On Chancellor Williams’s “Destruction of Black Civilization”

The late Chancellor Williams was no slouch when it came to researching African history. As he himself states near the beginning of his book, “(R)esearching African history is more tedious, laborious, and time-consuming than is true in other unsuppressed fields.” He is certainly right about that. Until very recently it was next to impossible to obtain substantial documents and data dealing with the history of sub-Saharan Africa. When “The Destruction of Black Civilization” appeared in 1971 the fabled libraries of Timbuktu were, in the minds of even the most ardent African scholars, largely still a fable. Unfortunately, his decades of thoroughgoing research in Africa, Europe and elsewhere had not amounted to much, if we have just this book to go on. The details in this meager book, generally speaking, and particularly in regards to Egypt and Sudan reveal nothing that one would not just as easily gleamed from other texts. About Ghana, Mali and Songhay he says precious little–in fact, all the information Dr. Williams provides about these three West African states could fill an article in the New Yorker. (There is, to be fair, invaluable, substantial, and much-needed information on the little-known Kingdom of Kuba.) However, in these instances–and much in line with his accounts of Egypt, Meroe, Axum and other kingdoms–the details are all overladen with heavy-handed rhetorical generalizing about “The Blacks” and, most especially, their fateful encounters with Europeans and Asiatics.

The gist of Williams’s generalizations is that a bunch of bloodsucking, homicidal ofays and gooks wrecked the African continent. Which, as nasty as it sounds, is quite true. No doubt about that. The crushing of Songhai at the hands of the Moroccans on March 13, 1591 (mirroring an earlier crushing of Ghana at the hands of the Almoravid Berbers in 1076) is a prime example, as was the Hyksos invasion of Egypt thousands of years earlier. And of course, one need only look at the mad scramble for Africa that took place after the Berlin Conference of 1885 (and let’s not make mention of both slave trades–the European and the Arab–the latter of which lasted far longer and took many more lives). So on one level, Williams is right about Eurasian homicidal mania towards Africa. Where he is wrong–for the most part, that is–is in deducing the intent of Eurasian destruction of Africa, at least before the arrival of the Portuguese.

Williams says (not suggests) that Black Africa was originally one big continent full of Black people who–at one magical, mythical point in its prehistory–all spoke one language and belonged to one tribe: the magical, mythical Black African tribe, who all saw, felt, ate, drank, copulated, lived and died as Blacks. On the one hand, that’s not earth-shattering news: 20,000 years ago, virtually every homo sapien on the planet was more or less still “African” in appearance, if not in language. Williams, on the other hand, was eager to assert that all these mythical Black Africans had “Black Consciousness” in the face of a white enemy waiting with sharpened knives outside the gates of Sinai–and that typical Black moral failings (divisiveness, pettiness, selfishness, greed, self-hatred, disrespect for centralized authority, and naivete in dealing with non-Blacks) led to its destruction.

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Ashanti house in Ghana

Another false assertion that he pushes in his little book is that Eurasia’s ancient rape of Africa was really done solely out of racist envy and spite, rather than desperate plunder by barbarous groups of non-Africans (who may not have been nearly as “white” as he imagined them to be) with meager resources and even less patience for the civilized graces of more established nations. The same fate that befell Egypt and Carthage also befell Mycenae, Elam, Sumeria, Sassanid Persia, Mohenjo-Daro, Ancient China, Ancient Vietnam (at the hands of China), and even Rome itself.  There is also the question of the desire of imperial conquest, which naturally drove China to quash and colonize Vietnam for over 1,000 years beginning in 111 BC; or the destruction of medieval Cambodia at the hands of the Siamese c. 1431. Lest anyone think this is entirely race-motivated, one need only research the destruction of Constantinople at the hands of the Venetians in the latter part of the 13th century: both parties were white Europeans, yet clearly despised each other for reasons that had nothing to do with skin color.

The same held true in Africa, whether North or South, east or west. It sounds cliched, but building an empire is much like making an omelette: one has to break some eggs in the process. Medieval Mali and Songhai, respectively, were about the size of the entire European continent. Yet neither empire was built by the consent of the peoples it subjugated–and no group of people, anywhere in the world, has ever really cottoned to the idea of being subjugated to another, whether in the form of vassalage (as was the case with much of Mali’s empire) or outright conquest (also true of Mali as well as Songhay, which were largely built on the ruins of Ghana and Susu). Indeed the very creation of Mali came about as a result of a crippled Mandinka, Sundiata Keita, who not only felt humiliated to be subject to the Sosso (an upstart kingdom which had encroached upon Mandinka land in its expansionist moves across West Africa)–but who, according to the national epic of Mali, was prophesied to be a great leader by the oppressed Mandinka. Mali’s national epic is essentially the story of a liberation struggle against an imperialist nation that was neither European nor Arab, and in human history prior to 1400 this is no anomaly.

