 5th century. They had Germanic German people; then the whole of North Africa, not just Egypt, was a Roman province. Before that, Greek; before that, Persian in 525 B.C. At the most conservative estimate, ancient Egyptian history, Pharaonic kingship, begins in 3100 B.C. I say "most conservative" because I don't actually agree with that chronology; because my teacher, `Robin Walker - big shout out to the OG - taught me that there's reasons to disagree with that chronology. But nonetheless, if we go with the most conservative estimate; can we see that the Persians still got to Egypt 2500 years after the founding of ancient Egyptian kingship. So who was living in Northeast Africa prior to all of these invasions, from people that are not from Africa? Well, let's see. The ancient Greeks saw the ancient Egyptians for themselves; they were in Egypt during the Persian invasion, and of course, then when they ruled Egypt for a little. Let's see what some of them had to say; next slide, please.
Diodorus of Sicily: General Histories Book III, 30 B.C. Now the Ethiopians; for those who don't know, Ethiopian literally means ‘of the burnt face’. It wasn't an insulting term; it was a generic term for black person back in the day and it referred to generally all of Africa, and even the Greeks use it to refer to parts of India. If you go to India today, in southern India you'll find some people as black as any people in Africa. So it shouldn't surprise you if that term was used; it was a generic term meaning black. Now the Ethiopians, as historians relate, were the first of all men. The proofs of this statement they say are ‘manifest’; they also say the Egyptians are colonists sent out by the Ethiopians. Now, can you see we're told modern science discovered that Africans were the first people on the planet; but here is a ancient Greek historian, saying that Africans were already saying ‘We were the first people on the planet’, in 30 B.C. `Herodotus, the father of history. “There can be no doubt that the Colchians are an Egyptian race. Before I heard any mention of the fact from others, I had remarked it myself…My own conjectures were founded, first, on the fact that they are black-skinned and have woolly hair”; afro, yeah? The Colchians, by the way. are a group of people in southern Russia at the time. Whole host of other Greek scholars - including Aristotle, and there’s loads more I could have put - seem very unconfused about the Ancient Egyptians’ ethnicity. We can't have it both ways; either ancient Greeks were one of the most intelligent, civilised people ever, or they were so stupid they couldn't recognise the colours of people they saw from their own eyes. But we can't have it both ways, you see? Next slide.
Now here are some Egyptologists; it's important for us to understand the way early Egyptology evolved. When the French came to Egypt and colonised Egypt, it was in the height of transatlantic slavery, late 1700s; Napoleonic expedition to Egypt. The Sphinx, the pyramids, all of these things are newly rediscovered; and immediately the French are like ‘Uh-oh, we’ve got a bit of a problem here. Because we have an economy based on the pseudo-scientific idea of racism, based on the idea that some races - namely, the “white race”, an invention - is superior to other races, particularly the black.’ And the discovery of an ancient African civilisation, thousands of years before there was anything of comparable stature in France or England - not an insult, just a fact of history - created some problems. Now, some scholars immediately reacted to this by saying, ‘Okay; well, clearly racism is nonsense. Hooray! We can do away with such a stupid idea.’ Of course, foreign policy realised this wasn't terribly convenient if your economy depends on radicalised slavery. So even though some honest scholars came out and told the truth, many scholars went against this; and you're gonna see how ridiculous some of the explanations got.
So `C.F. Volney, a man who wrote a fantastic book called ‘The Ruins of Empires’, had the following to say. He made many other comments, direct comments, about the ethnicity of the ancient Egyptians; but this is one particular comment, one of my favourites. He said “There a people now forgotten discovered while others were yet barbarians, the elements of the arts and sciences. A race of men” - of course, like most sexist men, he used men but he meant all humans. Because we just normalise that kind of language; 'men' to represent all of humanity - "now rejected for their black skin, and woolly hair, founded on the study of the laws of nature those civil and religious systems which still govern the universe.” `Champollion - not the main Champollion, but the brother of François Champollion - had the following to say. I'm not going to read it all, but if you look closely he says that Volney’s basically chatting rubbish; there's no way the ancient Egyptians could have been black. But let's get to the end - and this is how funny it is, listen to this part - “…Volney invokes that of Herodotus, who recalls that the Colchians had black skin and wooly hair. Yet these two physical qualities” - black skin and afro hair - “do not suffice to characterise the negro race, and Volney’s conclusion as to the negro origin of the Egyptians is evidently forced and inadmissible.” Now, he didn't offer any evidence; all he said was having black skin and wooly hair doesn't make you black. And if we go back into the racial science of the day, you will understand that it was actually argued by otherwise intelligent people that there were two races of black people. There were Negroes and there were Hamites. Hamites were any Africans that didn't look absolutely stereotypically what we think of West African people supposedly look like. Anyone that has a slightly thin nose, or any kind of straight hair - or any features randomly that we decide - was a Hamite, and Hamites were responsible for all of the civilisation in Africa; and they descended from Europeans. Negroes, on the other hand, they were the real black people; and even when we find evidence of Negroes, we'll just say there were Hamites, as you have here. This is how silly and how ridiculous pseudo-scientific ideas like race make otherwise intelligent people behave; next slide, please.
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