Our world was never wrenched from its true course
Posted: Sunday, May 23, 2004
by Ayanna Gillian
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For so many African people in the Diaspora it is difficult to really conceptualize our history and heritage as something miraculous and marvelous. Centuries of racism, colonialism and misappropriated history have created a people who have very little concept of the great civilizations that they were taken from, a large segment of humanity which is in a sense rootless, with no real understanding of its own historical origins.
Even as Afrocentric historians attempt to uncover what was buried and rediscover what was thought lost, it seems to be a drop in the bucket in the face of the daily wars, massacres, poverty and political torment that take place on so much of the continent in our present day. Added to this, the only African history that is often taught to our children in schools is the legacy of slavery and colonialism and the awful brutalization at the hands of Europeans. It is little wonder then that psychologically for so many African people, their history seems to begin with European intervention. This is not the fault of the historian who works tirelessly to expose the real history of the colonial era, or the journalist who seeks to bring to light the political and economic travesties that many Africans face at home and abroad. However it is perhaps the inevitable result of our recent history.
I must however stress the phrase "recent history," for the last few centuries have been merely a moment in the vast span of African history. But sometimes it can appear that, like the forest that took thousands of years to grow but can be destroyed by a carelessly thrown match in matter of hours, our recent history has done us irreparable damage. When faced with a global power structure that is hell-bent on the destruction of the powerless, with the perpetuation of mind-numbing ignorance which allows it to continue the pillage of the world, one can ask: what weapon can be forged to fight the beast?
When I look at the wealth of literature, art, music and theatre that has emerged from Africa and elsewhere in the Diaspora, I can't help but notice how much of 'us' has survived there and how much of 'us' can be transmitted through these expressions as well. I recently read a play by Nigerian playwright, author and poet Wole Soyinka, called Death and the King's Horseman. The play is set in the last days of the great Yoruba kingdom of Old Oyo, which was, unbeknownst to it, (as all empires are destined to be), on the brink of collapse. While it is ostensibly about a particular interaction between Yoruba society and Western colonial intervention, the play focuses on the ritual of Yoruba life, the intersection of the world of the living and the dead. Most of the drama is in fact psychological and metaphysical and not material at all. It examines the physical clash of cultures and the domination of one over the other (which seems to pervade much of the discourse on the colonial history) through the lens of Yoruba cosmology and ritualized community structure.
One particular part of the play caught my attention. Elesin Oba, the King's Horseman, is living his last few hours before he is to commit ritual suicide upon the death of the King. He sees it as divine honour to continue his duties and lead the way for the king to pass over, and then join the ancestors in the heavens. This is a portion of the conversation he had with his Praise Singer:
"PRAISE SINGER: "In their time the great wars came and went, the little wars came and went; the white slavers came and went, they took away the heart of our race; they bore away the mind and muscle of our race. The city fell and was rebuilt, the city fell and our people trudged through mountain and forest to found a new home but- Elesin Oba do you hear me?
ELESIN: I hear your voice Olohun-iyo
PRAISE SINGER: Our world was never wrenched from its true course. There is only one home to the life of a river mussel; there is only one home to the life of a tortoise; there is only one shell to the soul of a man; there is only one world to the spirit of our race. If that world leaves its course and smashes on boulders of the great void, whose world will give us shelter?"
What beautiful words! In the midst of our reality of injustice, persecution and racism, of children who can identify more with European history than their own, and self-deprecating academics and anthropologists who tell the stories of their people yet demean them in the same breath... When I read those lines, one thing is made abundantly clear: our colonial history, while cataclysmic and traumatic with far-reaching consequences that must be addressed, was merely an incident in African, and indeed human, history. Our culture and legacy are so much deeper and so much more ancient than that. If we can conceptualize African people as ancient kings and queens, as the businessmen, educators, empire-builders and spiritual leaders of the world, if we can conceptualize the origins of mankind in Ethiopia and our long, slow beautiful movement, our adaptation and survival right along with the evolution of the geological landscape as we know it, if we can conceptualize our even more ancient origins as energy, as bits of the universe and right out of the divine darkness of a black hole, if we can conceptualize these things, then we will have touched the tip of the iceberg of African and human history.
"There is only one home to the life of a river mussel; there is only one home to the life of a tortoise; there is only one shell to the soul of a man; there is only one world to the spirit of our race." There is something immensely comforting and powerful in those words: to know that the strongest part of us is in spirit, in the very essence of our beings, and that it is this that is more infinitely valuable than anything else we can conceive. In spite of all that has happened, in spite of our scars and wounds, we emerge strong and continue the long trod that we began millions of years ago. This is why the study of history is so important: not only the study of the colonial incident in an academic sense, but getting in touch with what is truly integral to African culture and spirituality. When we can see this and get to the heart of it then we can get a more expansive knowledge and understanding of WORLD HISTORY AND OUR COMMON ORIGINS.
So many Diasporic Africans have been brainwashed. While they talk of racism and the evil of colonialism, psychologically they still really believe the culture of Africans inferior to that of Europeans. They still use European ideas of success to evaluate ancient Africa. Much is about measuring against Europe, and many cannot let go of Europe enough to just look at the rich diversity of ancient Africa together with the people's common values. They can get that they were treated horribly, they can get that the injustice was built on racism, but they still cannot see past the years of cultural brainwashing to the real magnificence of our African culture.
Works like this one can help. They help us begin the process of psychological decolonization right along with the struggle for physical, economic and political sovereignty. Knowledge of history must go hand in hand with a rich appreciation for the diverse cultures of Africa. We must see our ancestors as the initiators of world history, and not as its victims. The art, the literature, the song, the dance, can create a litany of healing and reconciliation. The power of a people with a firm grasp of its history is formidable, and we Africans have the wealth of all history behind us.
It is in embracing that history that folks may be able to really see themselves as they are and as they could be, and to truly appreciate the wisdom of the best of our ancestors. When we traverse history, experiencing aspects of the culture, visiting the literature, we get a heightened sense of that magnificence and can see clearly that this colonial 'incident' was certainly not the 'death of the race'. In the words of our ancestors calling out to us in gentle reminder from across the ages, "Our world was never wrenched from its true course", but we know the way back, and forward.
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