The best I can say about “Destruction” is that it is superbly written. It would have made an excellent historical novel. As for straightforward history, the book is marred by false and romantic assumptions about African history. My point is not to argue whether or not the Ancient Egyptians were Africans, since most of the evidence gathered about them strongly suggests that they were of sub-Saharan origin. (Actually most of the period portraiture, mummies and DNA evidence speaks for itself.) My point is that in no period of pre-colonial African history did Africans have the kind of “black consciousness” that Dr. Williams so vehemently espouses, and with which he so vehemently lambastes Africans for lacking. “Black consciousness” (notwithstanding the revealing name KEMET) was almost entirely a product of an anti-colonial and anti-slavery sentiment that began long after the fall of Songhai in 1591.

Aside from the chapter dealing with the Bushongo of Central Africa, there is very little nuance anywhere to be found in The Destruction of African Civilization. This book, had it purported to deal with the myriad factors and fine details as to what caused the collapse of African civilization–should have been at least four times as long as it is. Of course, even today, it is extremely difficult to write cogently about sub-Saharan African history without filling in the gaps with conjecture and outright solipsism, so maybe one should at least give some credit to Dr. Williams in opening up a discussion on a subject which had been previously ignored. But that is not enough, for there is a more troubling issue at stake here.

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Pharaoh Menkaure, 4th Dynasty (Egypt)

Williams was naive enough to assume that pre-colonial Africans were actually infected with the profound self-loathing and depersonalization–what Dr. Du Bois rather politely called “double consciousness”–that Africans suffer today. He was even more naive in assuming that all black people everywhere were essentially the same in nature and outlook. Indeed, the last thing that Africans anywhere in the world need is yet another piece of work that reduces them down to a common denominator, however positive that denominator may appear to be. This alone should be enough for a half-way intelligent person to put the book down. What Dr. Williams says concerning Africa’s downfall could just as well apply to the Chinese downfall, the Arab downfall, the Roman downfall, the Byzantine downfall, the various downfalls of India, South East Asia, and naturally the total annihilation of Pre-Columbian America. Dr. Williams projects the anxieties of a mid-twentieth century Black American pan-Africanist back into Africa’s pre-colonial past, and as a result, THE DESTRUCTION OF BLACK CIVILIZATION should be taken with a cup of salt.

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Review of “The Kid,” by Sapphire

(Note: this review was written for Transition magazine back in 2012, but apparently never accepted.)

Whether through expectation or intent, too many American black writers take the low road into petty-bourgeois minstrelsy: think Mary B. Morrison, Carl Weber or Michael Baisden. A huge moral evasiveness damns much of their work; it is far more insidious than in the works of white writers who, generally speaking, make considerably less noise about “keeping it real.” Urban life, as depicted by the K’wans and Vicki Stringers is, for the most part, imaginary: a collection of prurient fantasies tailored for a public—largely middle-class, and often white—that could care less how “real” they are. Their books clutter the shelves of Barnes and Noble and sell by the truckloads on Harlem street corners, and are as iniquitous as and possibly even more dangerous than anything written by Thomas Dixon: the very blackness of these authors lends them a credibility they do not deserve. There is no need to consider their artistic “integrity” since these authors are simply, in effect, selling crack—only to be read, not smoked. Cynical, churlish and childish, their inevitable response when questioned about their total inability to think is “if you don’t like it, don’t read it.” This, of course, is the exact same thing real crack dealers say on these very same streets.

Fantasies these books are, indeed—and from a purely technical standpoint, singularly unambitious in scope and atrociously executed. Dale Peck, in writing of Stanley Crouch’s benighted first attempt at a novel, stated that a bad book can be a blessing. I presume so, if the “blessing” lay in an overrated author leaving himself open to a long-awaited and well-deserved scrutiny. With Sapphire’s second attempt at a novel, The Kid, I am tempted to refrain from passing unduly harsh judgment on a book which, sad to say, is anything but a blessing. I am compelled nonetheless to be honest about the book’s overall construction and content. As for the former, it is a rambling, 374-page falsetto shriek with little in the way of insight and intelligence, to say nothing of plot; the latter, about Abdul Jones, the son of the late Precious Jones (the narrator of her previous book, Push), is distinctly unmemorable—this in spite of our being exposed to virtually everything that Abdul thinks and does in his tortured path from an orphaned childhood to a shaky, confused manhood.

At the tender age of nine, Abdul is hurriedly whisked away from his Aunt Rita in Harlem after witnessing his mother’s funeral. I may be wrong, but I find it far-fetched that a black kid growing up in the bowels of Harlem would know virtually nothing about death, let alone that of his mother. The kid is apparently so ignorant that he knows nothing of new-fangled trash bags: “Rita hands me a shiny plastic square that opens out to be a garbage bag” (p. 28). At times he even sounds like a caricature of an African native attempting to speak English:

Coffins? Graveyard? Spooky place from Halloween movies on television. Dracula climbing out the casket with spiderwebs and stuff. Dark, scary stuff. But when the car stops, it’s like a pretty park, green grass, sky blue with fluffy white clouds. I lean back on the seat close my eyes, hear car doors open people talking, hear this car door open, open my eyes, get out…Green grass, the gravestones are little houses; a person is under each one? First a person then they turn into bones? (p. 23)

In fact the stupidity of the Harlem denizens depicted is beyond belief. We all know that ignorance, illiteracy and vulgarity damns far too many folk in true-to-life, impoverished Harlem, but the funeral scene itself is absurd; it reads like a racist caricature of a “colored” church gathering, with profanities mixed in to give an illusion of authenticity.

