The origins of this month-long celebration began in 1926, when Carter G. Woodson, a black scholar, and historian, made an official declaration of ‘Negro History Week.’ February was chosen in order to honor the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14). It later evolved into the celebration we know it to be today around the 1970s.
How folks celebrate varies: it can range from a barbeque to a party to a service closely resembling a church service or lectures. Regardless of how, it’s important that we observe this month not only to honor the sacrifices necessary to achieve freedom in the wake of the transatlantic slave trade, but to turn an eye to before that— to honor the lives, customs and cultures that existed and thrived long before the forced assimilation into white, western society.
There are gross misconceptions about Africa with origins in false early European narratives that still persist today: that the people who reside there, of both past and present, who don’t mirror European and western lifestyles and practices are unintelligent, uncivilized and barbaric in nature.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. While it is unimaginable to talk about the shaping of Africa and later the world without mentioning the transatlantic slave trade, Africans thrived on their own for centuries independent of the influence of Europeans.
The transatlantic slave trade led to one of the largest diasporas of peoples in known history.
Millions of people were lost, leaving behind unknown legacies, unknown histories. The majority of African descendants today don’t have the privilege of knowing their lineage. There are too many legacies lost in the Atlantic.
Some kingdoms were larger than life, with legacies that have stood the test of time. Here are a few notable ones to look at.
It is traditionally said that at the beginning of the 17th century, three brothers ensued in a power struggle for the kingdom of Allada. When one of the brothers won control, the other two fled. One went southeast and founded Porto-Novo. The other, Do-Aklin, went north to found Abomey, the future capital city of the Dahomey. They all paid tribute to the powerful Yoruba kingdom of Oyo to the east.
Dahomey held a strong military presence. The kingdom is well-known for its presence of an all-female warrior class called the “Mino,” meaning “our mothers.” They were a fierce class and were said to make up about a third of the Dahomian military. They had prominent roles in the political realm of the kingdom as well, participating in the grand council and debating government policies.
The Ghananian Empire, located near southeastern Mauritania and western Mali, lasted from 700-1235. Ghana had always been a wealthy empire due to trading with salt and gold, and their location between the Senegal and Niger river systems gave them significant control over the gold trade. The introduction of the camel as a vehicle for trade opened new doors: traders could conquer the heat and sand with greater efficiency.
Their capital city of Marrakesh, founded in 1062, became a cultural hub for trade. There, several merchants and tradesmen were able to show off their impressive textiles, leather works and gold.
Their power and influence began to decline, and it later became a part of the rising Mali empire.
The Mali empire may be one of the most well-known. Lasting from 1235-1670, the Mali Empire was the largest empire in West Africa. It would influence the culture of West Africa through the spread of its language, laws and customs for years to come.
The most well known of its rulers, Mansa Musa, was a man of legendary status. He is said to have been the richest man to have ever lived. Gold was still an integral aspect of West African trade and life, but Mansa Musa literally put West Africa on the map as a center for wealth and trade.
A devout Muslim, Mansa Musa embarked on a Hajj, a religious pilgrimage to Mecca between 1324 and 1325. His entourage was said to have included roughly 60,000 men and 100-300 camels. He was very generous as well, giving gold away to the poor he met along his route. He is rumored to have given away so much gold that the market value for the metal collapsed.
Mansa Musa was especially interested in scholarly study during his journey. He purchased camel-loads of books and recruited scholars to come back with him to Timbuktu. He would later invest in several mosques and schools, establishing Timbuktu as one of the greatest cities of scholarship and trade in the medieval world.
The African diaspora has spread our influence all across the globe, and life as we know it wouldn’t exist without the brutal blood sacrifices of the transatlantic slave trade. Human life — and human civilization — truly does originate in Africa. Even if you can’t say what tribe you were from, remember that you’re a living history — continuing the legacies of your ancestors that will live on forever.