Category Archives: Africa


Black Athena and Diamond’s Farmers

In his analysis of a 'black Athena,' Bernal touted its interdisciplinary approach.
In his analysis of a ‘black Athena,’ Bernal touted his interdisciplinary approach.

In attempting to connect two scholarly articles with two seemingly different topics—in this case the foundations of Greek culture in Levine’s The Use and Abuse of ‘Black Athena’ and the link between cultural expansion and agricultural dispersion in Bellwood and Diamond’s Farmers and Their Languages: The First Expansions—one must think outside the box.

Diamond and Bellwood contend that the study of agricultural expansion is inherently interdisciplinary (Bellwood 1). Thus using techniques from archeology, anthropology, crop and livestock studies, genetics and—imperatively—linguistics, the two arrive at their thesis: Language diffusion follows/accompanies the spread of farming (Bellwood 3). The authors subsequently outline six objections to their thesis (on the grounds that the proto-language does not match the origin of its supposed dispersal, for instance) along with 11 specific examples, including the Bantu Migration and Japan’s early infusion (c. 400 BCE) of Korean rice farmers (Bellwood 7).

And it is precisely this interdisciplinary approach that pops up in Levine’s review of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena. So what is Bernal’s hypothesis: Greek culture is not simply Indo-European “classical;” it contains elements from Egypt and the Levant as well (Levine 441). Levine’s response exposes the difficulty of pinpointing the inciting factors of a particular civilization while taking factors like race and politics into consideration. Note: Levine is not critiquing Bernal’s hypothesis; she critiques his political motives behind Black Athena. Just as Bernal levies heavy accusations at “subjective” 19th century classicists, he uses a 19th century paradigm to do his own bidding (i.e. righting the perceived historical record of racist misjudgments) (Levine 446).

But the “interdisciplinary” notion originates from Bernal himself. “Volume 1 of the Black Athena series is dedicated to Bernal’s father, John Desmond Bernal, a historian of science, ‘who taught [Bernal] that things fit together interestingly,’ and it is in fitting things together, interestingly, that Bernal’s book represents a tour de force,” Levine writes (Levine 444). I’d argue that Bellwood and Diamond’s hypothesis also fits evidence together…interestingly. And despite Levine’s verbose, animated analysis and B&D’s lengthy list of criticisms, we inevitable end up in the same place—wondering if current events influence every historical analysis and if objectivity exists at all (Levine 447-9).

handless pic

a quick note on The Handless Maiden

In The Handless Maiden, by Mary Elizabeth Perry, the author seeks to give a voice to the Moriscas of 16th century Spain by filling the historical silence that left many “voiceless and in the shadows” (6) by using a wide range of sources. They ranged from documentary evidence (such as the Almonacid writings (20)) to archival documents to co-religious legends, as well as an interesting utilization of anthropological frameworks. The lengthy introduction of Perry’s book expounded upon many topics including historical context (4), her issues with using traditional sources from the “victors who had the power to write and preserve the reports of the past” (5), and the need to read Inquisition records “against the grain” in order to attain an indirect notion of what Moriscos, and Moriscas in particular, where experiencing during this time period (6).

When Perry delves into the more psychological, and frankly suppositional, aspects of her argument in the first half of the book, they begin with the introduction itself. For example, Perry discusses the significance of the veil Muslim women wore as part of their faith. Perry maintains that Moriscas created a paradox by wearing of this piece of fabric. Hence she contends the veil was more of a symbol, and more accurately categorizes it as, “a veil of phallocentric assumptions [that] has covered most women of the past with unquestioned assertions that they have been more pawns or passive victims…in the background far behind the ‘real’ actors in history—men with military might and political power” (9). However, throughout her book, women often transgressed gender boundaries. Though Perry’s introduction is complex and comprehensive, her thesis seems straightforward: past historians have overlooked not only the minority, but especially women (10). And in the context of the medieval, pre-modern unification of Spain, Perry’s passion to give recognition to these women is palpable. Furthermore, the author contemplates whether Moriscas were active rebels with agency or passive victims simply trying to hang-on to their cultural identity (10).

