Birth of the Negro myth
by Cheikh Anta Diop
When Herodotus visited it, Egypt had already lost its independence a century earlier. Conquered by the Persians in 525, from then on it was continually dominated by the foreigner: after the Persians came the Macedonians under Alexander (333 B.C.), the Romans under Julius Caesar (50 B.C.), the Arabs in the seventh century, the Turks in the sixteenth century, the French with Napoleon, then the English at the of the nineteenth century.
Ruined by all these successive invasions, Egypt, the cradle of civilization for 10,000 years while the rest of the world was steeped in barbarism, would no longer play political role. Nevertheless, it would long continue to initiate the younger Mediterranean peoples (Greeks and Romans, among others) into the enlightenment of civilization. Throughout Antiquity it would remain the classic land where the Mediterranean peoples went on pilgrimages to drink at the fount of scientific, religious, moral, and social knowledge, the most ancient such knowledge that mankind had required.
Thus, all around the periphery of the Mediterranean, new civilizations have been built, one after the other, benefiting from the many advantages of the Mediterranean, a veritable crossroads in the world’s best location. These new civilizations have evolved mainly toward materialistic genius of the Indo-Europeans: Greeks and Romans.
The pagan elan which animated Greco-Roman civilization, died out about the fourth century. Two new factors, Christianity and the barbarian invasions, intruded on the old terrain of Western Europe and gave birth to a new civilization which today, in its turn, presents symptoms of exhaustion. Thanks to uninterrupted contacts between peoples, this latter civilization, which inherited all the technical progress of humanity, was already sufficiently equipped by the fifteenth century to plunge into the discovery and conquest of the world.
And so, as early as the fifteenth century, the Portuguese landed in Africa via the Atlantic; they established the first modern contacts, henceforth unbroken, with the West. What did they find then in Africa? Which peoples did they encounter? Had these been there since early Antiquity or had they just migrated? What was their cultural level, the degree of their social and political organization? What impression could the Portuguese have had of these populations? What idea could they get of their intellectual capacity and technical aptitude? What kind of social relations were to exist between Europe and Africa from that time on? The answer to these different questions will fully explain the current legend of the primitive Negro.
To answer those queries, it is necessary to go back to Egypt at the time it fell under the yoke of the foreigner. The distribution of Blacks on the African continent probably went through two principal phases. It is generally agreed that by 7000 B.C., the Sahara had tried up. Equatorial Africa was probably still a forest zone too dense to attract men. Consequently, the last Blacks who had lived in the Sahara now presumably left it to migrate toward the Upper Nile, with the possible exception of a few small isolated groups on the rest of the continent, who either had migrated towards south or had headed north. Perhaps the first group found an indigenous Black population in the region of the upper Nile. Whatever the case, it was from the gradual adaptation to the new living conditions which nature assigned to these various Black populations that the oldest phenomenon of civilization, came about. This civilization, called Egyptian in our period, developed for a long time in its early cradle; then it slowly descended the Nile Valley to spread out around the Mediterranean basin. This cycle of civilization, the longest in history, presumably lasted 10,000 years. This is a reasonable compromise between the long chronology (based on data provided by the Egyptian priests, Herodotus and Manetho* place the beginning at 17,000 B.C.) and the short chronology of the moderns – for the latter are obliged to admit that by 4245 B.C. the Egyptians had already invented the calendar (which necessarily requires the passage of thousands of years).
Obviously, during that long period, the blacks could have penetrated deeper and deeper into the interior of the continent to form nuclei which would become centers of the continental civilization analyzed in Chapter VIII. These African civilizations would be cut off from the rest of the world. They would tend to live in isolation, as a result of the enormous distance separating them from access routes to the Mediterranean. When Egypt lost its independence, their isolation was complete.
From then on, separated from the mother country which was invaded by the foreigner, and withdrawn in a geographical setting requiring a minimum effort of adjustment, the Blacks were oriented toward the development of their social, political, and moral organization, rather than toward speculative scientific research that their circumstances failed to justify, and even rendered impossible. Adaptation to the narrow, fertile Nile Valley required expert techniques in irrigation and dams, precise calculations to foresee the inundations of the Nile and to deduce their economic and social consequences. It also required the invention of geometry to delimit property after the floods obliterated boundary lines. By the same token, the terrain in long flat strips required the transformation of the paleo-Negritic hoe into a plow, the first drawn by men, subsequently by animals. Indispensable as all that was for the Negro’s material existence in the Nile Valley, it became equally superfluous in the new living conditions in the interior.
