TO CHANGE OUR WORLD FIRST UNDERSTAND OUR WORLD
by Dr. C.J. Munford Professor Emeritus Department of History University of Guelph
One realization that jumps front and center from a survey of ancient civilizations is the character of Black history as the preeminent long-duration crisis of modern times---an emergency that has stretched uninterrupted from 1441 to the present. Correct periodization is thus crucial to our purpose.
Enfolded in this long duration crisis are whole epochs, including four centuries of forced mass deportation of captives from Mother Africa (misnamed "Atlantic Slave Trade"), the Middle Passage holocaust, the era of Amerindian genocide (1492-nineteenth century), and Western civilization's incorporation and exploitation of the Western Hemisphere through the instrumentality of enslaved Black labor power (1518-1888).
Our long duration crisis is a struggle of opposites. The installment of white supremacy has not been an easy ride. Black resistance has been a constant theme. The last two hundred years have witnessed the revolutionary overthrow of chattel slavery (1791-1888), followed by bitter post-slavery emancipatory struggles throughout the Diaspora. The aftermath of the abolition of chattel slavery gave birth to the modern Black intelligentsia. Not to be overlooked either are the late nineteenth century imperialist scramble, partition and occupation of the African continent, and the reactive rise of Pan-African and national liberation movements, finally winning "flag-decolonization." Post World War II brought civil rights and Black power nationalism to America, and stirrings of Black consciousness to Brazil. However, the heat of our emergency is white hot once more as Black America enters the twenty-first century in desperate circumstances, and the African continent suffers neocolonial recolonization and an AIDS epidemic.
It makes sense to grasp the modern history of the entire Black world as one monstrous crisis, or emergency, global in scope, now some 550 years and counting. Our torment commenced on a dark night in 1441 when a band of Portuguese manhunters crept ashore in Mauritania.
Most urgently civilizational historicism seeks to pinpoint turning points. And the onset of the Atlantic Slave Trade (1441) was not only the beginning of something horrible, it was also the decisive turning point in the history of Black civilization, for it ruptured Africa's autonomous, organic development, ending the continent's freedom from white manipulation. Just as 1441 raised the negative pole in our history, so the gradual destruction of chattel slavery in the century from 1791 to 1888 was the potentially positive pole, a turning point in the history of the Black Diaspora that failed its promise. It is because we were not really emancipated in the nineteenth century that the Black history project heads the agenda at the outset of the twenty-first century. It seems self-evident, axiomatic, that since time beyond memory civilizations routinely welcome or reject influences from other civilizations, and do the same with survivals from their own past. Not so in the case of Black civilization, however. Because subject to white supremacy, Black civilization over the last 500 years has not enjoyed the liberty of making such systemic choices. That yoke had to leave a mark.
We have never yet experienced any real liberation. What we have suffered through for the past 500 years is a series of modernizations of enslavement, disguised as "emancipations" in the span from 1791 to 1888. Each modernization has occurred at a crucial turning point in history when the system of Black servitude was in crisis and seemed threatened with collapse. Each modernization has involved some great political confrontation like the Civil War, or like the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Each modernization has saved the day for the white man by discarding the unnecessary frills of white domination (i.e. the "petty apartheids"), while rescuing the essentials of Black subjugation. Each modernization has revealed that liberation can never be accomplished without breaking the back of white supremacy.
Thus a provisional outline of a comprehensive, "big-picture" Black historical timeline as an explanatory model for macro-history pertinent to African Americans would encompass the following manifest events: Nile valley civilization and Kemetic Egypt from ca. 10,000 BC to 300 BC.
West and West-Central African civilization sphere, ca. 9000 BC-1441 AD. 1441 Beginning of the Atlantic Slave Trade: a radical break in tradition, igniting the holocaust of Black enslavement and decline in the quality of Black civilization. Trigger of current long duration crisis; nadir phase. Age of revolutionary overthrow of chattel slavery (Haitian Revolution 1791 to abolition of slavery in Brazil 1888). U.S. Civil War 1861-1865. Black Reconstruction 1863 (or 1865 or 1868)-1877.
