I have always known that “Black is beautiful” even before I became aware of the popular phrase that is now a cliché. Black is beautiful because Black skin is the most durable of all human skins on earth. Its pigmentation is resistant to many skin diseases. It’s a covering that slows and belies the scourge of aging
Have you ever seen a senescent White man? Mr. Joyman is my paramount boss and owner of a flourishing bakery in Port Harcourt. He is sixty-seven, with a frame slightly bent not by sickness, but old age. A sixty-seven-year-old African is still fully erect. A sixty-seven-year-old African is still blessed with a tough, smooth skin. And some, still boyish! The African blood is a beauty that displays its soldiery in the war against virus and bacteria. Have you ever wondered why in the past the colonisers from the West were easily afflicted and sent out of the world by malaria, cholera, and dysentery? Have you ever wondered why the newest afflicter, coronavirus, has killed far more white blood than a black blood? That is the answer.
Africa also had another beauty, a greater one in the past. I am a voracious reader. Sundays free me from my bakery’s assignments. We do bake on Sundays, but as a supervisor, I have the privilege of staying off work. It is a privilege that affords me the time to read books about different facets of life. I am more a fan of literature and history. I have a bulk of these books, more so than any other kind, in my mini library at home. It is from my home library I draw out this past beauty of Africa, written in poetry:
“Rejoice and shout with laughter
Throw all your burdens down,
If God has been so gracious
As to make you Black or Brown.
For you are a great nation,
A people of great birth
For where would spring the flowers
If God took away the earth?
Rejoice and shout with Laughter,
Throw all your burdens down
Yours is a glorious heritage
If you are Black, or Brown.”
Gladys Casely Hayford, an African American woman titled her poem, written in the 1930s, “Rejoice” because she wanted Africans to be proud of a glorious heritage, a great birth, and a great nation. Casely Hayford makes me realize that Africa had an impressive past, unlike what the likes of former President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, wants me to believe. The Frenchman gave a speech on July 27, 2007 at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal in the presence of an audience of 1,300. He said: “The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history…They have never really launched themselves into the future. The African peasant, who for thousands of years has lived according to the seasons, whose life ideal was to be in harmony with nature, only knew the eternal renewal of time… In this imaginary world, where everything starts over and over again, there is room neither for human endeavor, nor for the idea of progress.”
Unfortunately, or rather, ironically, Sarkozy said this at a center of learning named after a great Africanist, Cheikh Anta Diop. Diop was an anthropologist and a historian. He was among the first whose works dug out the glorious history of Africa hundreds of years ago. The first Black man to point out through his findings that the ancient Egyptians were Black. Yet his findings are still debatable on the table of scholars and historians.
While some researchers and archaeologists believe the Black race entirely populated ancient Egypt, others see the ancient land as multiracial with the Black man existing among the Hamitic and Semitic inhabitants; Black pharaohs also sat on the Egyptian throne. Other historians give a flat no to the concept of Black inhabitants in ancient Egypt. But the doubtless truth is Africa has a history of abundance. The Sarkozys of this world attempt to deny that and reduce our ancestors to peasants who were only in tune with their natural surroundings, and dead to ideas and exploits.
The Francoise-Xavier Fauvelles of this world will continue to counter the fallacy with: “People like to think of Africans as more rooted in nature than culture. But history teaches a different lesson: of kings, diplomats, merchants.” And the Mutabarukas of this world will continue to educate with his reggae song, “Great Kings of Africa.”
Ironically, Anta Diop’s namesake and fellow Senegalese, poet David Diop, gave a glowing tribute to Africa of old during his short life on earth. I can still remember Diop’s most famous poem titled, “Africa:”
“Africa my Africa
Africa of proud warriors in ancestral savannahs
Africa of whom my grandmother sings
On the banks of the distant river
I have never known you
But your blood flows in my veins
Your beautiful Black blood that irrigates the fields … “
My library holds a history book called The Story Called Africa, written by Maina Maikasuwa. Maikasuwa, through extensive research and quoted works from other researchers, Europeans and Africans, unearthed an authentic African story. It is a balanced story of “gory” and glory. I heard the book won a prize a few years ago.
But my former favorite books on Africa were: Toward the Decolonization of African Literature by Chinweizu Ibekwe and How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney. Now my favorite is the voluminous work by Amanga Habinomana titled The Unveiling of Timbuktu.
The Rwandan author chronicles the gradual rise of Timbuktu, a sort of city state in the ancient empire of Mali. Initially this African city was a large storage house for salts and other goods. It was a waiting area for traders to choose goods for trading at big markets. Travelers coming from Europa, Arabia and the Americas brought gold to trade for salt. Some of these traders chose to make Timbuktu their permanent residence, and before long the village became a small town and, in turn, a city.