Since history had disrupted his former equilibrium with the environment, the black now found a new equilibrium, differing from the first in the absence of a technique no longer vital to the social, political, and moral organization. With economic resources assured by means that did not require perpetual inventions, the Negro became progressively indifferent to material progress.
It was under these new conditions that the encounter with Europe took place. In the fifteenth century, when the first Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, Danes, and Brandenburgers began to set up trading posts on the West African coast, the political organization of the African states was equal, and often superior, to that of their own respective states. Monarchies were already constitutional, with a people’s Council on which the social strata were represented. Contrary to the legend, the Negro king was not, and had never been, a despot with unlimited powers. In some places, he was invested by the people, with the Prime Minister an intermediary representing the free men. His mission was to serve the people wisely and his authority depended on his respect for the established constitution.
The social and moral order was on the same level of perfection. Nowhere did any pre-logical mentality reign, in the sense that Levy-Bruhl understood it, but there is no need to refute here an idea that its author rejected before his death. On the other hand, for all the reasons cited above, technical development was less stressed than in Europe. Although the Negro had been the first to discover iron, he had built no canon; the secret of gunpowder was known only to the Egyptian priests, who used it solely for religious purposes at rites such as the Mysteries of Osiris.
Africa was therefore quite vulnerable from the technical standpoint. It became tempting, irresistible prey for the West, provided with firearms and far-ranging navies. So the economic progress of Renaissance Europe spurred on the conquest of Africa, which was rapidly accomplished. It passed from the stage of coastal trading-posts to that of annexation by western international agreements, followed by armed conquest called “pacification.”
At the beginning of this period America was discovered by Christopher Columbus and the overflow of the old continent was dumped on the new. The development of virgin lands required cheap labor. Defenseless Africa then became the ready made reservoir from which to draw that labor force with minimum expense and risk. The modern Negro slave trade was considered an economic necessity prior to the advent of the machine. This would last until the mid-nineteenth century.
Such a reversal of roles, the result of new technical relations, brought with it master-slave relationships between Whites and Blacks on the social level. Already during the Middle Ages, the memory of a Negro Egypt that had civilized the world had been blurred by ignorance of the antique tradition hidden in libraries or buried under ruins. It would become even more obscure during those four centuries of slavery.
Inflated by their recent technical superiority, the European looked down on the Black world and condescended to touch nothing but its riches. Ignorance of the Black’s ancient history, differences of mores and customs, ethnic prejudices between two races that believed themselves to be facing each other for the first time, combined with the economic necessity to exploit – so many factors predisposed the mind of the European to distort the moral personality of the Black and his intellectual aptitudes.
Henceforth “Negro” became a synonym for primitive being, “inferior,” endowed with a pre-logical mentality. As the human being is always eager to justify his conduct, they went even further. The desire to legitimize colonialism and the slave trade – in other words, the social condition of the Negro in the modern world – engendered an entire literature to describe the so-called inferior trait of the Black. The mind of several generations of Europeans would thus be indoctrinated, Western opinion would crystallize and instinctively accept as revealed truth the equation: Negro=inferior humanity. To crown this cynicism, colonization would be depicted as a duty of humanity. They invoked “the civilizing mission” of the west charged with the responsibility to raise the African to the level of other men (known to us as “the white man’s burden”). From then on, capitalism had clear sailing to practice the most ferocious exploitation under the cloak of moral pretext.
At most they recognize that the Negro has artistic gifts linked to his sensitivity as an inferior animal. Such is the opinion of the Frenchman Joseph de Gobineau, precursor of Nazi philosophy, who in his famous book On the Inequality of Human Races decrees that the artistic sense is inseparable from Negro blood; but he reduces art to an inferior manifestation of human nature: in particular, the sense of rhythm is related to the Black’s emotional aptitudes.
This climate of alienation finally deeply affected the personality of the Negro, especially the educated Black who had had an opportunity to become conscious of world opinion about him and his people. It often happens that the Negro intellectual loses confidence in his own possibilities and in those of his race to such an extent that, despite the validity of the evidence presented in this book, it will not be astonishing if some of us are still unable to believe that Blacks really played the earliest civilizing role in the world.
