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Re-thinking the African Diaspora. Africa and the Construction of Medieval Europe

Maghan Keita

Unlike Edward Wilmot Blyden, Joel A. Rogers, though quoted and admired by the esteemed William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, remains both a controversial and an obscure historiographic figure. Yet, it is his questions, as much as any others, on the nature of relations between Africa and Europe, and Africans and Europeans—their co-mingling—that prompt this inquiry.

Africa is no vast island, separated by an immense ocean from other portions of the globe, and cut off through the ages from the men who have made and influenced the destinies of mankind. She has been closely connected, both as source and nourisher, with some of the most potent influences which have affected for the good the history of the world.

Racial doctrines as they exist today negate intelligence.

The proposed analysis is an historiographic critique. It is a critique of the conventional historiographies of modernity and their histories; historiographies and histories constructed on a foundation of racialized epistemologies. To the point, this is an examination of epistemologies within which the dominant body of knowledge and its architects has attempted to diminish, eschew, and even erase Africans in medieval Europe. Within the examination of a number of historical and cultural constructions a new set of historical foundations can be laid.

Race has become a way of knowing. Some have argued that it is the dominant way of knowing. Within such a context, it is possible to construct an argument that focuses on race and the writing of history, (Keita, 2000; 2002) and that argument might be illustrated by interrogating historical sources, and implicitly the histories constructed around them, in relation to the question of Africans in Europe through the opening of the “Columbian” Age. Both Allison Blakely and Gretchen Gerzina have spoken to the difficulties of such a task. (Blakely 1986; 1993; 1997, pp. 1: 11-13. Gerzina 1995; 1997, pp. 15-17. Miller 1985) Even in that light, neither has equated “difficulty” with “impossibility.” In fact, in some ways, it seems that the task is much more straightforward than suspected. It involves an engagement with primary, literary, iconographic, and historical sources in relation to what has been ignored or passed by. In this case, an ignorance and passing very much related to race.

In an analysis of Africans in medieval Europe and their relation to the construction of its civilization, the acts of ignoring Africans (ignorance) and the attempts at their erasure from the historical and cultural records are both historiographic and epistemological. William Leo Hansberry interpreted this as histories of denial. (Hansberry 1960, pp. 376-377) The resulting histories and historiographies, and the epistemologies that constitute their foundations are racialized. These are the racialized epistemologies that Houston Steward Chamberlain argued were responsible for the histories of modern times by those solely capable of constructing them: Europeans—Western Europeans—those of Anglo-Teutonic stock; in particular, Anglo-Saxons.
Scarcely any one will doubt…that the inhabitants of Northern Europe have become the makers of the world’s history. (Chamberlain [1914] 1993, p. 49)

These were histories, as Cecil Rhodes would inform us, of and by the “best race the world could offer.” Extrapolating from George Frederickson’s seminal work on the foundations of race, racialized thought, and racism in the United States, the “best race”—the “whitest of the white”—was fundamentally a phenomenon institutionalized in the late 18th through mid 19th centuries, whose focus became the “purity” of Western Civilization. It appears that Europeans were very much in lock-step with this conceptualization. (Frederickson, 1971. Bernal, 1987.) Of course, Du Bois was pointed in his 1939 recollection of racialized histories and the bodies of knowledge that informed them. Du Bois acknowledged Africa, its study, and its relation to the construction of a modern world dominated by Europe and its descendants by referencing one its earliest and most iconographic states:
One must remember that Egyptology starting in 1821, grew up during the African slave trade, the Sugar Empire and Cotton Kingdom. Few scholars during the period dared to associate the Negro race with humanity, much less civilization. (Du Bois [1939] 1970, p. 25)

Historical construction—histories themselves—pose problems for the “purists” on both sides of the divide in that history records interaction, and that in itself precludes the kind of actual and theoretical “purity” that underlies racially constructed historiography and its histories. These constructions lead to the kind of commonplace assumptions that Blakely and Gerzina record: questions that are not asked because the historical agents are presumed not to exist in a certain time and space. Racialized epistemologies and historiographies, and their histories are a hallmark of what Du Bois critiqued as the “pseudo-scientific” construction of race. Both the constructions of knowledge and history have had at their cores the implicit—sometimes explicit—notions that there are certain biologically determined, essentialized characteristics that define various human populations and determine their historical agency and the quality and dynamism of the their historical interactions.

The result of this type of thinking has been modern histories of exclusivity where no populations overlap. Nowhere is this more evident than the modern histories of medieval Europe and their strident absenting and ignorance of the Africans in its midst. This examination begins at that nebulous and “in between” historical juncture, where in conventional histories and historiographies Africa and Africans are presumed not to exist—the European Middle Ages. The primary sources of the era challenge convention; their analysis becomes the basis for the construction of new historiographies, epistemologies, and histories of this time and space. These become the foundation for rethinking the African diaspora.

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