The March of History in Africa

by Segun Oguntola

Aromatic tobacco, red wine and music were my sole sources of light throughout those days of my black hole of an existence. I would stay in my living room chain smoking, drinking, listening to Beethoven, Chopin, Sun Ra Coltrane, Felá, intermittently pacing the floor like a caged lion. Subduing my rage and restlessness in thought and writing about it was how I retained my sanity. The March of History in Africa was one outcome of writing my rage, the first of my writing to earn me decent money.

“The ‘old Custom House’ is situated on the southernmost district of New York City. Adorning the front of the building are four massive statues by Daniel Chester French. The statues portray Africa, Europe, America and Asia. They are the inspiration for this essay.

“The statues had prowled in my thought since I discovered them. I had many times visited the ‘old Custom House’ to view exhibitions at The National Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian housed there, and to gaze at the statues from the comfort of a bench-chair at the Bowling Green Park situated across the building. After much musing on the statues I came to comprehend they interest me because of the story they tell.”

Thus I began The March of History, a paraphrase of which will suffice here.

I described in detail each of the statues, and critiqued the portrayal of Africa as a woman (continent / people) deep in slumber, her head tilted. Africa thus depicted, I pointed out, is an inactive woman, suspended in time; even the lion lying at her feet is in slumber. I argued the depiction is nonsensical, arrogant and ignorant. It is a depiction of Africa that should be critically understood to be consistent with the ongoing delusional, self- servicing and ultimately supremacist theory the Western world promulgates of its being a superior race and the progenitor of civilization on earth.

In the essay I posit this working definition of civilization:

Civilization profoundly understood is the totality of the developmental processes—the socio-political-economic organization, intellectual development and technological innovations—of a society. The people constituting that society must necessary have an indigenous cosmogony, because civilization is necessarily autonomous, from which that society derived its Culture. Culture profoundly understood is the social Heart of the Way of Life of a society, regulating—informing, influencing and ordering—its existence.

I used the definition to engage in a discussion of the rise and fall of civilizations; a phenomenon indicative of the manner History acts out its destined March in the world influencing the flow and ebb of the developmental processes of societies . . .

I mentioned that by History I do not mean the oral and written recounting of momentous (“historical”) local, national and international happenings conveniently called history and propagated in books and taught in schools. I refer to History in the Hegelian sense: the Spirit (call It God if you like) perpetually affecting the flow and ebb of the developmental processes of societies through human agents. The human agents whose “heroic” and “cowardly”, “violent” and “nonviolent”, “good and “evil” deeds fill volumes of history books and taught in schools, like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mandela. The goal of History is to create civilizations and through them accomplish Universal Love, Universal Freedom, in the world . . .

Thus, it is ridiculous, utterly sophomoric and annoyingly infantile, I argued, for any society to portray any other society as being in a slumber. Why? Because History is perpetually on the move; influencing the Way of Life of societies and in the process engendering a flux of developmental processes (civilization), which a society where History is at work might, absurdly, deem a sure sign of its superiority over others societies, deeming them uncivilized . . .

All thinking, critically thinking, persons know that since the beginning of time civilizations have come and gone. They know the Western civilization—purportedly originating in the Greek and Roman civilizations and promulgated the progenitors of world civilization; its civilizing and guarding light—which today is still running its course will one day end in accordance with the historical phenomenon of the rise and fall of civilizations. They know the Western civilization, extant for merely a fraction of human existence, cannot possibly, by any yardstick of a civilization, be the only one there ever was. They know the reason a people promulgate itself superior to other people is to justify its domination of them. . .

History having fulfilled Its destiny in the Greek and Roman civilizations and thus continued on its eternal March, would it not be nonsensical, a mockery of serious thinking, I argued, if any society today depict those bygone civilizations (societies) as now in a slumber? (That is, of course, not the case: I am not aware of any noteworthy mockery or depiction of the Greek and Roman civilizations as being in a slumber today. On the contrary, countless are the mentions of both civilizations’ glorious past and important contributions to Knowledge, to the developmental processes of the world . . . Of course it is right not to depict them as being in a slumber. Profoundly understood, what happened to both civilizations was this: Having fulfilled a part of Its purpose in the world through them, History departed them and continued Its divine March in the world. It is what becomes of all civilizations.) . . .

The statue portraying Europe depicts her not as a woman (continent / people) in a deep slumber, but appropriately: an aging queen (an “Old World”). Next to her is her daughter, America, also depicted appropriately: a young, exuberant woman eager to engage the world . . .

I went on to make these points:

Knowledge on the Universe, crucial to developmental processes, is cumulative. A society does not fully know the eventual significance of its actions on future societies. Therefore, no thinking people can believe or assert there were no civilizations in Africa that had contributed to Knowledge. The scientific community affirms Africa was the Original Home of man and corroborates it with scientific data. We can, therefore, be sure Africa was the place of primeval civilizations (note the plural), the earthly terrain where History started Its divine March in the world, and from where the world had gained much knowledge. But Africa is not readily acknowledged for this. There remains an ingrained denial of Africa in History. (I wonder why it is so; it is a tragedy for cross- cultural understanding.) The denial, most likely, explains why there remains this baffling reality in formal education in the Western world: many of their college students of “world history” do not know that iron smelting in internal combustion furnaces was a millennia-old reality in ancient Africa. And, why this may never be stated outright in their “world history” textbooks: The so-called “primitive” dwellings (those “huts”) constituting the housing extant in ancient Africa were the work of peoples knowledgeable of and engaged in sophisticated abstract reasoning, higher mathematics and computational concepts. (I am here alluding to the fractal patterns characteristic of the ancient architecture of Africa.) . . .

