Travel in peace, Baba Jan, on your journey to the village of the ancestors …
Travel in peace, Baba Jan, on your journey to the village of the ancestors …
I’ve posted an excerpt below from a manuscript I’m currently working on titled: “Dismantling the Master’s House: Deconstructing the Roots of Antiblack Racism and the Construction of the “Other” In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” This section of the work appears at the end of the study and thus is summative in its reference to a broad array of issues and ideas. It touches briefly on the role of Christopher Columbus in setting in motion the genocidal tide that swept across the so-called New World. Therefore, I decided to post it as it is on this day designated for the celebration of genocide in the New World by the direct beneficiaries of this first phase of European global terrorism.
The dramatic surrender of Grenada, the last Moorish province in Spain, to the conquering forces of Ferdinand and Isabelle on January 2, 1492, was followed eight months later on October 12, 1492 by an initially unheralded event on an obscure island in the Caribbean Sea. When Christopher Columbus and his motley crew staggered up the beach on Guanahani, a tiny island in the Bahamas, blissfully ignorant of their whereabouts, they were greeted by a group of curious “Arawakian Lucayos” who were blissfully unaware they would be the last of their kind and the first among millions of victims of Spanish colonial conquest and imperial expansion (J. Carew, 1994, p. 3). Had they been the benighted savages they were later portrayed to be by Columbus and the host of conquistadors that followed his ship’s wake across the Atlantic they would have fallen on the foreigners and slain them to a man, thus preventing or at least delaying a horrific fate. Instead they probably watched in bemused silence as Columbus and his crew unfurled the flag of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon and loudly proclaimed the lands and its inhabitants to be the possessions of Spain.
The European voyages of discovery, the ceremonies of possession enacted on countless “American” shores, and the enslavement, colonization and genocidal decimation of the Caribbean peoples that relentlessly followed were the opening performances of European colonialism in the so-called New World, a system of conquest and exploitation that had had its dress rehearsal in the Reconquista of Andalusia and in the establishment of the slave trade along Africa’s western coastline. Jan Carew, in Rape of Paradise: Columbus and the birth of racism in the Americas, argues the Spanish brought the long-term effects of religious warfare and centuries of hostility against the Moors and Jews with them to the New World where it “spilled over” and ignited a holocaust that decimated native peoples. Yet it was Moorish and Jewish thinkers and scientists who made Europe’s great leap backwards into the New World possible. Carew states:
In spite of the militant rejection of everything Moorish by the victorious Spanish rulers after the fall of Granada, it is ironical that Columbus’ First Voyage across the Ocean Sea would not have been possible without the great advances in navigation, mathematics, geography and astronomy that the Moors had brought to the Iberian Peninsula. Columbus had spent a number of years in Portugal before moving to Spain. And it was during those years in Portugal, where the heritage of Moorish enlightenment had made that small country a great center for nautical sciences, that he mastered the crucial theoretical basics of navigation (1994, p. 39).
The “ripple-effect” of Moorish scholarship—what Carew describes as the movement of Moorish knowledge “in concentric rings from centers of learning to the most backward areas of the continent”— also conveyed the impulses and imperatives of racial discord and racial discourse. The educational philosophy developed and disseminated during this era of enlightenment included an ideology of hate and its associated apparatus. The ideology of hate produced the edict signed by Isabella of Spain on March 31, 1492 ordering the expulsion of Jews from Spain. Her appointment of the infamous Tomas de Torquemada to head the Spanish Inquisition put in place the institutional apparatus needed to police and enforce Spain’s Christian identity with a brutal inefficiency. Property confiscated from the disenfranchised Moors and Jews under the authority of Isabella’s edict was used to finance Columbus’ first voyage. Moreover, as Carew argues:
… ethnocide would become an intrinsic part of Spanish domestic and overseas policy. And this nefarious edict would also become the prelude to the extermination of the Guanches of the Canary Islands (Spain’s first overseas territory), and the Tainos, Caribs and other Native Americans of the New World. This Spanish precedent established an ethnocidal tradition that was soon adopted by all of the European colonizers who came in their wake (1994, p. 49).
In addition to heretics and infidels, the apparatchiks of the Holy Inquisition consigned to the flames thousands of books from the great Moorish libraries, volumes that comprised “the cream of Islamic and Hellenistic learning which had been fed from its earliest beginnings by African roots buried deep in the creative soil of that much maligned and deliberately misunderstood continent” (J. Carew, 1994, p. 49). Supremely ignorant of the loss of these great intellectual treasures, the agents of the Inquisition sent the combined and collective heritages of the ancient and medieval worlds billowing upwards in clouds of smoke and soot. The result of this literary conflagration was twofold: knowledge that threatened the hegemony of the Holy Bible and the Catholic Church could be eliminated at the source, and the traces of non-European influences on Europe’s development and socialization could be erased or effaced. Thus the great European thinkers who emerged during the height of the imperial era in the so-called age of European Enlightenment could declare that Europe invented itself by itself. By sheer sophistry and intellectual sleight-of-hand European scholars like Hegel, Hume and Kant proclaimed Europe free of all external influences. Others Europeanized the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions and used them to establish and articulate the Eurocentric discourse that claimed European culture was founded on rational principles and grounded in the “historical” reality of its centrality in human development.
