An Afrocentrist journeys back to the future again

April 21, 1994|By Gregory P. Kane

A FEW days before Glenn McNatt's column "Afrocentric Quantum Time Travel" appeared (April 2), he posed to me the question that he would ask his readers: If you had the chance to travel back in time, what would you change in history to make sure black people were better off today?

It was an intriguing question that I could not immediately answer -- though Lord knows, I should have been able to. I usually have my head buried in a history book of some kind. Every so often I may pick up a novel -- but even then it's almost always in the historical genre. Still, the thought of what I would do to alter history had never occurred to me.

Thinking provincially -- i.e., about black people only in the United States -- I suppose I would focus on the Reconstruction era and its immediate aftermath.

It was the dismantling of black political power at the end of Reconstruction -- when the freedmen's white Republican allies cut a deal that left black people in the South to the tender mercies of the Ku Klux Klan -- along with the imposition of Jim Crow and the defacto return to slavery euphemistically called sharecropping, that most retarded the progress of blacks.

But if even the great Frederick Douglass couldn't prevent the dismantling of Reconstruction governments in the South, I hardly see what I could have done except warn people of the disaster that awaited them.

So I guess I would have to go back prior to the beginnings of the black experience in America to find a point in history where black people had real potential to affect their future -- say, the western Sudan in the 14th century. There I would be time-warped into the body of King Abubakari II of the empire of Mali.

Those familiar with African history may be more familiar with King Abubakari's younger brother, Mansa Kankan Musa -- the notorious fop and showoff who led a much-celebrated pilgrimage to Mecca to parade the wealth of western Sudan.

But Abubakari was cut from different cloth. He was a visionary who, some historians have suggested, sent not one but two expeditions from Mali to the Americas in the early 1300s. Abubakari himself went on the second expedition -- which, like the first, never returned, thus paving the way for his younger brother's ascent to the throne.

Abubakari was a visionary who yearned to know what was on the other side of the waters of the Atlantic. I would have taken Abubakari's quest for knowledge one step further. I would have sent envoys to North Africa, Spain and other parts of Europe to learn everything the Arabs and Europeans did -- even down to what side of bed they got up on in the morning.

I would have left particular instructions for my descendants to keep abreast of technological and scientific developments emanating from Europe and use them for the development of the western Sudan. Had that happened, we may have been spared the spectacle in 1594 of a Songhay army of 16,000 put to rout by a 2,000-man Morroccan force because the Morroccans had primitive rifles while the Songhays had spears.

The wealth of the western Sudan was based on trade in gold, salt and slaves. I would have kept the trade in gold and salt and ended the slave trade. Instead, I would have had my people employ those they conquered in developing their own lands rather than allowing them to be sent off to the Americas as chattel, where the profits from their labor would eventually finance Europe's industrial revolution

In that case, Samori Toure, whose armies fought the French in West Africa over a region extending from Senegal to present-day Guinea in the 1890s, might not have seen his blacksmiths turn out perfect replicas of the Gras rifle only to have his forces overwhelmed by the enemy's heavy artillery. And historian John Henrik Clarke wouldn't have lamented the irony of African-American inventor Lewis Latimer having improved the Maxim gun only to see it used to mow down Africans by the thousands during Europe's subjugation of the continent.

"Whatever happens we have got the Maxim gun, and they have not," the Europeans boasted of the new machine gun. Had African rulers kept Africans at home instead of selling them to European slave traders, Latimer might have been around to perfect automatic weapons for blacks.

So much for Afrocentric quantum time travel. For now, I'm time-warping back to the present -- where a bunch of nettlesome, non-Afrocentric bills still await me.

Gregory P. Kane is a reporter for The Evening Sun.

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