Indeed, one could merely cut to the chase and state unequivocally that the entire novel reads this way, as little Abdul moves from childhood to adolescence. In Book Two, appropriately titled “Falling,” Abdul is now pushing fourteen, six feet tall and attending St. Ailanthus School for Boys. Heretofore exposed to things African and African-American by his late mother Precious, he is further drawn into blackness (so we are led to believe) by occasional visits to the Schomburg Center, where he sees “faggots like Martin Luther King and astronauts and shit” (p. 61). He has a spate of new friends, some of whom, like four-feet Jaime Jose Colon, he rapes for kicks:

He’s shivering with excitement. I’m hard. I grab him with both hands, raise his little booty to me. I jam him…It’s so good, tight. He squeal, I slam his face in the pillow, kill that. OOOHHHH this shit feel good!…Bed creaking turn me on more. The in-out creak music. I hear that sound in the dark, turn me on, I know somebody getting it on. Fucking him I wanna sssscream but I don’t…He start to cry. Stupid! Stupid motherfucker (p. 54)

St. Ailanthus is a cesspool of pedophilia and religious hypocrisy. Brother John and Brother Samuel in their respective turns have their way with the confused and vulnerable Abdul. “I’m no faggot,” he repeats to himself throughout the book, while “tak(ing) his penis into my mouth” (p. 67). Abdul continues to clown around, eating the food off other student’s plates and screwing his pals until he is expelled from St. Ailanthus for raping Richie Jackson. Despondent, he moves into a foster home with an ex-whore from Mississippi he sneeringly calls “Slavery Days,” apparently from the antiquated way she speaks:

Yeah, honey, I was sittin’ up on a rock away from de picnic tables ‘n de music. Lookin’ down de road. Sky blue fluffy clouds, hog on de spit, good smell up yo’ nose. Nigger Boy pluckin’ de banjo. Banjo stop. Somebody start up on guitar. Black shadow cross me, Nigger Boy’s pant legs. Hair on my arm stand up. ‘Youze lookin’ for yo mama?’ (p. 177)

It gets worse than this—much, much worse. The monologue is flat-out minstrel dialect, straight out of Octavius Roy Cohen or Thomas Nelson Page. Now even Abdul’s sudden interest in African and Haitian dance does not dampen our suspicions about this novel’s true intent. It may sound cynical, but the writer suspects that the raves for this abysmal book have less to do with its supposed documentation of a soul’s birth and more to do with its resurrection of cheap Nigger Minstrelsy, the hundreds of times the word “motherfucker!” is shrieked, and its graphic depictions of blowjobs between young boys.

My cynicism about this book was not mollified by Abdul’s passage into manhood, his newfound artistic ambitions and erotic encounters with My Lai, a Vietnamese dancer, or his struggle with encroaching mental illness. At times I suspended disbelief and imagined the novel was something of a satirical blast from National Lampoon. It certainly does read like a parody of urban fiction, exemplified by Percival Everett’s “My Pafology,” a novel within a novel (Erasure). Reading “My Pafology” side by side with The Kid one is disturbed at the alarming similarities between the two narratives. Only there’s one problem: The Kid does not attempt to function as satire.

The most ironic and telling thing about Abdul Jones is that, in spite of our knowing virtually his every thought, his every emotion, and having heard his every scream and seen his endless freak-outs and masturbations, he remains as grotesquely one-dimensional as a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Endless episodes of Abdul raping anything that moves, slitting his wrists, cursing life, cursing humanity, the universe, while pretending to be an “artist” do not a character make. Certainly, he does nothing to challenge hardening prejudices against young black men, for as James Baldwin states, “(a)s long as I react as a “nigger,” as long as I protest my case on evidence or assumptions held by others, I’m simply reinforcing those assumptions” (Katz, The Invention of Heterosexuality, p. 105). Any non-black reader with a modicum of prejudice toward African Americans can find one’s prejudices further reinforced simply by reading The Kid, for it reveals nothing of the complexity and the humanity of the African American, whether gay or straight, rich or poor, young or old, male or female.

It is not simply a moral failing on Sapphire’s part, but an artistic failing as well. None of The Kid’s non-black characters, such as My Lai or Brother Samuel, are even remotely memorable. The praise that this book has been given seems incomprehensible: “A fascinating novel that may well find a place in the African American literary canon,” writes the Philadelphia Inquirer; “brilliant, blunt, merciless,” Newsday calls it. Well, two of the aforementioned adjectives certainly apply to this book; brilliant isn’t one of them. It is, quite simply, a cartoon, and a bad cartoon at that—specifically tailored for those non-blacks who wish to go slumming inside the mind of a savage Harlem native without, God forbid, going through the trouble of knowing an actual African American. One leaves this book feeling not that one has witnessed the “birth of a soul,” as Entertainment Weekly claims, but insulted, degraded, and swindled out of twenty-six dollars.