Though every chapter of The Handless Maiden contains reoccurring and repetitive elements, each offers a distinct message. Chapter One focuses on the impact of traditional Muslim architecture on Moriscos (25) and introduces the book’s namesake with the legend of Carcayona. To Perry, this legend “can be read as a metaphor for a people who suffered a major reversal in fortune and cruel punishment imposed by an unjust ruler” (21). However, the author concedes that, though this legend is pertinent to her argument, there is no way to prove that 16th century Moriscas even identified with Carayona or had access to the myth (27). Chapter Two touches on the issue of the female body as a site of defiance (probably because it was often hyper-sexualized (54)), as ritual bathing became an act of heresy (38). In Chapter Three, rising societal tensions began to politicize Moriscas’ homes as a potential sites of defiance, as women continued to speak in Arabic, teach their children about Islam, and observe holidays and domestic (food-related) rituals (69).

Chapter Four was the most powerful chapter as Perry began to use more primary sources to illustrate the desperation Moriscas must have felt to necessitate their waging war alongside the Morisco men during the rebellion of 1568-1570. Her source use from Christian soldiers who witnessed the bravery of a particular Morisca named Zarcamodinia (88-89) gave this historical work a personal touch because this woman was real and died fighting with honor. Perry underscores Zarcamodina’s gender transgression when she calls upon the 7th century legend of Yurmuk (89-91), but later admits that many of the 16th century Morisca women would have been illiterate and may not have had access to this legend either (90). Chapter Five emphasizes the loss of humanity the Moriscos experienced after they lost the rebellion. In what Perry describes as a “Journey of Tears,” the converted Muslims were dispersed by the thousands and spread across Castile (111). In official documents, they were described as “heads of,” alluding to the fact that the relocation of “people in such large numbers…must have seemed similar to sheep and cattle—less than human, but live creatures that had to be herded” (114).

Chapter Six outlines the various debates between clerical members and the Crown concerning the ultimate expulsion of Moriscos in 1609 (135-138). Additionally, Perry again mentions the context of the unification of Spain through Ferdinand and Isabella (135), and the Church’s Protestant motives for creating a religious “other” (137). In this Chapter, Perry continuously stresses the economic implications for Morisco expulsion with documentation from Spanish nobility (134). In Chapter Seven, Perry examines the ultimate treatment of the Moriscos after they Crown demanded their expulsion and their “legacy of pain” (157).

Although Perry at times makes grandiose statements (mostly in the introduction and often geared toward other historians (88)) and offers extensive supposition, her constant transparency when it comes to the limitations of her sources was exceptional and not in the least condescending. In fact, I enjoyed the mixture of archival evidence, timely myths, and anthropological analysis. Perry created a story, and though at times she may have gone overboard with contemporary feminist interpretations, she was aware of it. Because of her combination of sources and absolute honesty, I gleaned a better idea of the voice of the Morisca, even if—at times—it was a bit influenced by Perry herself.



1920s South Africa

Where did the British go? What happened to their civilizing mission and the ‘Hottentot Identity’ British missionaries psychologically achieved? The idea could not be expressed more aptly than by Sol Plaatje when he lamented that South African policy was “pacing backwards to pre-Union days, going back, back, and still further backward, to the conditions which prevailed in the old Republics, and (if a check is not applied) we shall steadily drift back to the days of the old Dutch East Indian administration” (Plaatje 5). Though why the steady progression in reverse? South Africans, both black and white, were consumed by the unrealistic—albeit strange—theory of Social Darwinism (Worden 73). The mental subjugation the British forced upon the Xhosa, Khoi, Twsana, Sotho, Zulu, and other native South African tribes reemerged with a more hierarchal “customary rule” that fed into the festering white supremacy of the Afrikaners. Politics became black and white, and the white population sought to cage their black laborers. The British won the war from a military/ capitalist perspective; however the Afrikaners won social domination as the British capitulated to the Boers because of Transvaal gold.


