Nina Simone at Town Hall, courtesy © 1966 Jazz Images

7- Moral vs. Ethics

Towards a Black Consciousness

We must analyse history with method and patience, not passion. Which culture has not initiated conflicts? Some of them have produced massive conflicts, Germans against Jews, White South Africans against Blacks. There are hundreds of conflicts in the globe pivoting on cultural clashes; racism is still quite visible and impossible to justify.

To approach Négritude as a literary and philosophical movement, we first had to analyse historical and anthropological concepts in order to locate racism in relation with slavery in a specific and particular time-frame. This was done in the previous chapters. There are two more issues to consider.

First, it is not possible to condemn a whole culture, or a whole country, for what a group did in a particular historical moment. Can we criticize German literature, Goethe or Schiller, architects Schinkel, Walter Gropius, Hanz Poelzig, or artists like Paul Klee, because what a mad regime did? Of course not; actually, many of them were Jews and victims, and were forced to leave Germany. A similar situation happened in South Africa.

South Africa persecution, circa 1980. The Roots, Things Fall Apart, record cover (fragment) © 1999.

Second, ignoring time and history contexts at the same moment can lead to catastrophe. New communication digital technologies, which, technologically speaking, are extraordinary, are is based on fast, quick hyper-realistic images attached to short texts. This does not help to reason, on the contrary, it tends to distort or even annihilate our capacity reasoning. Images create myths. We either follow or reject them.

When approaching cultural or sociological objects of study, we must remember that society is made of complex cultural and biological systems but, like any superior primate, we (humans) do not have instinct: we copy all we see through our eyes since the day we are born, and we tend to do so the rest of our life, unless we receive extensive education and learn how to reason.

Through history we see that events happen simultaneously, eventually producing contradictions and situations where is difficult or impossible to define so clearly in which side someone is, how it happened, why, and levels of responsibility.

Moral has to do with principles of right and wrong, with goodness or badness of humanity.

Ethics is a different thing, it has to do with the rules of moral principles set by a particular group.

From a Moral point of view, everyone involved in slavery was responsible for what happened. But it is not comparable the responsibility -let's say- of the owner of a slave trade company in 1788, contrasted with a poor illiterate fourteen years old sailor, who got employed in the wrong business (and ship) and did not manage to escape that job in times where people starved in Europe.

After three or four centuries it is pointless to judge cultures as a whole, what is important is to know history, to accept its relative descriptions, highlighting moral and ethics principles that were not applied in those times, in order to apply them today and in the future, in order to avoid the same mistakes.*

One of the most interesting cultural differnces between (old) Black Africa and Europe has to do with different sense of impudicity and sexual symbols.

Two women from Ivory Coast, circa 1960. Photographer unknown.

These two young women from from Ivory Coast belonged to a culture where, like in many parts of Black Africa, women's breast do not represent a secundary sexual symbol like in Western countries. It is neither a scandal nor a spontaneous habit, just a different culture. But at the time of slavery, a reluctant, restraint Europe could not understand that world cultures were different. In northern Europe sexual symbols were hidden reinterpreted and represented though customs and subtle sex-games habits. In Africa, sexuality was understood in a straight-forward approach, with similar complexity (how to wear collars and artifacts of all kind) but in a different layer that Europe, where customes literally conceil and unveil secondary sexual signs. The permanent hot environmnet allowed them to avoid heavy clothing.

Today the situation has changed. We built a transcultural world where the Western cultural matrix, which had its origin in Summer, Persia, Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Reanissance, is flexible enough to hold different cultures and in diverse continents, by injecting the seed of Free Thinking. However, it laid out values which are often contradictory or opposed to rich local cultures with different Ethics. If we not consider the damage against to our Habitat, (which is not exclusive of modern civilization), humanity has gained an unvalorable state of things, a combination of human rights and responsibilities under a general Law, for the first time.

We will not discuss here the consequences of progress on our Habitat. Guaranteed freedom by Law, right to vote and division of powers are probably the main achievement of Western civilization. The path to reach the stage where we are today lasted three millenia. The legacy of Hellenism and Rome through arts, literature, philosophy and sciences, became a platform and a tool where each Black and Afro-descendant has a potential active and central role. To belong to modernity while keeping the good aspects of Black cultures: to season humanity.

The United Nations Charter was signed on 26 June 1945 in San Francisco. You can read it here. Or dowload it from here.


When we analyse Europe's approach to Africa between the 17th and 19th centuries there is an important element to consider, specially in relation with Moral and Ethics: the believes and cults of African peoples.

In Africa each group and region had different cultures (rituals, convictions, habits), even opposite to each other. This was not understood at first sight by explorers. It is not possible to describe the rich cultural aspects of African ethnics supposing there is a common matrix.

It is possible to find similar cultural patterns between ethnics, a common platform to pre-historical cultures not only in Africa but in all continents.

Most of Black Africans were basically monotheist. This main entity, however, was surrounded by a large pantheon of gods and goddesses, signs and symbols of Nature and the Elements.

Efundula Dance, West Africa: after that, they can get married, circa 1960. Photographer unknown.

African cults accept the immortality of spirits, where rituals and magic are used to equilibrate not only people's behaviour but mostly to control the powers of supernatural worlds, which try to take over terrestial ones. The spirits reincarnate and have power over people. The Yoruba  and their cult called Egúngún works on the relation spirit-host. The relation with death varies, but reincarnation belives are common. Funerals are part of daily life, celebrated with dances.

