The history of blacks in America is a bittersweet saga, bitter with the tragic tales of slavery, injustice and discrimination, but sweet as well with many success stories through generations of achievement, pride, and the will to survive sometimes overwhelming odds.
As Black History Month begins, The District Weekly offers a small, ambitious sampling of history from the time of little-known black pharoahs and warrior kings who reigned when African culture was among the most highly developed in the world, to struggles and concerns of blacks who live in the Washington area.
Black history did not begin in 1619 when the first black indentured servants were traded for sea rations at Jamestown, or when slave ships docked at such ports as Alexandria, Annapolis or Baltimore. And it did not end with the signing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of the 1960s.
The saga starts in Africa -- not the stereotypical Africa of Hollywood, but the Africa of glorious kingdoms that in their day spanned the breadth of man's knowledge in the arts, justice, medicine, architecture and science.
Every culture builds upon its predecessors. Just as the Romans were influenced by the Greeks and the Greeks by the Egyptians, the Egyptians were influenced by the cultures of blacks who lived along the Nile River Valley.
In "They Came Before Columbus," Rutgers professor Ivan Van Sertima writes that findings in the Sahara and Sudan indicate that much of the art of the Egyptian tombs -- the bird and animal gods -- came from blacks in the regions to the south and west of the Nile.
Some speculate that blacks may have been first to practice the technique of mummification.
Anthropologist Olivia Vlahos, in "African Beginnings," noted the Italian discovery of the mummy of a black child that was 500 years older than the earliest Egyptian mummies yet found. In addition, the wall of the child's grave bore a painting depicting a mummy bound in cloth, the same way the dead were presented in Egyptian tombs.
There are other examples of black cultural influence in Egyptian civilization. The animal gods of Egypt have been traced to the rock art of blacks in the Algeria's Tassili mountains. British historian and journalist Basil Davidson's book "The Lost Cities of Africa" lists the findings of anthropologist Henri Lhote, who called the Tassili drawings of animal herds, herders and bird-headed goddesses the work of "people of Negroid type" who were "painting men and women with a beautiful and sensitive realism before 3000 B.C. and were among the originators of naturalistic human portraiture."
Some cultural historians, like Cheikh Anta Diop of Senegal, maintain that the early dynasties of Egypt were ruled by black pharoahs.In "The African Origin of Civilization," Diop asserts that Menes [or Narmer, traditionally regarded as the first pharoah of the first dynasty of ancient Egypt], who unified the upper and lower Nile kingdoms around 3110 B.C., was black, as well as Djoser, the builder of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara (the oldest Egyptian pyramid, built around 2650 B.C.) and Khufu (Cheops), the designer and builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza, about 2560 B.C.
Other historians and anthropologists maintain that Queen Tiy, the mother of King Tutankhamen, was black, but the evidence mustered against this theory is equally strong. The same is true of the racial origins of Akhenaten, the husband of Queen Nefertiti. He was the first ruler in recorded history to worship one god.
It is generally accepted, however, that by the 8th century B.C., black Kushites had established political control of Egypt that was to last for almost a century. It was during this era that the black pharoah Shabaka restored the temple at Thebes, and his successor, Taharka, was hailed as the "Emperor of the World."
The Egyptian empire under the Kushites was not the only black African kingdom to prosper. Centuries later, in the area the Arabs called Biled es Sudan -- the Land of the Blacks -- the West African kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhai would become known as important trading centers for salt, gold and other precious metals.
Possibly the best known leader of these West African kingdoms was Mali's Mansa Musa, who reigned from 1312 to 1337 A.D. and dazzled the world with his 7,200-person caravan to Mecca. Musa's entourage included 100 camels, each loaded with 300 pounds of gold. It is said that he upset the gold market in Cairo for years to come. So great was his reputation that in 1375 one of the earliest maps of Africa appeared in Europe carrying his image with the legend: "Musa of Mali, Lord of the Negroes."
Another king, Askia Mohammed, the leader of the Songhai empire in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, is credited with fostering numerous educational institutions, improving banking and credit procedures, developing a professional army, increasing foreign trade, and creating an effective central administrative government.
During this time, scholars from Arab and black countries studied literature, law, surgery and geography. A distinctly West African literature began to emerge, and ancient cities like Gao and Djenne became cultural centers. Surgeons in Djenne are said to have removed cataracts and performed other surgery more advanced than that developed in Europe at that time.
Black Africans also excelled in navigation, and are thought by some scholars to have arrived in the Western Hemispere centuries before Christopher Columbus.
In 1968, The Society for American Archeology concluded that "there were visitors to the New World from the Old in historic or even prehistoric times before 1492."
Some argue that there is evidence to support those conclusions:
* According to Rutgers' Prof. Van Sertima, the massive eight-foot, 40-ton stone head carvings of Mexico's Olmec Indians are portraits of African sailors, even down "to the helmets similar to those worn by Egyptian warriors during the rule of the Nubian (black) kings."
* A description by Columbus of handkerchiefs given to his crew by South American natives. He wrote that they were similar in color, design and use to "those from Guinea, from the rivers of Sierra Leone."
* Adventurer Thor Heyerdahl's 1969 and 1970 Ra expeditions in papyrus boats, similar to those used by ancient Egyptians, proved a drift journey using currents from Africa to the Americas was possible.
Such evidence suggests that the first blacks to the New World, as the Western Hemisphere was then called, were not slaves, but free men. After Columbus, however, the then-universal practice of enslaving human beings was responsible for the influx of unwilling black immigrants who, bound in chains, were systematically cut off from their own languages, families and traditions.
The New World's demand for a stable source of labor led to a dramatic increase in the African slave trade. The Spanish and Portuguese settlements in the Caribbean and in Central and South America were deemed worthless without a controlled and stable laboring class. Following the failure of the use of indentured Europeans and Native American workers, the colonizers turned to Africa. Initially, most slaves were prisoners of tribal African wars.
The great European demand for black workers intensified these wars and led to the mass transfer of conquered populations similar to the forced migrations during the Roman Empire.
During the period of African slavery an estimated 10 million to 50 million blacks were brought to the Western Hemisphere, according to Russell Adams, chairman of Howard University's Afro-American Studies Department. Their contributions stabilized European settlements, made the Western Hemisphere profitable for European countries, and greatly influenced the cultures established beyond the western rim of the Atlantic.
By the early 1600s, slaves were shipped to ports along the eastern coast of what became the United States and eventually were sold to work the tobacco, rice and cotton fields in the colonies in the Carolinas, Virginia and Maryland.