Proposed Alternatives to the “We Were Kings & Queens” Narrative

What does awareness of Egypt and Mansa Musa do for a Black person living in 2020?

Jada F. Smith
Aug 24 · 8 min read
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Grandy Nanny of the Windward Maroons

Dear Fellow Black People,

Have you ever delivered one of the following admonitions to another Black person? “See, [xyz bleak or oppressive situation] is happening because Black people don’t know their history”? Have you ever said, “if Black people just knew their history, we wouldn’t be in [xyz bleak or oppressive situation]”? Or something of the sort?

If so, do you usually follow that statement with something about Egypt? Or Mansa Musa? Or the alleged multitudes of “kings and queens” that lived in pre-colonial Africa?

Or, if you don’t go the Egypt/Mansa Musa/kings and queens route, do you say something like, “See, Black people don’t know their history. We were the first humans and therefore should carry ourselves as the originators that we are”?

I’m not here to argue the validity of either set of historical claims. I’m here, rather, to ask how mentioning those aspects of our history are relevant to getting us out of the [xyz bleak or oppressive situation] we’re currently in. What action does that inspire today? What does awareness of those parts of our history do for a Black person living in 2020, other than give them warm feelings and a sense of pride? What is the actionable takeaway?

To be clear, warm feelings and senses of pride are important, but without direct relevance to our current situation, their impact as tools of inspiration are severely limited. Rarely, if ever, have I heard anyone follow a “Black folks need to learn their history” statement with something that’s 1. Within a neocolonial or imperial context (which we currently live in and can therefore relate to), or 2. Instructive for how we might be able to overcome [xyz oppressive situation] today.

It’s as if many of the people saying “Black folks don’t know their history” are simply caught up in romantic ideals (when romance, in general, is useless and more often a hinderance to people achieving their purpose than a help). Or, they don’t realize how much more effective they could be if they chose some different history to highlight.

So, in the spirit of being useful, I would like to humbly offer some alternative follow-ups that well-meaning Black folks can use after saying “See, Black people don’t know their history…” These are just a few:

1. “See, Black folks don’t know their history. Have you ever heard of the Maroons? The Windward Maroons of Jamaica? The Yanganistas of Mexico? The various groups of self-determined Africans in Suriname, Cuba, Bolivia, Brazil, Panama and Florida who successfully refused enslavement? Not only did they demand to live on their own terms — outside of capitalism, racism, forced Christianity and cultural erasure — they were able to preserve and build on their African-centered ways of life DURING slavery! So, you see, life outside of colonization and various forms of enslavement are part of our history and can be part of our future too!”

2. “See, Black folks don’t know their history. Are you familiar with Robert F. Williams and the Black Armed Guard a.k.a. the Black Guard a.k.a. the Self-Defense Guard a.k.a. the Negroes with Guns? Did you know that in the early 1960s, a coalition of Black “laborers, farmers, domestic workers, the unemployed and any and all Negro people in the area [of Monroe, North Carolina]” developed highly effective self-defense tactics to create a safe zone for their neighbors, friends and loved ones in response to terrorism inflicted by the american government, law enforcement agencies, the Klan and a great majority of the town’s regular degular white residents? And that their methodologies were so successful that white people actually left them alone and they were able to manage the normal stresses of life without the added burden of racism?! (for a while.) See! A world in which we are able to protect our agency, dignity and physical bodies against our enemies is possible! We could probably do it again if we wanted!”

3. “See, Black folks don’t know their history. Do you know about the Atlanta Washerwoman’s Strike of 1881? Did you know that only 16 years after slavery was ‘abolished,’ these Black women leveraged a savvy understanding of the political landscape to organize themselves and improve their collective labor conditions? And did you know they almost brought that city to a complete standstill while doing it?! I bet folks could do it again if they wanted.”

These, I think, might inspire action instead of just good feelings and senses of pride. But! Don’t do people the disservice of only informing them of the outcomes. Tell them, also, how our ancestors did it.

1. In Jamaica, the Maroons were able to successfully fend off British troops — what was supposedly the “greatest army in the world” at the time — because:

a. They had a good relationship with the land. They studied it, adapted to its laws and lived in accordance with them. They did not ignore those laws or plow through the land in a rush to make profit. They didn’t dominate it or force it to bend to their will. And in return, nature allowed them to co-create ingenious military strategies with it.

ex. 1: They invented the art of camouflage and fatigues, says Nana Farika, a direct descendant of the Maroons. “They’re the ones who knew they must blend in with the environment.” While the British were coming through in “bright red coats and big heavy boots that one could hear miles and miles away.” She said that the Africans walked on tip toes. That they dressed like trees.

