Africa’s Lost Kingdoms
June 10, 2019 8:43 AM   Subscribe

It may remain a little-known fact, but Africa has never lacked civilizations, nor has it ever been as cut off from world events as it has been routinely portrayed. Some remarkable new books make this case in scholarly but accessible terms, and they admirably complicate our understanding of Africa’s past and present. ~ Howard French long read
posted by hugbucket (21 comments total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
This is great, thanks. I've been casually keeping an eye out for accessible histories of non-Western civilizations for a while now, and these look like great possibilities. Eagerly following this thread for further suggestions.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:09 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]

This is so exciting! I have long wanted to read more about medieval Africa in particular but have only read some random online journalism stuff.
posted by Frowner at 9:09 AM on June 10 [3 favorites]

In light of the ongoing MeTa discussions over race and international differences, I wish this was an article by an African person rather than a New York professor. Theoretically the internet should allow us to get perspectives on the world much closer to the ground than the ivory tower overview. I am seeing more and more how parochial my usage of the internet is.

This post is a great start, and in the past I would have read it and been done. But now it’s going to inspire me to see if I can find resources (the books he’s reviewing are just the start) that aren’t coming from such a detached point of reference. Thanks, hugbucket.
posted by rikschell at 9:49 AM on June 10 [5 favorites]

The politics column over at the Washington Post is doing a summer African politics book club should you want to accompany these books with more contemporary information
posted by ChuraChura at 9:57 AM on June 10 [7 favorites]

I've been casually keeping an eye out for accessible histories of non-Western civilizations for a while now, and these look like great possibilities.

The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan plus sequel

The sequel was light and frothy, imo, hastily put together to feel current - the first one has had some unenthusiastic reviews but its readable and offers great insights on the oil laden middle east
posted by hugbucket at 10:11 AM on June 10 [3 favorites]

Howard French isn't as detached as "american university professor" might make it sound, as his quotes and tweets show up rather often in African twitter and he's a respected writer.

You may enjoy Cheikh Anta Diop, who is a thinker I've been inspired to follow up on after finding these quotes.
posted by hugbucket at 10:16 AM on June 10 [6 favorites]

rather than a New York professor.

French is a New York professor but also covered West and Central Africa for the NY Times in the 1990s, so does have more than the "ivory tower overview." However, the four books he reviews were written by one French and three American academics.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:18 AM on June 10 [2 favorites]

Thanks for this post, but I'd like to push back against the framing of this post, which I realize comes in part from the source article. French does note that Africa's past kingdoms are "lost" in the sense that they're omitted from Western recounting of history, "that fast-forward from the conquest of the Canary Islands to Columbus’s arrival in the Americas," not "lost" as in recently re-discovered.

So the histories of African empires is not so much little-known, but commonly overlooked by Western accounts of global history. If you want to learn more now, you could look up the history of any current African country (Wikipedia) and start reading about how current nations came to be, reading their history backwards and start to fill in these gaps in Western recounts of history. In most cases, you could spend days reading linked articles and documents from Wikipedia, though I doubt it'd be as connected as the books listed by French, and likely come across conflicting information and plenty of articles lacking citations, but it's often a decent start.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:52 AM on June 10 [9 favorites]

"It may remain a little-known fact, but Africa has never lacked civilizations"

This is not a little-known fact amongst educated people, so this framing makes me uncomfortable.

