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Black History Before 1492

February 13, 2006

I knew that I’d have to say something about black history. The challenge was finding something that would not be old information to most, and yet would still be relevant. Most “American” history of black people, or Blackamericans, revolves around two major historical eras: 1. Slavery and 2. the Civil Rights Movement. But before Dr. King, before Reconstruction, before America was even America, before the first slave ships sailed 9,000 miles on a journey that left the Atlantic ocean floor littered with bodies, and even before Christopher Columbus, there were Africans on this land.

There are many books that have documented this reality, but the most acclaimed (and also most controversial) is Ivan Van Sertima’s They Came Before Columbus (ISBN: 0-394-40245-6). In captivating narrative form, the German author details the journeys of great African explorers and even quotes excerpts from Columbus’ own journal, where he provides abundantly clear imagery of African people that he encountered upon arriving in the “New World.”

The chapter that I find most intriguing is about Abubakari II, king of the great Mali empire, who set sail from the coast of West Africa into the Atlantic ocean, determined to make the journey to the New World. He had no intentions of returning and took virtually everything that he would need on his journey, along with an entire fleet of ships. He also appointed his successor, his own brother, who would become known as Mansa Musa, the legendary king of Mali, celebrated around the world for his extravagant generosity on his journey to Makkah for Hajj. History records that Musa’s caravan included 500 people, each carrying a staff made of gold. He gave so much gold to poor people along the journey, that it altered the economy of the region for twenty years.

When Mansa Musa was asked about his extreme wealth and power, he replied that what he had was nothing and that the king who came before him left the shores of West Africa with his griot and a fleet of ships, never to be heard from again.

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