In a Silent Way, Miles Davis (cover) courtesy © 1969 Columbia.

6- At least we know what happened

Towards a Black Consciousness

The practice of recording history, keeping in archives and libraries all possible knowledge, but for public interest, is an Hellenistic idea. In the 5th century BC in Athens, Sparta or Thessaloníki, libraries were public institutions open to citizens and scholars. In most archaic civilizations, however, knowledge was secret, for exclusive use for the rulers and the military and kept by priests and wise Men. The Hellenistic scholar tradition was later taken and developed by Romans, who not only rediscovered Greece, they even created what we know today as "Greece" which is, as such, a Roman invention (in reality there were city-states with substantial cultural differences). After the collapse of the Roman Empire it was the young Catholic Church who took the role of historian, researcher and archivist. For many centuries, in what is today Europe there were no states or Law, just isolated walled cities protected and in that context, every monastery in Paleochristian, Romanesque (Norman, in England) and Medieval times was in charge of keeping, copying and passing manuscripts, generation after generation, thanks to amazing Scribes. In Black Africa, prior to 19th century Islam*, a collection of more than a million manuscripts were concentrated in Timbuktu, under the Empire of Mali. One third of them survive today, distributed in thirty Sub-Saharan and Sahel African cities and towns.  A slow preservation and digitalisation is taking place, in general from public financial assistance from the west.

Recording, filing, preserving in written form not only history but knowledge -systematically- was new to Mankind and can only be traced up to Persia, Jewish, Catholics and Islam. Old civilizations not only did not promote public knowledge, it was forbidden to the populace; libraries and archives were State secret. In Imperial China, Emperors all the more used to erase history, works and even the name of their predecessors. The same in Meso-America. In most ancient cultures written capabilities and education (often basic) were reserved to the rulers' family and authorities only. The turning point was Rome: at the age of twelve children went for schooling to study Grammar and elements of Logic, Rhetoric and Dialectics; later, Geometry and Mathematics. And if it is true that mostly the Aristocratic, under special circumstances any child was able to reach basic education.

Since the 4th century, Europe did not recover from the fall of Rome: a thousand and a half years later, a minority of educated Europeans, organized by more or less established State-cities in the 5th century, later became Kingdoms and were unified by Charlemagne while defeating Islam in the 10th century. However, the new Europe was a collage made of several Empires that were involved in redundant wars since the 14th till the 20th centuries. For a series of reasons, during Illuminism Europe would not face the fact that millions of people were enslaved and treated like animals. Reality is more complex than our capacity to describe it. Some aspects of the Hellenistic-Roman heritage were alive: the will and logistics of keeping records, letters, publications, regulations, in thousands of archives in the context of foundations of European Universities started to put knowledge of history back in place. But it seems that scholars, after fighting to Islam** were reluctant of learning East and African cultures.

As early as 19th century we had a substantial knowledge about what was happening with slavery. Ironically, we managed to end it because it became more and more visible when free media started to expose it: the same European culture that co-produced the event was reacting against it. Keeping records of not only libraries' books but offices and archives full of parliamentary and authorities' speeches, commands, invoices, port's files, ship's logs, travellers' notes, accounts from importer-exporters, list and prices of products and goods, birth, marriage and death certificates, and all sort of rules know as secondary systems, created by governments since Roman times, had survived not only for regulating commerce and trade, it was the main source of information to describe some sort of unoficial, anonymous history. It is available and expanded today thanks to the Internet (though the excess of anonymous information and sources is saturating Internet with unnecessary, false or incorrect documents), and represents a considerable amount of information where we can dive and rescue signs and traces of a particular historical moment.

Now, what about those critics of slavery? There were many, in Europe, America and Africa. Former American slaves and heroes like Frederick Douglas -North American who escaped from the South and was the first Black man to speak in the US Congress in 1887 are heroes. Many North American people started to fight in the north of the US against the system, humanists, politicians, priests, writers, they were diametrically opposed to slavery and it is well registered in documents from the US, England and France. In Argentina slavery was prohibited in 1853; the US in 1865 (but in fact lasted a while more in some southern states); unlike Argentina, that tried an incipient democracy in 1853, Brazil was framed with an Imperial mind taken from Portugal and abolished slavery later, in 1888.