One of the depressing things about the recent MFA Boston incident was that part of it took place (from the description) in the spectacular Kingdom of Benin sculpture gallery. Look at that and tell me about African civilizations.
posted by praemunire at 11:27 AM on June 10 [12 favorites]

Those who like maps might wish to consider "The Penguin Atlas of African History" to supplement the books and articles on African History:
posted by speug at 2:13 PM on June 10

[Couple comments deleted; folks, fair points made about the author/framing, but this thread has developed in a more overall-critical direction than probably anyone would intend, which can be discouraging to posters; so maybe let's re-center on the content, either engaging with the link's substance or offering alternative sources?]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:11 PM on June 10 [4 favorites]

I feel like the excellent podcast series on Africana philosophy , by Peter Adamson and Chike Jeffers, belongs here too
posted by AxelT at 9:15 PM on June 10 [4 favorites]

Thus, I would also add

The African Enlightenment
The highest ideals of Locke, Hume and Kant were first proposed more than a century earlier by an Ethiopian in a cave
posted by hugbucket at 5:41 AM on June 11 [5 favorites]

An interesting article -- thank you, OP.

I recently read The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu and really enjoyed learning about the history of Mali and Islamic intellectual thought in that part of Africa.
posted by wicked_sassy at 5:43 AM on June 11 [3 favorites]

rikshell: I wish this was an article by an African person

If you can get it, maybe check out the BBC Civilisations series, in particular this episode by David Olusoga, who is a Briton of Nigerian descent. In it he speaks about the Benin bronzes and the special meaning to him as a boy visiting the British museum: a direct counterpoint to the idea that Africa was at any stage savage or uncultured. Quite the opposite in the middle ages: the Portuguese could not get enough of the splendour of the West African kings. Of course that all changed soon after, making enslaving these people more palatable to Europeans - but it was not always that way.
posted by Acey at 12:53 PM on June 11

rikshell: I wish this was an article by an African person

Assumptions without doing homework will make an ass out of you and me.

When I first arrived at the New York Times in 1986, fresh from freelancing in West Africa, I was as eager as anyone can possibly imagine – but more than a little bit nervous about trying to break into the big time of American journalism at the age of 27, as a new father working in a city I had never lived in before. I had never worked in a newsroom; I had never even worked under the close supervision of editors. So there was much to learn. I would have been lying if I had said I was looking forward to covering what seemed to me mundane things such as cops and courts – but, looking back, there is no doubt that my three years in New York gave me an education in journalism I could not have received anywhere else.

This was not the only invaluable education I received in New York – far from it. As an idealistic young black man there was a whole universe of knowledge to be acquired about how this industry handles the question of race in America, and this was vital to one’s survival. One quickly learned that the newsroom was a place rife with powerful networks, which nurtured and anointed a few golden boys – and occasionally, although much less frequently back then, golden girls. These networks took shape along lines of educational pedigree, social status and religion – all categories that helped make it appear that race was not relevant. Indeed, to the casual onlooker it all passed for merit.
~ What three decades in journalism has taught me about the persistence of racism in the US by Howard W French
posted by hugbucket at 12:58 PM on June 11 [7 favorites]

Assumptions without doing homework will make an ass out of you and me.

Based on his bio, he seems to be an American who has lived in Africa for two 3-4 year periods, both over 20 years ago. I'm sure he knows more about Africa than 99% of Americans, but it is not the same as being "an African person." I think someone can both appreciate French's perspective and expertise and also wish for the perspective of an African person on this topic.
posted by snofoam at 1:41 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]

Yes. There is a difference between Black/African American and African. French appears to be born and educated in the US with work stints in African countries.
posted by TwoStride at 1:59 PM on June 11

I couldn't find a link demonstrating that, can you provide me with one?
posted by hugbucket at 5:12 PM on June 11

From the Lettre Ulysses Award: Journalist and writer. Howard French was born in Washington, D.C. in 1958. As he was heading off to college at the University of Massachusetts, his father, a doctor, took a job running rural clinics for the World Health Organization in Ivory Coast. Howard French spent his summers in Abidjan with his family, and then moved to Africa after graduating in 1979.

You can find the same info at The History Makers

So easy on the snark next time.
posted by TwoStride at 5:18 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]

I'll be sure to work on throttling it back.

Howard French's passport maybe American but his exposure to the African continent is significant and longstanding, clearly putting him in an outlier category to the average NY professor.
posted by hugbucket at 1:31 AM on June 12

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