Martin Bernal’s Black Athena furnishes an excellent summary of the genealogy of Aryan discourse and the particular historicist “model” it created to mythologize and reify the origins of modern Europe. Bernal shows how European scholars systematically erased the “Oriental” roots of European religious and intellectual traditions and substituted what J. M. Blaut refers to as the “European Miracle”—the idea that Europe forged ahead of the rest of the world in its prehistory and thus dominated the history of the globe (Bernal, 1987; Blaut, 1993). Once this idea achieved it cogency and currency non-European cultures and civilizations were reduced to the dust-heaps of history. Bernal states: “Indeed, since the 19th century it has become literally unthinkable to Europeans that peoples of any other continent could be “scientific” in the way they themselves are, or that Asians or Africans could have contributed in any profound way to the making of Europe” (1987, p. 236).
The Spanish Inquisition’s burning of Arabic texts also set a precedent for book burning as a means of erasing the past of indigenous cultures in the Americas. In the mid-sixteenth century Diego de Landa, the first Bishop of the Yucatan, destroyed the corpus of Mayan literature in an act of utter ignorance and bigotry. De Landa placidly describes and justifies his actions as follows:
These people used certain characters or letters, with which they wrote in their books about their antiquities and their sciences; with these, and with figures, and certain signs in the figures, they understood their matters, made them known, and taught them. We found a great number of books in these letters, and since they contained nothing but superstitions and falsehoods of the devil we burned them all, which they took most grievously, and which gave them great pain (cited in Mignolo, 1995, p. 71).
Perhaps the most effective means for the erasure of the local cultures and histories of the diverse populations that inhabited the Americas, and their supplanting with European culture and history, occurred through the routine implementation and operation of European colonial policies and practices. Ward Churchill offers this harrowing overview of the European impact on Native Americans:
During the four centuries spanning the time between 1492, when Christopher Columbus first set foot on the “New World” of a Caribbean beach, and 1892, when the U.S. Census Bureau concluded that there were fewer than a quarter- million indigenous people surviving within the country’s claimed boundaries, a hemispheric population estimated to have been as great as 125 million was reduced by something over 90 percent. The people had died in their millions of being hacked apart with axes and swords, burned alive and trampled under horses, hunted as game and fed to dogs, shot, beaten, stabbed, scalped for bounty, hanged on meathooks and thrown over the sides of ships at sea, worked to death as slave laborers, intentionally starved and frozen to death during a multitude of forced marches and internments, and, in an unknown number of instances, deliberately infected with epidemic diseases (1997, p. 1).
These Native Americans also were the first unfortunate victims of the transatlantic slave trade, conveyed to Europe and sold as laborers by the celebrated “discoverer” Christopher Columbus. According to Jack Forbes, Columbus expressed his willingness on his first voyage to depopulate an entire island and transport its inhabitants to Spain for sale. Forbes quotes Columbus as follows: “when your highnesses so command, they can be carried off to Castile or held captive in the island itself, since with fifty men they would all be kept in subjugation and forced to do whatever may be wished” (1993, p. 22). During his first voyage Columbus transported 25 kidnapped Amerindians back to Spanish slave markets. In subsequent voyages, he and the other Spaniards that followed in his wake transported thousands of Amerindians to be sold in Europe and Africa. Forbes estimates: “… at least 3,000 Americans are known to have been shipped to Europe between 1493 and 1501, with the likely total being possible double that” (1993, p. 24). He also notes that these Amerindians “wound up in the slave markets as negros” (Forbes, 1993, p. 24). The term negro at this point in its ignominious history was indiscriminately applied to individuals and groups based on subjective perceptions of skin color. But as Forbes clearly points out, by the end of the fifteenth century the term was associated with slavery and the exploitation and social debasement that slavery entailed. The semantic journey from negro as a generic term for slave (or, in a sense, non-white) to negro as a precise label for “black” slave took place as a result of the decline in the numbers of European slaves entering the European markets coupled with the increase in supplies of “black” slaves due to Portuguese exploration and trade along the West African coast (Blackburn, 1997).
Regardless of the lack of specificity of the term negro in the late medieval period, its use as a marker of difference provides an important context for understanding the evolution of its later pejorative permutations. Such notions of difference, viewed from the perspective of the Portuguese sailors raiding and exploring the West African coast in the mid-fifteenth century, provided a useful pretext for the capture and exploitation of its diverse populations. The Romanus Pontifex (1455)—a Papal Bull that justified and promoted the raiding and seizing of infidels and pagans as a kind of religious crusade— specifically authorized the acquisition of those “described as ‘nigri’ and inhabitants of Guinea” (Blackburn, 1997, p. 103). In 1543, to tighten controls over transatlantic slave trafficking, the Spanish Crown issued an edict that: “mulatos and other slaves ‘who are not Negroes’ were forbidden to go to the Americas without a special license” (Forbes, 1993, p. 66). Thus “negro” functioned as a form of color coding or branding, a label that dehumanized “Africans” (and others) for commercial purposes long before it became a pseudo-scientific description of supposed inferior “racial” characteristics to justify their commodification.