I went on to argue these: No one can say for sure that History will not once again march on Africa’s terrain. No one can say for sure History will not once again set up an Altar in Africa, influencing the ebb and flow of its people’s Way of Life, culminating in Africa once again making civilizing contributions to the world. No one can say for sure this is not the case in present-day Africa. And raised these questions: Does anyone know the real meaning of that recent, lengthy episode in the drama of Existence staged in South Africa, called Apartheid? Does anyone truly know the real meaning of the Confusion today plaguing the socio-political-economic life of Africa, engendering crushing, demoralizing suffering for the majority of her children? Is Nelson Mandela, as is Julius Caesar, not worthy of inclusion in a list of Hegel’s world historical people: those who are the harbingers of the future; History’s human agents in Its destined goal to effect Universal Love, Universal Freedom, in the world? Is it ridiculous to say Mandela is a spirit-being destined to live in the flesh and suffered as he did, not just for Africa and Africans but, for all lands and people, as did the spirit-beings named Jesus, and Martin Luther King, Jr.?

I concluded the essay thus:

It is high time we start thinking profoundly about Existence without regard to the nature of being, race or creed. It is high time we be at peace with the truth that we are all beings destined to live together on planet-earth.

I hope the reader’s knowledge on world affairs and how it has impacted and continues to impact Africa is thoroughgoing. If literature on Africa is not in your home library I implore you to start reading widely and critically, and start thinking profoundly on matters concerning Her because Her continuing story is an episode crucial to the earthly drama of Existence, the direction and culmination of which no human can deduce with certainty. And I hope you have comprehended this cosmic relevance of Africa: Africa is most likely the salvation of the world. Consider this: regardless of the material and spiritual oppression afflicting Africa, she endures, remains sublime, gifted with immeasurable wealth and the capacity for incessant improvisation, endless possibilities. Africa is today struggling, yet she has much to contribute to the world. Ben Okri says it well in his essay, Redreaming The World:

“[The oppressed] have much to struggle for, to be alive for, beyond the mountains of their crisis.”

“[…] Hope and striving have magic in them. Those who have much to strive for, much to resolve and overcome and redream, may well be luckier than they think. Struggle is life. And there is something awesomely beautiful and history-making about those who have set out to climb the seven mountains of their predicaments, towards the new destinies that lie beyond, with the star of hope above their heads.

“For in their patience and in their egalitarian triumph they can teach us all how to live again and how to love again and could well make it possible for us all to create the beginnings of the first truly universal civilization in the history of recorded and unrecorded time.”

In the last paragraph of the essay I counseled:
“We are all beings of the Universe. We, therefore, ought to selflessly use our knowledge on the Universe, regardless of the race and creed through whom and which we acquire it, for the betterment of all. Rather than espousing supremacist ideas we should recognize the contributions all civilizations have made to the progress of the world. We should have the courage and the will to walk and act in concert. That, simply, is the starting point for realizing (the idea of) Universal Love, Universal Freedom, in the world.”

Thus I ended The March of History in Africa.

Mrs. Geist, my friend and supporter of my writing, “liked” the essay “very much”. She sent it to the Ecumenical Society who paid me well for it, published it in its journal, My Brother’s Keeper and commented: “When you write more of this kind of insightful and quite ingenious essay, we would like to be the first to see it.” Mrs. Piety, my benefactor, was “pleased” with the essay. She deemed it “a poignant effort marking the beginning of what I am sure will be your impact on people’s lives and thoughts”, but counseled me to be wary of producing blasphemous intellectual work. Mama was “happy”, said she would pray for me that God continues to protect me and guide me to Knowledge. Mika, the light of my life; the flower of my existence, was generous with kind remarks, asked me to send her a copy of the essay. “I should start a file on your work,” she said. Ségun, my other self, “appreciated” the essay, but deemed it “heavy and challenging to those not familiar with the philosophy of Hegel, in particular, his concept of History”. Abdul, my confidant, was quite ecstatic. In his characteristically radical manner, he said: “That is what we are talking about. Tell it like it is. Educate them, my brother. They are the ones whose thought on Africa is in a slumber. We must jolt them awake to human reality. We must make them recognize Africa. Bravo, mon frère, bravo.”

The second essay I published with The Ecumenical Society was Africa: An Altar of History. In it, I fully discussed the questions I had posed in The March of History in Africa, namely: Who is to say History would not once again march on Africa’s terrain? Who is to say History will not once again set up an Altar in Africa influencing the ebb and flow of its people’s Way of Life, culminating in Africa once again making civilizing contributions to the world? I mentioned this: The miserable socio-political-economic existence, warped ethics and bifurcated spirituality which has characterized the life of Africa since the so-called independence of Her societies is nowadays conventionally cited as indicative of the chaotic nature of Africa. And argued: It is perhaps not chaos at all, but indicates History has indeed returned to Africa and has set up an Altar there on which human lambs are being sacrificed; sacrifices being vital for progress, a sacrificial drama of Existence on the African stage, the outcome of which no human can know for sure. . . .

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1 comment

Anonymous May 16, 2005 - 1:07 pm

A seed stays in slumber, for long sometimes, before it sprouts and produces good fruit as the time rightens. The times are ripe.


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