Looking back over the past can be shocking and painful. When that past has as much ugliness, as much inhumanity and unremitting selfishness as the era of the Great Enslavement of Africans and the destabilization and colonization of their homeland, the shock and pain of re-examination is magnified beyond relief.
Thus, many European whites choose to forget. Thus, many American whites, whose society grew as a result of European colonial strivings, choose never to look too closely at the antecedents of their success. Thus, even Americans of African descent choose not to dwell on a history that for them means nothing but shame.
But a struggle as complex and compelling as Europe's 500-year interaction with Africa holds beauty as well as ugliness. The poetry of the human spirit resonates most poignantly in opposition to the forces of oppression and degradation. In the struggle of Africans, their descendants and those who befriended them against colonizers, disrupters and slavers, that poetry rings a clear call of freedom that cannot be denied. And such beauty cannot be seen without looking boldly back at the ugliness that provoked it.
Molefi Asante's latest book, ''Historical and Cultural Atlas of African Americans,'' co-written with cartographer Mark T. Mattson (MacMillan Publishing Co., New York), looks back boldly indeed. Starting with the pre-Christian era, when colonizers and slavers from Arabia and Europe had not yet discovered the bounty of land, resources and human capital of Africa, the book charts the development of famous African civilizations.
Not surprisingly from the author of 28 books defending an ''Afro-centric'' perspective on world events, this atlas dares to re-examine the 19th-century interpretations of African history that still color most Americans' views of black Africans and their culture.
Despite that, this book is not about challenges. It is a reference work, a colorful, map-laden text which strives, like much of modern black American scholarship, to re-connect Africa's progeny to their history. That history, all the way through enslavement, deculturization and degradation to the status of ''chattel,'' emancipation and the fight to end lynch-law and Jim Crow segregation, includes much more than political, economic and even military struggle.
It also includes art and music, science, literature and religion. It includes the story of some of the most creative, inventive people in the world.
Professor Asante, a Georgia-born scholar who established the nation's first doctoral program in African-American studies, and Mark Mattson, head of Temple University's cartographic laboratory, have thus assembled a work that is part history, part pictorial essay and part mapping of the travels, travails and triumphs of blacks in Africa and America.
The book contains interesting charts showing the location of significant events in the lives of black leaders and achievers, but also tables laying out the accomplishments of blacks in many spheres. One in particular that stands out is a listing of significant Civil War battles in which black troops played major roles.
''Glory,'' the fictionalized movie account of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, quickened the interest of many people in the exploits of black fighters in the war for emancipation. This book will no doubt point many readers to other dramatic episodes that need retelling.
As in many an ambitious work, this first printing of what will surely be an ongoing atlas has correctable flaws. The authors note in their preface that the publication schedule forced them to complete their work before the results of the 1990 census were released, leaving them with incomplete data on which to base their population projections. That can be remedied in a later edition, as can the unfortunate placement, on a map on Page 132, of Pennsylvania's Lincoln University at a site near Pittsburgh instead of the other end of the state.
When all is said and done, errors and omissions aside, this is the kind of book many people will be proud to own. It should find space on many library shelves, for it fills a need many have felt but until recently few have moved to address. And it is beautiful in execution. That alone might be enough to recommend it for some.