I am not black – I am a human being By William Nonge

It is incumbent on me to act on a social and historical issue well rooted from centuries concerning the description of people from sub-Sahara African origins, known as “black people”.

Though we would not be able to trace down the exact time and the real motives that led to such classification or labelling, it is however necessary for us to rethink about such misconception. Being a person of Sub-Saharan region and identifying myself as a Muntu coming from Bantu ethnic group, I am compelled with such a mission to awaken people I share the same characteristic trait with to question such labelling that we had naively accepted for several centuries.

In the coming lines we will try to address questions related to historical context in which this categorisation was made (approximate time, people who made it known); the legitimacy of this labelling; detrimental effects of names and labelling; breaking paradigms, stigma and prejudice by defining our true identity and creating a positive image

Before going any further I would like to disclaim that this paper is not of any political or racist motivation. It doesn’t intend whatsoever to put blame on anyone from any other ethno-social group about what happened over centuries ago. However, while a brief historical overview will be necessary to contextualise facts, our focal aim is to promote a self-analysis of people from sub-Sahara African descent with regard to the harmful consequences they have suffered over time. In view of the past legacy, we want to rethink about our own status in order to promote our self-esteem and dignity.

According to written record, the term “Black People” can be traced as early as 6th Century AD mainly used by Arab and Persian traders who made contact with people living in East Africa. Arabs used the term “Zanj” for instance in reference to the “Land of the Blacks”, particularly as territories inhabited by Bantu people they then encountered alongside the Southeast coast of Africa. We will notice that this term was at the origin of a place called Zanzibar which is a combination of two words meaning “Coast of the Black People”. Also the Swahili term “Shenzi” derived from the same above stem referring to anything related to rural native or uncivilized. Let’s note that Arabs, Persians and Indians traded for centuries with Bantu people in the eastern coast of Africa where eventually, Arab traders would start shipping African slaves to Middle Eastern countries such as modern Iraq. Other slaves will then be taken to the Far East in China too.

On the other side of the African continent, the term “Negro” was first applied by Portuguese and Spanish around 1442 to describe bantu people they encountered in the Western Coast of Africa while trying to discover the sea route to India. The term Negro stems from the Latin word “niger” meaning black. Around mid-18th Century, an African map was produced and designated parts of West Africa as “Negroland”. There too the latinization of a river called by locals and Berbers as “Gher n gheren” (meaning River of rivers) would be transliterated to Niger River. This river would eventually lead to country names such as Niger and Nigeria. We can remember of the slave trade which flourished and spanned for a period between 15th and 19th Century and followed by the colonisation of the African continent for more than eighty years.

On both coasts of the African continent, inaccurate description of Bantu people living these areas led to certain negative views such as the following extract from Kitab al-Bad wah-tarikh written by Al-Muqaddasi: “As for the Zanj, they are people of black colour, flat noses, kinky hair, and little intelligence or understanding”[1]. Whatever had happened in previous centuries cannot and will not always determine the essence of people with these distinct characteristics. We need to redefine our own identity with no reference to what other people chose to describe or to call us but by claiming who we really are without mentioning any colouring categorisation. It is now time to really question what has been formalised and normalised throughout the time with the purpose of restoring our dignity. Times change so does the significance of certain words too.

From the above historical context, it emerged that the terms “Black”, “Negro” and Zanj were first and commonly used by explorers and traders from Europe and Asia for about fourteen centuries. When making contact with people in Sub Saharan Africa for various motives including the slave trade and colonisation, they were incontestably referred not only as black or zanj because of their characteristic traits but were simply called “Blacks”, “Negroes” or “Zanj”. In the late nineteenth century, physical and forensic anthropologists would use the term “Negroid” literally meaning “black resemblance” as part of their classification of the three main human races alongside the Caucasoid and Mongoloid groups. This scientific classification was an effort to categorise groups of people sharing certain morphological and skeletal traits. Let’s note that Negroid was also known as “Congoid”, since many scientists wanted to distance themselves from the use of the former term because of its racist connotation.

It is clear that successive civilisations of the past from around the world made judgements upon people inhabiting sub-Saharan Africa with racially labelling them as “Black People”. Should the judgement of the past be dogmatically carried over millennia without being questioned? History tells us that be it in science, in religion or in politics there had been moments when a theory, a truth or a system would be deemed questionable at a point of making it obsolete or overturned. To bring home the point, in 2016 a bill was passed into law under president Obama’s administration making the term “negro” obsolete and offensive when referring it to African-American people.

Without any shadow of doubt, it is clear that our ancestors were labelled as “blacks” because of the colour of their skins. Except of any evolutionary transformation affecting our pigmentation to slightly become lighter over the last two millennia (subject to clear evidence of such evolution happening), can we admit that the colour of our skins is really black?  Except of any colour blindness, the colour of our skin rather varies between dark brown and light brown.

All things being equal, and in case the above affirmation was true that our ancestors’ skin pigmentation was “black”, should we accept to be called “Black People”? Should we not think of a more dignifying way of defining ourselves? It is said that nobody can control another one unless that person allows them. Through the means of oppressive slavery and colonisation, we know that the use of the terms “black” or “negro” were commonly accepted both by the masters and the slaves. Should we, people of such distinctive characteristics, still carry the sombre legacy of the past which in my view let us perpetrate implicitly and explicitly unnecessary prejudice upon ourselves?