Matakam Danses, Cameroun, Funeraire, c.1970.

In America, Brazil has the larger number of African descent. Two syncretist religions were created there: Candomblé and Umbanda.

Candomblé originated in Salvador de Bahia, early 19th century; it combined Yoruba, Bantu and Fon beliefs. Later it absorbed elements of Roman Catholicism and Native American. It does not include the duality good-evil. There is a supreme creator, Oludumaré, served by minor deities, Orishas, which control believer's destiny and protect them; like in any primitive cult, its members often loose the sense of what is real or what is not: fear and superstition of demons and Orishas' behaviour end up controlling people's life, like most religions do. Dances enable worshippers to become possessed by Orishas. Live animal offerings are given as sacrifices. Followers are forced to reach their destiny, regardless of what it is. Till certain extent, Black African Moral is different from Judaism and Christianity, where goodness is something to achieve, and Devil's temptations, to reject. Candomblé's leaders are referred as Mai "mother" or Pai "father". Candomblé is part of Macumba, a witchcraft, name used in the 1800's to frame all African worships that believed in animistic-syncretism.

Umbanda was created at the beginning of the 20th century, with a similar syncretism.  From Africa they took the believe of a supreme being and many gods, whose work was to manage the supreme's power over humans; from Natives they kept jungle's spirits and from Christianism, images of Saints. Umbanda is clandestine, performing bloody sacrifices, it used to be proscribed in Brazil and is practiced in the shadows, sometimes simultaneously to Christianity, Judaism or Islamism.

Free Thinking

The idea that Nature's elements and things are small deities that justify and explain everything seems to be present in all pre-historical cultures, and is a powerful thing.

However, in those old cultures, the essential component of moden Man, Will, surrenders to superstition and fear.

As pointed by Léopold Sédar Sénghor, this is one of the resons why contemporary progress, based on Free Thinking, had difficulties to settle in Africa (plus the Caribbean, Brazil and other Latin American Countries). The main obstacle was not the diversity of ethnics' cultures (which are rich, flexible in social relations, with a gentle perception of life-cycles, and a rational way of survival) but pre-historical cults that subjugate and obliterate people's minds, including arbitrariness of tribal chiefs, as pointed by filmmaker Ousmane Sembene.

Interestingly, in the heart of the continent and in the middle of the Sahara desert, there was an extraordinary cultural spot lost in time and space: 15th and 16th centuries, Timbuktu.**

Islamic Africa, Current Manuscripts Repositories, courtesy of Dr. Eric Ross.

The map shown above is self-explanatory. In that territory, the Tuareg, the Songhai, Black Africans related to actual Berbers, built a civilization, established institutions, universities, libraries, within three centuries. It was conquered by Moroccans in 1591***.

In its Golden Age, Timbuktu was the centre of Islamic scholars and became a trading book crossroad; with the campuses of the Sankore Madrasah, an Islamic university, Timbuktu became an African city of light.

Historic writers, such as Shabeni or Leo Africanus, have described Timbuktu. In times where information was affected by long trips, Timbuktu's stories fed the imagination of Europeans: oscillating between a rich place to a completely mysterious one. Its legacy remains, because at the time of the Mali Empire (before the Songhai invaded it) there was a network of cities, towns and institutions linked with knowledge history.

Somewhere in ancient Timbuktu, photo by © Boris Spremo, 1974; courtesy: Toronto Public Library.

A large number of manuscripts are still kept and available for research in more than 30 African cities, an immense legacy of documents, some as old as 1.400 years old show that, even with extreme conditions (hard habitat, religious wars, long centuries), knowledge survived and can survive if free will and certainty of what to do prevails. In Africa, manuscripts survived thanks to individuals, not institutions or governments.

* Responsibilities and culpabilities must be indeed applied both to invididuals and organizations (corporations, political bodies). But we are not judges. Institutions must pay attention to those issues, to assure it will never happen again. For instance, following recent researches, it seems that many current European Banks are extensions of older ones, which had a direct role in slavery, as far as the early 18th century: this fact is being traced and analysed; at some point those banks must recognize, institutially speaking, their participation in slavery, and re-pay with social and educative funding what they did two centuries ago, because they grew and expanded thanks to the exploitation of millions of African people. This is, and will always be unacceptable.

** Timbuktu, timbəkˈtoō, (or Timbuctoo, French name Tomboucto). Today, an old town in Mali; pop. 21,000 (2018).

*** Timbuktu became a permanent urban settlement in the 10th century. It flourished from salt, gold, ivory and slavery trade in the trans-Saharan trade routes; it was part of the Mali Empire in the 14th century -its golden era- where universities and libraries were created, trading books with the middle East and even Europe. In the first half of the 15th century the Tuareg tribes took control of the city, until the Songhai Empire invaded it, in 1468. In 1591 the Moroccan army, after the Battle of Tondibi, defeated the Songhai and made it their capital, but did not look after the educative institutions. The invaders established a new ruling class, the Arma. However, after 1612 it became independent of Morocco. Different tribes governed until the French entered in 1893. The city is part of the the Republic of Mali since 1960.

Continue reading the next chapter, What is Négritude?, here.


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