Hannibal was black

Russell Baker

June 28, 1991|By Russell Baker

NEW YORK — New York

BEFORE LONG I'll probably manage to say something outrageous about "multicultural education," but the best I can produce right now is a small laugh. Here's why:

Just a few minutes ago a dear relative, the product of a pretty good -- should we call it "monocultural" or "unicultural"? -- education, consulted me about the crossword puzzle. Who was Scipio and what washis relationship to Hannibal, and what zTC people were "Khartoum residents"? she needed to know, poor dear. Did I ever tell her!

I had been waiting for years for somebody to ask me about Scipio Africanus, the Second Punic War and the great Hannibal, Mr. Super Carthaginian himself, who brought those elephants down the back route toward Rome after moving them up through Spain, over Pyrenees and Alps and down into Italy where he triumphed at Lake Trasimenus and Cannae before Scipio came to Rome's rescue.

I paid for that knowledge in agonies of mental toil in high school Latin while reading Livy's history of Rome. What a pleasure it was, having it finally pay off like this.

As for Khartoum, hadn't everybody known since high-school English history, the one the students always called "Wars and Whores," that it was in the Sudan and that its residents must therefore be "Sudanese"? Hadn't this monoculturally/uniculturally educated woman ever heard of the nutty Englishman Gordon at Khartoum?

Didn't she even know what the Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad had done to Gordon at Khartoum? Didn't she know that this led to Kitchener's expedition? And that Kitchener hung on as a great British hero into World War I? Didn't she know what stupid butchers the British generals of World War I had been?

"You do know there was a World War I?" I shouted, as one should not to a mature child who has demonstrated excellent motherhood skills.

"I have deduced its existence," she said, a mistress of crushing irony, "after reasoning that there must be a sound basis for referring to the war which has provided so much good entertainment for the American television, movie and reading audience as World War II."

She is smart, all right. I grant her that. But she doesn't know any history. Despite the usual American education of the sort we've had since that war which has provided so much wonderful mass-market entertainment, she meets Scipio for the first time in a crossword puzzle and learns, only because I am windier than usual this day, about Hannibal's military genius.

This family episode makes me laugh at the latest intellectuals' flare-up about how history should be taught in the New York schools. Should the approach be "multicultural"? "Monogendered"? "Ethnodynamic"? "Sexocentrifical"? "Euromaniacal"? "Nonsensidaisical"?

Take your stand and shout until your jaws beg for mercy. It's this year's big fun slanging match for intellectuals, probably because it offers such rich opportunity for venting your most beastly animosities on race, sex and ethnic issues while sounding so utterly, so absolutely, so unbelievably civilized.

("But the question, you see, is centrified on the monodynamical ethnicity inherent in the victimification of the bisexualized Eurogendering embedded in the traditionalization of the curriculumized decalcomania.")

All this is enjoyable not only because it makes the blood pound, but also because it takes the mind off the real problem.

The question is not what bias should be applied when teaching history, but why our schools seem incapable of teaching any history at all, biased or otherwise.

As now taught, history is neither multicultural nor unicultural; it is nocultural.

At a time when any teaching of it would be a step forward, we ought to be able to agree that while either the multicultural or unicultural stuff would be splendid, in the meantime we could use some anycultural history.

This could be the start of something big. African-Americans, for instance, now complain that the present (nocultural) history does them dirt. With enough anycultural history to solve a crossword puzzle, however, they might boast that Hannibal, one of history's greatest generals, was one of their own and celebrate in myth and song the Mahdi for destroying Gordon at Khartoum and striking a mighty blow against European oppression.

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