In light of the Afrikaners, ‘Mcfene’ comes to mind. A literal crushing of black South Africans politically, economically, and socially. Afrikaners were ruthless. In Singing Away the Hunger ‘Agnes,’ described the Boer policemen as a “nightmare” that made her physically shake (Singing 14).  The daily press served as propaganda and an extension of Union politics; a daily reminder that black South Africans, even women, needed passes to navigate out of unscheduled areas (Plaatje “Womens Passes…”). This super exploitation created what Peter Abraham’s character Leah tried to explain to Xuma, “…I come from my people, but I am no longer of my people. It is so in the city and I have been here many years. And the city makes you strange to the ways of your people…” (Abraham 10). An urban black working class emerged; juxtaposing the starving native Africans in crowded scheduled areas. The middle class became ‘elite’ when in their ‘homelands,’ as demonstrated by Agnes’ mother when she returned to her local church (Singing 22). Unfortunately, the non-elite, the impoverished, were viewed as disgusting and inappropriate (Singing 20). Though the British socially imposed those views, there was a significant gap between migrant workers, urban black workers, and rural natives. From a “white” standpoint, rural culture had no place in the burgeoning capitalist industries.

As the period of reconstruction after the Anglo-Boer war ended and the twentieth century dawned upon the Union of South Africa, one can feel the suffocating tension by simply reading documents like “Native Life in South Africa,” and novels like Mine Boy or Singing Away the Hunger. Everything happened all at once. The British procured their mine investments in the Transvaal after the civil war with the Boers. The Boers transformed into Afrikaners in the power vacuum left by the British. And the authoritarian Afrikaners treated all of the ‘natives’ like something other than human as they starved, wore sacks, died in the mines, and lost all rights as citizens by 1913. Unfortunately, black South Africans could not be culturally defeated with the Native Affair’s agenda during the 1920s. They would not be crushed completely. Not with men like Sol. T. Plaatje.


a quick note on Steve Biko

Steve Biko was a pivotal figure in history whose awareness of himself and his world uniquely rose above the illusion fabricated by his oppressors in 1970s Apartheid South Africa. His was a new voice that, it seemed, for the first time stepped outside the South African political system to establish an authentic African identity. Biko utilized examples from the American civil rights movement of the 1960s as well as the decolonization of surrounding nation states as a platform for his new voice of “Black Consciousness.” He desperately saw the “urgent need for the reawakening of the sleeping masses” and believed three hundred years of white domination over blacks had resulted in a massive inferiority complex that explained why ANC and PAC movements of the 1950s and early 1960s had failed to produce a massive resistance. He lamented “all in all, the black man has become a shell, a shadow of a man, completely defeated, drowning in his own misery, a slave, an ox bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity.” Social engineering had created African robots that continued to function within the system with alarming acceptance.

Black Consciousness filled the vacuum left by the exiled ANC and PAC organizations, and Steve Biko had new ideas for restructuring the black freedom movement. Firstly, black South Africans had to rid themselves of the fear of government retaliation that made it “impossible for them [blacks] to behave like people.” Then there was the structuring of SASO, specifically so that ties to NUSAS were only functional in nature. SASO was Biko’s grass-roots student movement that excluded all white South Africans, including liberals, democrats, and other sympathizers of the black liberation movements. Biko was finished with whites giving blacks their voice; the Dutch did so with the VOC, the British with their missionaries, and now the liberals who opposed apartheid because of a guilty conscience. Biko claimed that liberals “maintained that if you stood for a principle of non-racialism you could not in any way adopt what they described as racist policies.” SASO was deemed racist and separatist; however, were these reactions unjustifiable?

Biko seemed to think that blacks needed to put aside their imposed tribal fragmentations, muster some courage, and form a group based in African pride “in order to feature well in the game of power politics.” Biko saw the unmet need of black South Africans during the 1960s and 70s. He gave them the tenants of language necessary to fight back by accessing “Universities” hindered by the Bantu Education Act. Biko’s argument was refreshing amidst the delusional propaganda spouted by the South African government, and the pseudo identities imposed by the violence of colonization and exploitation.