By the early 1300s, Timbuktu had become a hub, a center of attraction, and the pride of the Malian empire. People came from across the continent. Europeans were awash with rumors of Timbuktu’s abundant wealth and resources. It was said that, in 1324, Mali’s sultan-leader, Mansa Moussa, travelled for pilgrimage to Mecca with 60,000 slaves and servants and with an abundance of gold. During his visit to Cairo in Egypt, the price of the precious metal dropped precipitously. Explorer Ibn Battuta from Arabia visited the famed city 30 years later, and his descriptions of the bustling city stoked the flames of European imagination.
During the period, Europa (as Europe was called then) was plagued by the ice age and the bubonic plague. Listening to the constant impressive tidings about a faraway African city spurred a dream they wished to achieve. They dreamt of streets lined with gold in Timbuktu. The city was a sort of African El Dorado.
Can you imagine that? White folks longing to visit an African city? Wow! Timbuktu was at that time, what London, Dubai or New York means to Africans in our present days. Many Western historians will never broadcast this African history of glory.
I also read that the peak of Timbuktu’s greatness occurred in the late 15th century. And guess what the prime commodity in the city was? I know many will shout out gold! But it wasn’t; it was books! Hundreds of scholars studied at the almost 200 maktabs (Quranic schools in Mali). These scholars worked as scribes, which increased the number of manuscripts in the City-state. Visitors to the city, especially scholars were specially welcomed and entertained in the hope that they would share their knowledge and books.
I read a Nigerian newspaper that has a column squarely dedicated to African Literature and history. The columnist quoted from the words of an American intellectual at California State University, Brent Singleton. Singleton graciously, or rather, factually corroborated Habinomana’s Unveiling Timbuktu, about the importance of books during the golden day of the land. He said, “The acquisition of books is mentioned more often in Timbuktu than any other display of wealth, including the building and refurbishment of mosques.“
Like Timbuktu, the Nok civilization is also a reminder of Africa’s beauty. The old-time civilization was located in the southern part of Kaduna state, Nigeria. The people of the land had perhaps the finest sets of terracotta in the world. It’s no wonder, bulks of these sculptures, stolen by thieves, are still nowhere to be found.
The Benin civilization, unlike Nok’s, has good news about her stolen artifacts. Not too long ago, French President Emmanuel Macron demanded the return of twenty-six artifacts that were stolen by the French colonial power in 1894 from the kingdom of Benin. The stolen goods have been returned and were received by Oba Ewuare II, the current Benin monarch in the modern day Edo state of Nigeria. In 2014, his predecessor had received two artifacts taken from the Benin kingdom in 1897 during an invasion by British soldiers which resulted in the monarch going into exile. But why steal from a people considered inferior and crude? Well, perhaps, that will be a discussion someday.
Africa had produced great minds in the past and has produced new great minds today. These include Soyinka, the first African man to win the Nobel prize; Wangari, the first African woman to win the Nobel prize; Okri, the first African to win the Booker prize; Evaristo, the first black woman to win the Booker prize; Adichie, for her feministic revolution and impressive mastery of writing stories; Kperogi, for his unusual mastery of the English language – an exceptional wordsmith; and Weah, the first African to be crowned world footballer of the year by FIFA in 1995 and the only African to date.
Africa has produced firsts worldwide. Ethiopian Haile Gabreselasi, was the first human being on earth to run a marathon with a world record time of 2:03:59 in 2008. African American Ben Carson became the first doctor in the world to perform the first successful neurosurgical procedure on a fetus inside the womb, the first to dissever a set of twins conjoined at their heads, and the first to develop new methods to treat brain-stem tumors.
“Africa’s history has been badly distorted,” says a friend of mine whom I visit. Like me, he is passionate about the history of our Africa. Often times, when we converse, our conversations unconsciously revert to history. I visit him on a Sunday with two loaves of bread as a gift. Bassey is a chronic consumer of Joyman Sweet Bread. I use the adjective “chronic” to describe my friend because he eats bread and drinks tea to a state of disgust; at least, that is how I see it. I have never seen anyone else eat bread and drink tea for breakfast, lunch and supper. And when he wants to add something different, it is either bread and beans, or bread and akara, or bread and moi moi, or bread and butter. But the day I met Bassey adding okra soup, I understood he badly needed redemption from his addiction. He had sliced the Joyman Sweet Bread into two halves and smeared it with two spoonfuls of a thick okra soup.
“Bassey, what on heaven and earth are you eating?”
“Okra pie,” he replied gleefully with a mouthful of the odd combination.
“Okra what?” I asked with a repulsive mien mixed with something like a smile.
“You don’t know what you are missing. This is hyper delicious and nutritious.”
It would have been a great disservice to my pal, going to his house without Joyman Special Bread. Ha ha ha! So, we sit on the only settee in the living room which also doubles as the bedroom. His bed is directly opposite his settee. We are still full-blooded bachelors. The need for living for a two-room apartment for family has not arrived. I confess I rented a room and a parlour a few months ago to free myself from the harassment of my immediate boss who kept chiding me for being a supervisor living in a single room. “Don’t you know you are the only supervisor in the world living in a single room?” He would mock.
