Myths about Africa, Africans, and African History

Original text by Pier Larson. I have edited this for the purposes of my HIST 473 class. Other than minor textual edits, my additions can be found in blue.

Introduction. Myths about various people and places can develop and become popular in a society for a variety of reasons. Europeans and North Americans have developed myths about Africa, Africans and African history in the context of their enslavement of Africans, their colonization of Africa, and their history of racism. Racism perpetuated and perpetuates myths about black people to denigrate them and to “prove” that they have no worthy history. This distortion of African history served and serves the purpose of the social, political, and economic subordination of African people on both sides of the Atlantic. These myths ultimately concern Africa and Africans, the continent and people at the origin of the black diaspora. The primary way in which racism denigrates African experience is by creating negative images and stereotypes of Africans and their history. Racism accounts for most of the myths about Africa circulating in North America and more broadly today. A more recent and less important source of myths about Africa and African history comes from within the African community itself. In order to re-instill a sense of dignity and respect for African history denied by racist myths, some scholars and activists have invented new myths about Africans and African history that are not supported by evidence or that serve to elevate Africans at the expense of other people (for instance, the claim that homosexuality is not an African “thing” or that Africans are inherently communal vis-a-vis a individualistic and selfish West). Many of these represent positive stereotypes of Africans, but are wrong nevertheless.

Many of the ten myths referred to below have become “common knowledge” and widely accepted in American society, in both black and white communities. It is necessary to discuss and unlearn them before we proceed with learning new things about Africa. Because unlearning these popular myths is very important for learning new things about Africa, I call them the student’s “Ten Commandments.” Knowing that these myths are wrong should be your foundational knowledge about Africa, its peoples and history.


Myth One. Africa has no ancient cultures, histories or civilizations and has therefore made no meaningful contributions to world history. Subsidiary to this, the values that Westerners hold dear today like political freedom and democracy had and have no tradition or history in Africa.

False. This is one of the most fundamental of all the myths and is so strong because African slaves, as dishonored people, were stripped of their history and the dignity and pride that accompanied it. Africans not only built so many ancient cultures, kingdoms, civilizations, and empires that one person can scarcely remember let alone adequately study them but Africa was the center of one of the oldest of all civilizations, Egypt, from which the ancient Greeks, so favored in Western history, borrowed and learned (Egyptians also borrowed and learned from the Greeks, in their time, as the Mediterranean Sea on which both Greece and Egypt were located, was a zone of cultural intercommunication.) Finally, citizen participation, autonomy, and local decision-making are significant themes in African political history. Like other areas of the world, Africa experienced significant historical tensions between political centralization and absolute power, on the one hand, and tendencies toward local autonomy and individuality, on the other. The Western world and ancient Greece have neither a monopoly nor a patent on the forms of government we now know and value as “democracy.”

Myth Two. Africans are primarily tribal peoples; Africans are organized first and foremost into tribes while Europeans are primarily organized into nations.

False. The word “tribe” is a European word, not an African one. It is a term originating in the Judeo-Christian tradition (the “tribes” of Israel) that Europeans have historically used to name Africans, not a term that Africans have historically used to refer to themselves. No one, in any case, knows precisely what a tribe is. There is no agreed upon definition because the word is not scientific or precise in any sense—it is an invented category. Essentially designating an “ethnic group,” the term “tribe” is employed by people who consider themselves “normal” to refer to others who they consider to be unlike themselves in a negative way. Thus Americans will immediately think of Africans as tribes, but talk about Norwegians, French, Mexicans, Poles or African Americans as “ethnic groups” or “nations.” In the West, “tribe” carries the connotation of socially backward, not advanced or sophisticated, and therefore Westerners employ it liberally to refer to Africans because they mistakenly believe these are primary African characteristics (this, like most of the other myths, is part of the inheritance of racism). Colonial-era anthropologists and other scholars essentialized the political and social organizations of “backwards” (in Europe eyes) peoples as tribalism. A further problem arises because in Africa today you will hear many Africans refer to themselves as members of tribes. This usage comes from an acceptance of the European terminology by some Africans, a terminology that was employed so much during the colonial period (the early 20th century) that many Africans have internalized it and continue to use the term. Like Americans, however, Africans are unlikely to employ the term “tribe” to refer to Europeans. Because some Africans employ the term “tribe” to refer to themselves, however, does not make “tribe” any more legitimate than when Europeans employ it.

In this course, we will say that Africans have politics that they have used to organize their societies. There was nothing static about such organizations. They do not represent ethnic or “bloodline” purity. They were moving and dynamic, invented and remade through time.

Myth Three. Africans are essentially primitive in lifestyle, art and technology because few or no innovations took or take place in Africa.

