I took a great class last semester and one particular lecture was on development politics and representation and knowledge and power and consciousness and all that kind of abstract, brain-hurty subject matter. Here’s an excerpt from one of the better articles I read – The Re-invention of Africa, Edward Said, V. Y. Mudimbe and Beyond by Ali Mazrui (2005) – a few interesting thoughts on history and racism that have been swirling around my head again lately…
One of the paradoxes of history is that it took Africa’s contact with the Arab world to make the Black people of Africa realize that they were black in description, but not necessarily in status. The term “Sudan,” meaning “the Black ones,” carries no pejorative implications. That is why Africa’s largest country in territory (capital Khartoum) still proudly calls itself “Sudan.” In a European language one cannot imagine an African country calling itself today “Black Land,” let alone “Negrostan,” as the name of a modern state.
On the other hand, it took European conceptualization and cartography to turn Africa into a continent. To Europeans “black” was not merely descriptive; it was also judgmental. Arabs alerted the people of sub-Saharan Africa that they were black. Europe tried to convince Black people that they were inferior.
If Africa invented man in places like Olduvai Gorge, and the Semites invented God in Jerusalem, Mt. Sinai, and Mecca, Europe invented the world, at the Greenwich Meridian. It was Europeans who named all the great continents of the world, all the great oceans, many of the great rivers and lakes and most of the countries. Europe positioned the world so that we think of Europe as being above Africa rather than below in the cosmos. Europe timed the world so that the Greenwich meridian chimed the universal hour.
In Africa itself European racism convinced at least sub-Saharan Africans that one of the most relevant criteria of their Africanity was their skin color. Until the coming of the Arabs and the Europeans into the sub-Saharan region, Blackness was taken relatively for granted. Fairer-skinned Arabs sometimes penetrated the interior of Black Africa, but the Arabs were less segregationist than Europeans and were ready to intermarry with local populations. The primary differentiation between Arab and non-Arab was not skin color but language and culture. It was Europeans who raised the barrier of pigmentation higher in Africa. A new version of Orientalism gathered momentum.