Unlike other major racial groups such as Mongoloid and Caucasoid, unlike other major ethnic groups such as Indians, Chinese, Arabs, why should we accept to be referred as “Blacks”?  Why should we not call ourselves majestically “Bantu People” for instance? In fact, Bantu means “Men”, “People”, or “Human being” in most African languages. What concerns me is that in our recent history, certain civil rights movements challenged the use of the term “negro” by substituting it with “black” though both have semantically the same meaning. In fact, while the former term takes its origin from Latin “niger”, the latter is from Germanic root which transliterated from Old English “blæc”.

In my opinion, the use of either term by people of Sub-Sahara African origins is an act of self-insult not as symbol of pride. Admitting to call ourselves “black people” means that we are casting a cheap insult upon ourselves with serious consequence of perpetrating the slave mentality for generations. If in one part of the world they now consider the term “negro” as offensive, why shouldn’t we discard the term “black” too, since they both semantically mean the same? I have learned that it is not what other people say about you that matters but it is what you say about you that bears consequences on your own destiny. We therefore should not expect anybody else to legitimise our identity but ourselves. Yet, both terms have negative connotation as we will learn about meaning of colours.

Throughout the human history, we know how detrimental certain names, colours or labelling can be to the point of affecting consciously or subconsciously concerned individuals.

I agree with Jesse Jackson who recognised in the 1980s as John McWhorter pointed out that even the term “black” should be overhauled in the same way as “negro” or “coloured” terms were considered inappropriately offensive by certain civil rights leaders in the 60s and 70s. According to Reverend Jackson, the term “black” had a negative connotation of evil and impurity.

Let us note that throughout time, in many civilisations, religions and cultures, the use of colours encodes different meanings and interpretations. But where these societies will mostly concord unquestionably is their interpretation of black colour.  For many black means darkness, death, sin, humiliation, ignorance, chaos, calamity, mourning, evil, mystery, etc.

Returning back to periods when the terms “black people”, “Negro”, “Zanj” were first referred to people inhabiting the African continent, we must recognise how superstitious or religious were those Europeans, Arabs, Persians and Indians people who first encountered Bantu people and other ethnic groups of Sub-Saharan Africa. Overall, calling them “black people” would not have been an act of compliment at all by these explorers and traders but a misjudgement based on their appearance. Through their global consciousness, both Europeans and Asians of that epoch, called African people as “blacks” because they looked different to them and with various meanings associated with the black colour, they then justified slave trade at its phenomenal scale over several hundred years as a way of dehumanising mainly Bantu people with reducing them to objects as natural slaves.

When writing this paper, our intention was not of putting blame on any group of people of different era for their misjudgement on a particular group with oppressive means which history reminds our collective memory. But as persons of African origins, we need to turn that dark page with a collective conscious deliberate effort to look forward in order to redefine our destiny and restore our own dignity. What matters in life is not you continuously complain about a particular situation but more essentially what you do about it. Knowledge is power it is said. But the knowledge of oneself is first and foremost the unstoppable power that one can possess. It is written, you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. Knowing the truth about ourselves should be our priority toward our spiritual, moral, mental and intellectual freedom.

The worst slavery that ever exists is the ignorance of oneself. Because of the ignorance of ourselves, over two thousand years on, we still accept such evil epithet of “black” which symbolises darkness, ignorance, evil, poverty. We are where we are because what we had admitted as a ‘reality’ in our collective mind. The good news is that we can change our status by changing what goes into our collective mind. Frankly, African people from Sub-Sahara do not lack of more dignifying ways of calling themselves. Why don’t we call ourselves distinctively according to our major ethnic origins as Bantu, Mande, Hausa, Songhai, etc.? Why not adopting a general classification such as African instead of “Blacks” or “Black People”?

Once we come to self realisation of who we really are, we also should consider forgiving collectively oppressors of our ancestors for haemorrhaging the continent of its dignified people through slavery at a phenomenal global scale. Let us forgive Europeans who through colonisation have used coercive methods to subjugate African people who were just recovering from the suffering of slave trade for about fourteen centuries. And above all, in order to free ourselves from the slave mentality of self-ignorance, we should forgive the ignorance of those who made this monumental misjudgement of describing our ancestors as “Negroes”, “Blacks”, “Zanj”, etc.

While we should let no one consider us as sub-humans with a humiliating epithet, we should neither wait for anybody else to rectify this error of description upon our appearance and our identity. We should boldly and proudly use an endonym approach by describing ourselves as “African People”. Depending whether people can easily trace their ethnic roots, a more specific description for people to identify themselves as Mande, Hausa, Bantu, Khoisan, Nilotic, Songhai, etc. is more dignifying.

Individually, I am proud of calling myself Muntu which literally means “human being” a singular term for Bantu. No one can deny us any right of being “human beings” equally created as everybody else though presenting with different characteristic traits. We cannot be described from a certain categorisation based upon a misconceived colour coding which dehumanised a whole race with damaging prejudice to date. We are Africans, we are people and we are simply human beings.

 

 

Taylor, Karen T. (2010). Forensic Art and Illustration. CRC Press p. 62

Henry M. Stanley, The Origin of the Negro Race, The North American Review, Vol. 170, No. 522 (May, 1900), pp. 656-665 https://www.jstor.org/stable/25104999?seq=8#page_scan_tab_contents

Jacob Olesen, https://www.color-meanings.com/biblical-meaning-colors/

Wulf D. Hund, University of Hamburg and Charles W Mills, Northwestern University,

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/the-conversation-africa/comparing-black-people-to_b_9345322.html

John McWhorter Aug 23 2016 https://edition.cnn.com/2016/08/22/opinions/colored-people-and-abc-anchors-apology-mcwhorter/index.html

 

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zanj#cite_note-24

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