Toward the end of the 19th century the Black world faced the imperialist scramble, partition and conquest of Africa, ca. 1884/1885-1914. The fight-back peaked in African national independence struggles, ca. 1957 to "Africa Year 1960" to 1974/75-1994 (fall of political apartheid). U.S. Civil Rights Movement 1950s-1960s. Rise of the struggle for Black reparations globally, ca. 1980s to 21st century.
Western Hemisphere countries are built on the Black-white contentious engagement making racial contradictions uppermost. Through all history's permutations, Western civilization has remained racist. Under the assault from Black militancy over the last 200 years, it has grudgingly conceded positions but maintained white supremacy. Civilizational historicism concludes that the prospect of liberating the function of the state from racism is poor without overhauling Western civilization per se. However, the question of the nature of a revolutionary situation remains.
During such times the efforts of political activists build to white-hot intensity. The consciousness and organization of the revolutionaries are the key to the actual realization of revolutionary potential. Not every revolutionary situation ends in revolution, any more than every fulfilled revolution transforms the civilizational underbase upon which the society in turmoil sits. The French Revolution of 1789, an awesome explosion, did not. It inaugurated capitalist democracy, but left France's inherited European civilization intact - complete with its racist overtones. The Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 had a deeper thrust. It not only abolished the slavery mode of production and oppression, it endowed Haiti with a hybrid culture much more African than Western. Unfortunately, the questions of when a revolutionary situation flowers in an actual revolution, and when it leads only to a coup or aborts entirely, can be answered only in retrospect.
We African Americans are constantly playing political catch-up. Modernizations of our enslavement are constantly ahead of our defensive responses. Throughout Black history since the Civil War, the focus of all our battle strategies for power and well-being has been merely to pull even, steal a march, and seize the political initiative before the onset of the next modernization, to secure some sort of armor against white supremacy's constant updating and refinement of its mechanism of domination.
These objections and this anger need not spook the forces of Black liberation. History establishes priorities. After all, during the Civil War, thousands of white families lost men killed while fighting in the Union Army against the pro-slavery army of the Confederacy. Many in these families regarded themselves and their lost kin as "losers." Nevertheless, the historical needs of the Republic were served. At that juncture in history the abolition of chattel slavery was a requirement that had to be met---regardless of the body count. The abolitionist coalition of Blacks and whites was never a majority of the population. Momentous ruptures in social development take time to mature, but once their hour has arrived, history brooks neither delay nor bean counting, and certainly not the tallying of formal votes. Timid winner-loser mentality is out of place. The coalition of Blacks and anti-racist whites will just have to prevail over white resistance.
Just as traces of aversion to Blacks occur in all white societies where people of African origin are present, so there is a general and overriding Black Interest that can be classified under the heading of a general category---i.e. a main concept formed in the process of historical development on the basis of social practice in North America. It should not be confused with specific Black interests which vary according to issue and happenstance. The general interest should be accorded a kind of determining veto, as it were, over all Black strategy and tactics.
A Black agenda of enhanced sophistication must refine its coalition policy and show greater shrewdness. Prerogative must go to cooperation with the 12 to 15 percent of white Americans who are anti-racists. Anti-racist whites are a small but potentially powerful minority. A bloc combining African Americans with whites who nix white supremacy can prove pivotal in social and political development during the next 50 years and more. A salient trait of African American history throughout the last 150 years has been sequential modernizations of enslavement. What, therefore, could be more appropriate for the twenty-first century than a neo-abolitionist grand alliance? Parallel to that, serious efforts should be made to enfold both anglophone and francophone and Spanish-speaking West Indians and Afro-Latino immigrants within the United States' racial family of Blacks. America's racial principle of social selection could force them into the family.