They “cut down the tree of the cocoon bush. It is said that that bush had some effect of calming one’s spirit, and they wrapped themselves in it from head to toe and would stand for hours waiting on the British. Then a tree would spring out [at the British]. Can you imagine how scared they were to see trees attacking them?”

“They could make sounds like birds or frogs or whatever animals there were. And they could talk to each other that way. They knew how to walk very softly, how to cook without fires.”

“They had certain leaves they could get water from. So they could go for days without water because they knew to get it from the plants.”

ex. 2: “They established themselves in the hills and the swamps, away from prying eyes,” Farika said. They set up their communities in remote areas that could only be approached via single file line, giving them an incredible amount of control over who had access to their space.

ex. 3: “The art of jerking came out of this experience,” Farika said. “To preserve things and not to make a big smoke so that the British could know where their camps were.”

b. They honored and maintained access to their ancestral practices and memories.

ex. 1: They “used African spirituality to confuse and defeat the British,” Farika says. The leader of the Windward Maroons, Grandy Nanny, was “an herbalist, she was a healer, she was a military strategist.”

c. They had an impenetrable means of communication.

ex. 1: “One of the main instruments of their [the British’s] defeat” was a horn called the abeng, which actually means “horn” in the Akan language of Twi. It could be heard as far away as 5 miles away, telegraphing secret codes and enemy intel. It is the intellectual grandfather of the walkie talkie.

2. The Africans living in Monroe, North Carolina were able to protect themselves from the physical manifestations of white people’s shared psychosis of superiority and authority by:

a. Studying the law and using it in their favor (to the extent possible).

b. Not wasting time trying to get the “respectable” Black middle class and neoliberals on their side. There is no appealing to a middle class (of any color) that is more or less aware of the burden faced by impoverished people, but have managed to get enough of the pie to be shielded from feeling the worst parts of capitalistic exploitation and white supremacist violence, and are therefore unwilling to rock the boat in fear of losing what little “protection” their money and social status could give them. With exceptions, they are lost causes and we should move on.

c. Not only should we be focused on organizing the people who experience the worst parts of the system, but we should make sure there is some Shango energy on the squad. In addition to the domestic workers and unemployed Negroes, the coalition also included Black “returned veterans who were militant and who didn’t scare easy.”

d. Building a network of relationships with true allies of every color, both at “home” (a settler colony on land gained through vicious genocide is not our — well, it’s not my — home) and abroad.

e. Continuously investing in, refining and safeguarding their means of communication. Having as much control over the media narrative as possible.

f. Procuring arms and learning how and when, exactly, to use them.

g. Being part of a highly organized organization, so that if you ever get hemmed up, there are people on the outside who are 1. Aware of your absence (because sometimes they will kidnap and quietly “disappear you”), and 2. can quickly advocate and raise money for your release.

3. The Washing Society of Atlanta was able to realize and exert their collective power against Atlanta’s business and political establishment through:

a. Persistence, organization and unrelenting unity. Door to door canvassing and near nightly meetings.

b. Flouting class and gender norms. According to Tera W. Hunter, they freely abandoned “middle-class conventions of femininity” and were willing to have “street fights to settle disputes that jeopardized their unity.”

c. A willingness to make hard sacrifices. These women were often jeopardizing “what was sometimes the sole family income” to “fight for a just cause to improve their immediate circumstances and the long-range prospects of their lives.”

Lastly, I would encourage that you ask whomever you’re telling, “See Black folks don’t know their history,” to ask who benefits from having these parts of history kept from them. Encourage them to ask themselves why examples of the most marginalized parts of the Black population successfully taking power into their own hands are not more well-known and prolific? Who might be afraid of a bunch of Black people — across class lines, along with their true allies across color lines — being inspired and encouraged by such moments in history? What do they think might happen?

So, yeah. Those are just a few humbly offered suggestions. I think they would be way more effective and inspiring, on a practical level, than talking about Egypt, Mansa Musa or our status as the “first.”

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