I Read Things: African History for Young Readers

There’s a little “community library” a few blocks away from our house in front of a closed convenience store. We’ve made a few deposits and quite a few withdrawals, and it seems like there’s always something interesting (and always a lot of stuff that isn’t so interesting, like pulp-worthy harlequin romance). One of my more interesting hauls included a handful of books from Doubleday’s mid-1960s Zenith Books. The renowned historian John Hope Franklin was one of the series consultants, and each volume paired a professional historian with a professional writer for maximum accuracy and readability. Here’s how they’re described in one of the volumes:

“The aim of Zenith Books is to present the history of minority groups in the United States and their participation in the growth and development of the country. Through histories and biographies written by leading historians in collaboration with established writers for young people, Zenith Books will increase the awareness of minority-group members of their own heritage and at the same time develop among all people an understanding and appreciation of that heritage.”

I think volumes like these are important for a few reasons. First, history, as it’s usually written, is really, really white—about, of, by, and for white people with minority groups little more than groups of people who are acted upon rather than important actors themselves. Second, I suspect most people have an absolutely abysmal knowledge of African and African-American history. I’m as big a fan of the Great Books of the Western World as anyone else, but I’ve come to the conviction that we’re missing a gigantic chunk of our common human heritage because we haven’t diligently considered the contributions of broadly “non-western” societies to the human project.

I had a calculus professor who said that the value of higher education is that it exposes you to the breadth of your ignorance, and when I left graduate school I told my mentor Douglass North that it had been an honor working with him, I had learned a lot, and I knew a lot less than when I started. Grabbing these books showed me one of the areas in which my understanding of the world is seriously deficient. These are clearly written for younger readers, but they’re very quick and very easy reads that serve, in my mind, like a coat of intellectual primer preparing the way for much more serious study. And suffice it to say I plan to include these and similar volumes on our kids’ reading lists.

Daniel Chu and Elliott Skinner, A Glorious Age in Africa: The Story of Three Great African Empires. There was a lot going on in west Africa around the time William the Conqueror was conquering England. There were well-developed trades in gold, salt, and other goods across northern and western Africa, and I think these very brief histories of the Ghana, Mali, and Songhay empires offer an important perspective within which majority-culture types like myself and my kids can better understand the history of world trade, war, slavery, states, religion, and (honestly) everything. As my kids get older, I want them to read African myths and legends alongside the Bible, Greek, Roman, and Norse myths, and European fairy tales.

Basil Davidson and Haskel Frankel, A Guide to African History: A General Survey of the African Past from Earliest Times to the Present. It’s an interesting and useful survey, but it includes the well-worn but incorrect claim that “Money made in the slave trade played a large part in helping to industrialize England and some other European countries” (pp. 80-81). See chapters 18, 26, and 27 of Deirdre McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity for a discussion of this thesis. There’s also this passage on p. 92, in a discussion of colonialism:

“All this called for labor. And the cheaper the labor, the more money would be left for profit.”

Well, sort of—but maintaining an exploitative/extractive regime is expensive, too, and people will do it up until the point at which marginal benefit is equal to marginal cost. Why didn’t market institutions arise and allocate labor efficiently and effectively? There isn’t space to discuss it in great detail here (hint: violence, and lots of it), but W.H. Hutt’s “The Economics of the Colour Bar” discusses the dynamics of labor exploitation in 20th century South Africa.

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