Slavery in Europe preceded the racialization of slavery in the Americas. “Africans” were introduced into the Europe’s slave culture mostly as pagans and infidels, as non-Christians who labored alongside Christian and non-Christian slaves of European origins. Central Europe’s Slavic communities (and their neighbors to the north and east) constituted the principal sources of slaves in Europe in the centuries prior to the establishment of the Atlantic trade: hence the derivations of the word “slave” in virtually every language in Western Europe. It is well documented that during the later Middle Ages Caucasian peoples such as the Circassians, the Abkhazians, and the Mingrelians were mainly known outside their native region as “slaves.” These traditional sources from the Balkans and the Black Sea were redirected to the Islamic world after the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453 (Davis, 1984, p. 56). By this time, however, Portuguese sailors were successfully raiding the coastline of Upper Guinea and transporting captive “Africans” to slave markets in Lisbon. Due to African resistance, raiding proved to be an inefficient means of supplying the increasingly demanding market. The Portuguese then established diplomatic and commercial relations with the elites in coastal African societies in Upper Guinea and southward as they explored more of the West African coastline (Thornton, 1998, p. 43).
West Africa had been linked for centuries to Mediterranean commerce via the trans-Saharan trade through commercial networks that preceded the violent and brutal Islamification of North Africa. As Samir Amin points out: “the displacement of the center of emerging capitalism from the Mediterranean towards the Atlantic was to kindle a crisis in Africa” (1997, p. 39). This shift meant that Africans would now enter the global systems of trade and commerce from two directions (across the Sahara and from the Atlantic ocean), thus further draining the manpower and womanpower of African polities. With the development of these new sources, the numbers of “black” people routinely entering the Iberian Peninsula and other sectors of Mediterranean Europe dramatically increased. The intense mercantilist focus on West Africa as an inexhaustible source of cheap laborers resulted in the “negrofication” of its diverse populations irrespective of their ethnic and linguistic distinctions. Thus the late medieval and early modern form of “negro” was invented from Yoruba, Akan, Fon, Kongo and myriad other “African” ethnicities to serve the hegemonic interests of European capitalism and religion, and Europe’s colonial expansion into the Americas. Racial or not, the conflation of “negro” with “slave” at this precise historical juncture marked a decisive turning point in the social construction of “white” and “black” identities.
It also must be remembered that the word “African,” regardless of its original derivation, comes into common usage as a designation for the continent and its inhabitants from the Latin language and its Roman speakers who conquered millions of “Africans” and colonized a large portion of North African territory (Snowden, 1970, pp. 11-16). To be an African (or negro), especially in the “modern” sense of the term, implies the tacit or complicit acceptance of a sociohistorical label or identity imposed by non-Africans who were asserting the hegemonic prerogatives of colonizers in defining both the land and its peoples for the purposes of control, exploitation and colonization. Seen from this perspective, the first half of Frantz Fanon’s remark—“It is the white man who creates the Negro”—generally describes the Euro-American social construction of race and its imposition on non-Europeans through enslavement, conquest and colonization during the later stages of the transatlantic trade. Whereas the second half— “But it is the Negro who creates Negritude”—describes the “African” or “black” adaptive response and reaction to the process of racialization in the Americas (1967, p. 47).
This discussion of the invention of the “negro” by non-Africans posits a foundation upon which to examine how and when “blacks” in the Americas began to refer to themselves collectively as “Africans.” To follow the implications of this process it is necessary to explore how the shocking arrival and immersion of “Africans” in the new world slaveocracies catalyzed the formation of “black” diasporan identity. Such a study would complete the examination of the two templates that led to the formation of modern “black” identity: the stereotypical negative images fostered and imposed by the slave trade, and the positive ethnic attributes that informed the self-conceptions and perceptions of “Africans” within their own indigenous cultures and societies. In pursuing the further study of this subject, especially the notion of the invention of Negritude or Afrocentricity, it will be important once again to look at the role of religion—monotheism and cosmotheism—in forming and informing the critical didactic and discursive tools of “black” resistance and self- determination. Such an approach recognizes the ideological nature of “Black Intellectual Thought,” and the fact that many of the founders of this discourse in America—Prince Hall, Samuel Cornish, Frederick Douglass and their scholar-activist compatriots—were “black” ministers devoted to realizing the universal humanism embodied in some aspects of Christian discourse.
In parsing these difficult subjects, I have attempted to look forward from their specific geographical and cultural contexts, not backward through the modern lens of racialism. Although the subject is the formation of early modern racial identities, the predicate involves ancient and medieval notions of ethnicity and identity that cannot be categorized according to modern conceptions of race. In exploring the role of the three western monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) in the formation of antiblack racism I have taken a heuristic approach that often raised many more questions than provided answers. Nevertheless, I remain confident that I have exposed the basic building blocks of Eurocentrism and antiblack racism—the foundational materials from which the “master’s house” has been constructed. With this modest blueprint in hand, those engaged in the crucial task of dismantling the “master’s house” have access to additional discursive tools specifically designed to achieve this vision and mission.