Frequently Blacks of high intellectual attainment remain so victimized by this alienation that they seek in all good faith to codify those Nazi ideas in an alleged duality of the sensitive, emotional Negro, creator of art, and the White Man, especially endowed with rationality. So it is in good faith that a Black African poet expressed himself in a verse of admirable beauty:
“L’émotionestnègre et la raison hellene.” (Emotion is Negro and reason Greek)
Little by little, a “complementary” Negro literature appeared, intentionally puerile, good humored, passive, resigned, whimpering. A mass of current Negro artistic creations, greatly appreciated by Westerners, forms a mirror in which these westerners can look with pride, while wallowing in paternalistic sentimentally as they contemplate what they believe to be their superiority. The reaction would be quite different if the same judges were confronted by a perfectly com posed Negro work which abandoned that pattern and broke with any reflexes of subordination as well as inferiority complex to assume a natural place on a level of equality. Such a work would certainly risk appearing pretentious and at least exasperating to some people.
The memory of the recent slavery to which the Black race has been subjected, cleverly kept alive in men’s minds and especially in Black minds, often affects Black consciousness negatively. From that recent slavery an attempt has been made to construct – despite all historical truth – a legend that Black has always been reduced to slavery by the superior White race with which he has lived, wherever it may have been. This enables Whites easily to justify the presence of Negroes in Egypt or in Mesopotamia or Arabia, by decreeing that they were enslaved. Although such an affirmation is nothing but dogma designed to falsify history – those who advance it are fully aware that it is erroneous – it nonetheless contributes to alienating Black consciousness. Thus, another great Negro poet, perhaps the greatest of our time, Aime Cesaire, writes, in a poem entitled “Since Akkad, since Elam, since Sumer”:
Master of the three roads, before you stands a man who has walked much.
Masterof the three roads, before you stands a man who has
walked on his hands, walked on his feet, walked on his belly,
walked on his backside,
Since Elam, since Akkad, since Sumer.
Elsewhere he writes:
Those who invented neither gunpowder nor compass
those who tamed neither steam nor electricity
those who explored neither the sea nor the sky
Throughout these transformation in the Negro’s relations with the rest of the world, it became increasingly difficult each day and even inadmissible, for those unaware of his past glory – and for Blacks themselves – to believe that they could have originated the first civilization which flowered on earth, a civilization to which humanity owes most of its progress.
Henceforth, even when the proofs are piled high before their eyes, the experts will not see them except through blinkers and will always interpret them falsely. They will build the most improbable theories, since any improbability seems more logical to them than the truth of the most important historical document attesting the early civilizing role of Blacks. Before examining the contradictions circulating in the modern era and resulting from attempts to prove at any price that the Egyptians were Whites, let us note the astonishment of a scholar of good faith, Count Constantin de Volney (1757 – 1820). After being imbued with all the prejudices we have just mentioned with regard to the Negro, Volney had gone to Egypt between 1783 and 1785, while Negro slavery flourished. He reported as follows on the Egyptian race, the very race that produced the Pharaohs: the Copts.
. . . all have a bloated face, puffed up eyes, flat nose, thick lips; in a word, the true face of the mulatto. I was tempted to attribute it to the climate, but when I visited the sphinx, its appearance gave me the key to the riddle. On seeing that head, typically Negro in all its features, I remembered the remarkable passage where Herodotus says: “As for me, I judge the Colchians to be a colony of the Egyptians because like them, they are black with woolly hair. . .” In other words, the ancient Egyptians were true Negroes of the same type as all native-born Africans. That being so, we can see how their blood, mixed for several centuries with that of the Romans and Greeks, must have lost the intensity of its original color, while retaining nonetheless the imprint of its original mold. We can even state as a general principle that the face is a kind of monument able, in many cases, to attest or shed light on historical evidence on the origins of peoples.
After illustrating this proposition by citing the case of Normans who still resembled the Danes 900 years after the conquest of Normandy, Volney adds:
But returning to Egypt, the lesson she teaches history contains many reflection for philosophy. What a subject for meditation, to see the present barbarism and ignorance of the Copts, descendants of the alliance between the profound genius of the Egyptians and the brilliant mind of the Greeks! Just think that this race of black men, today our slave and the object of our scorn, is the very race to which we owe our arts, sciences, and even the use of speech! Just imagine, finally, that it is in the midst of peoples who call themselves the greatest friends of liberty and humanity that one has approved the most barbarous slavery and questioned whether black men have the same kind of intelligences as whites!