An important aspect about how White Europeans approached Black Africans is related to literature. For example, beyond the myth, the unique and extraordinary Casanova (Giovanni Jacopo Casanova de Seingalt, 1725-98) wrote in his fascinating memoirs his love encounter with a Black woman in some European Court: he talks about Black women with respect and admiration, but defines them as different species, almost like having superpowers:

"Il n'est pas douteux, selon moi, que les nègres ne soient une espèce parfaitement distincte de la nôtre, et ce qui les distingue essentiellement, indépendamment de la couleur, c'est qu'une Africaine instruite est maîtresse de ne pas concevoir pendant l'accouplement, mais encore de concevoir mâle ou femelle, à son gré. Si mes lecteurs ne croient point cette assertion, ils auront raison, parce que, selon notre nature, la chose est incroyable; mais ils cesseraient d'être incrédules, si je leur faisais connaître la théorie de cette science mégalanthropogénésique des négresses."

"I feel quite sure myself that the negroes are a distinct species from ourselves. There is one essential difference, leaving the colour out of account -namely, that an African woman can either conceive or not, and can conceive a boy or a girl as she decides. No doubt my readers will disbelieve this assertion, but their incredulity would cease if I instructed them in the mysterious science of the negresses."

According to Casanova's knowledge, a Black woman can decide when to get pregnant or whether to have a boy or a girl. He even describes the "science mégalanthropogénésique des négresses", (The Mega-Anthropogenesis Science of Black Women"). With all the literary qualities of his admiration and attraction, there is some sense of fear in the background, which represents an important topic to analyse. In fact, White people seem to fear the mind of Black Women, and the strength of Black men.

Giovanni Jacopo Casanova de Seingalt, signed letter, circa 1765.

To have the mere possibility of reading texts like this from Casanova, after more than two hundred and fifty years, to be able to find the first edition in some second hand bookshop in London or Buenos Aires, is no doubt the best gift Europe gave to progress: keeping alive the Hellenist-Roman heritage, to collect and project information and knowledge into the future, by jealously keeping it in public and private archives and libraries. It would be difficult to reason using Logic, without enough premises. Thousands of copies of Casanova's memoirs were printed in the late 19th century. Europe started to print millions of copies of any imaginable subject, sold at economic prices to a more and more literacy population; many copies were distributed to thousands of public libraries in Europe and abroad. That is the best legacy European culture has produced, traced back to Greece, and it is our duty to preserve it and expand it.

This is the core of our prospective, positive civilisation. To keep a log, recording our work, to compare, to look for arguments, to criticise and correct our direction in written form, to debate, to change, to test our methods of reasoning. Practiced within the frame of Freedom of Speech, which was rare or absolutely non existing in old cultures and civilisations, has been refined today as a very satisfactory agreement of principles that guarantees the rights of all, and individual freedom. It is an universal principle, but was not given, it was sought during millennia. It is something different that brings individual responsibilities a new dimension. We must protect free thinking against religious fundamentalism, political dogma and ideological populism.

Our Liberty is both a spiritual state and social right, but it is also a powerful tool to progress, to preserve and promote the diversity of world cultures, in our case, Négritude.

* Hellenist history, language, and culture considered from the death of Alexander the Great to the defeat of Cleopatra and Mark Antony by Octavian in 31 BC. In this time Greek culture flourished, expanding through the Mediterranean, the Near East and Asia. Its cultural centres were Alexandria (Egypt) and Pergamum (Turkey).

** Islamic fundamentalism can be traced between the 18th and 19th centuries. A reaction against the disintegration of Islamic power, it promotes a strict support to the Koran and to Islamic law (sharia), and if required, by jihad or holy war; since the late 20th century it has been revived by several radical terrorist groups, against the will of majority of Islam.

Read the next chapter, Moral vs. Ethics, here.


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