The reason I said our history has been badly twisted,” Bassey continues, “is because of two things. First, because of the racist slur unleashed on Bernadine Evaristo last year by the BBC when she became the first Black woman to win the prestigious Booker Prize. Without this age of information technology, her achievement would have been deleted, twisted or buried forever like the achievements of some African greats in the past. No one would have known her as a Black writer of worth. She would have become hearsay, a rumour, a myth.
I listen attentively to my friend’s analysis even though I remember everything with more detail. It was in October 2019 that Evaristo’s historical feat was bruised by the racist utterance of a presenter on the world’s most popular radio station, the BBC. I still remember every word uttered as the presenter said, “Now, this is a bit different from the Booker Prize earlier in the year where the judges couldn’t make up their minds, so they gave it to Margaret Atwood and another author, who shared the prize between them.”
The first Black woman to win such a coveted prize as the Booker was contemptuously reduced to a nameless “another author” while her white co-winner was named. The degrading comment instantly sparked a public outcry. Evaristo, herself, understandably provoked, tweeted to her huge fans on twitter. She said disappointedly, “BBC described me yesterday as ‘another author’. How quickly and casually they have removed my name from history – the first Black woman to win it. This is what we’ve always been up against, folks.”
The BBC apologised and stated that their presenter’s words were not intended to belittle Bernadine Evaristo. Whatever. The damage has been done.
“My second point is,” Bassey continues, “how can a race be labelled as inhabitants of the Dark Continent? Do you know what that means?” Of course, I know, but I shake my head to listen.”It means the race is full of shit and negativity. It means the race has never been blessed with exploits and adventures; therefore, it has no history. A fat, smelly lie peddled by white racists.”
Bassey puffs out carbon dioxide from his nostrils; a glum appearance dampening his visage as if the lie and mischief are newly inflicted. As if he is the new Kunta Kinte. Ha ha ha! That is Bassey, always an emotional being. I release a throaty cough to pave the way for me to speak, but Bassey speaks on. He says,”But we must, just like Chinweizu and Habinomana, continue to kill the lie and rise to speak about our truth: Our undiluted African story, a story of worth. We must rise up in spite of the heavy burden of falsehood and hatred on our heads bent to pin us down forever. Maya Angelou told us to rise above our enemies’ lies. Remember her poem, ‘Still I Rise’?” I nod. The first stanzas of the poem captured what I just said now. She says:
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
I leave Bassey that evening with a truth he agrees with. The truth is that we can only rise if we love ourselves and unite, like Bob Marley’s “Africa Unite” encourages. After all, part of the injustice of lies and slavery meted out on us were rooted in the inharmonious postures we assumed and the lovelessness reeking out among us. We may be playing the second fiddle now, but we must have a hidden plan to become an equal economically with the West. We need a new Sankara, Lumumba, Sisulu, Biko, Che, Brutus, Gani, Bitek, Mitshali, Zik, Rodney, Mandela, Kenyatta, Sawaba, Tosh, Marley, Macaulay, Awolowo, Funmilayo Kuti, Balewa, and more; we can attain this feat.
Langston Hughes, a great African American poet, talked about this equality years ago in his poem, “I, Too”. He said:
“I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody will dare
Say to me,
‘Eat in the kitchen,’
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed!
I, too, am American.”
We must be proud of who we are to achieve this equality. We must be proud of Africa to beautify Africa. Stephen Adinoyi’s “My African Pride” echoes that pride when he says:
“Oh Africa, so proud to be yours
Your colour on me, my glory
And I vow not to bleach
Sweet Africa, wish every day I could make merry
For the graceful natures of your abode
Low I bow sometimes to kiss your lovely soil
Which beneath lie my ancestors
Proudly, I cherish my differences from other races
My colour is my crown
No reason to frown
Loving the way I was born
Oh Africa, with you no boredom.”
Finally, it’s necessary to say this: the West is not the eternal enemy of Africa. We have gained some things from the White man. Their advancement in science and technology is one of the sweet pies they have shared with us. If we are fortunate to become strong economically, we mustn’t rustle our feathers on their faces in their presence. But rather, stretch open arms of harmony to them. The world badly needs this.
Again, Stephen Adinoyi says it well in his poem called “Black or White,” about this harmony I desire. He says:
“Open your arms
To Black or White
It’s no mistake
For that Hand to make
Black and White
Able to make
But He makes Blacks and Whites
His discretion makes the difference
Yet in the difference lies sameness
Inside the White
Lies the replica of the Black
Colour is no crime
Cos the content is one
All fashion so fine
By the greatest Divine
Open your arms
To Black or White“
Stephen Adinoyi is a writer of prose and poetry. His poetry and a short story have won multiple prizes. His published novella is titled “Teen of Fifteen.” He is a fellow of the Ebedi Writer Residency. His writing has been published in various newspapers including New Nigeria Newspaper and The Sun. He has been published in numerous journals and literary journals including Ebedi Review, and Ake Review. His writings have been anthologized in several publications including Fireflies, After The Curfew, and Footmark. He is the Chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Kaduna Chapter.