False. Mention the derogatory word “primitive” (which, of course nobody thinks they are nor wants to be called) and many people in North America think straight away of Africa and Africans. How many times do we still hear of “primitive” people living in the forest here or there? Primitive has no scientific definition. Like “tribe” it is an epithet, a bad name, that Europeans/Americans have traditionally applied to people who live differently than they do, especially those who do not employ or have the kinds of technology Westerners today daily live with. Africans do not have a “primitive” lifestyle, art and technology, they have African lifestyles, arts and technologies that vary a great deal according to ecology, personal and group preferences, economic status, and a host of other factors. Each African society has produced and continues to produce its own innovations in technology, government, social structure, art, and literature. And some Africans employ some of the most sophisticated technology today available. Many telephone systems newly installed in African cities, for instance, take advantage of communications technologies that are well ahead of those available to you, the local telephone customer in the United States. Everyone reading this essay on myths would protest the insult if someone called them a “primitive tribesperson” to their face—or even behind their backs! Claiming someone is “primitive” does not reveal anything about them; it is an insult.

Myth Four. Africans have no literary, philosophical and historical traditions in either the recent or the far past.

False. Africans have literary and historical traditions reaching back to the dawn of civilization. Although writing was developed on its own in Egypt and several other ancient African civilizations, writing as a technology came late to much of Africa, during the 19th and early 20th centuries. But literary and historical traditions do not depend exclusively on writing. Verbal literature remained, and even today with the spread of writing as a technology of communication remains vibrant across Africa. Great African literary classics like Sundiata, an epic that stems from historical events in the 13th century, have been preserved as oral literature and subsequently written down for the enjoyment and edification of those who read. Africans have long excelled in the verbal arts and, where writing has a longer tradition, have also excelled in written literatures over the last centuries. For humanity as a whole, writing is a relatively new technology in which several African societies participated before the modern era, but humans had both a well developed sense and appreciation for history and a fascinating literature long before the prevalence of writing as a technology.

Myth Five. All Africans are black. To be African is to be black. Africans are not culturally diverse. Africans share an essentially unified culture

False. The majority of Africans have skin colors which in the United States, operating under the “one drop” rule, would be classified as “black.” But not everyone thinks like Americans, and this includes Africans. Africans come in a wide variety of skin colors and physical types that many Africans find significant among themselves. Most African cultures distinguish between, and have words to describe, different shades of skin color and hair types. In many societies, prejudices based upon these observed physical differences exist. Africans range from an almost dark blue-black skin color to a very light skin color that would “pass” in the United States as socially white. In addition to “indigenous” Africans whose ancestors remained on the continent (remember that all humans are Africans and their ancestors ultimately were Africans), there are immigrant Africans from all parts of the world. Immigrants to Africa compose only a small proportion of the African population. Africa has been connected to the wider world since the ancestors of non-Africans left Africa for Europe and Asia. It is therefore not surprising that, like anywhere else in the world, immigrants have come to live in Africa and in the process became Africans, just as Europeans and Africans became Americans in the Americas. Some immigrants to Africa are ancient immigrants like Persians and Arabs among the Swahili of East Africa, Arabs in North Africa, or Indonesians among the Malagasy. Most immigrants, however, are newer, having arrived during the last several hundred years or even in the last couple of decades. Newer immigrant Africans come primarily from Europe (especially France, England, Portugal and Holland) and Asia (especially India, China, Lebanon and Indonesia). Again, a comparison can be made with the United States. In North America the population consists of indigenous peoples (Native Americans) and those who immigrated voluntarily or forcefully (mainly Europeans and Africans, but people from all parts of the world). The existence of indigenous people and immigrants is also true in Africa, but there the indigenous Africans represent the vast majority instead of the minority. To claim that an Hispanic person is not an American citizen because she is Hispanic, or that an African American is not an American because he is African in origin, or that a Norwegian American is not American because her grandparents came from Europe (or because her far ancestors ultimately came from Africa) is nonsense and insulting. This is also true in Africa. If we tell African immigrants they are not truly Africans, or African citizens, they would probably either laugh at our ignorance or slap us in the face. In any case, they would show us their African passports.

Myth Six. Africa is a country.

False. The African continent contains more than 50 countries that are joined together in the Organization of African Unity. Africans speak thousands of different languages organized into five main language families. There are both important diversities and fundamental cultural similarities across Africa, as across any continent

Myth Seven. Africa is mostly jungle, with some desert, and is highly overpopulated.

False. Very little of Africa is jungle. It is true that Africa contains the largest stand of equatorial forest in the world, but like any other continent, and perhaps even more so, Africa is a continent of tremendous ecological and geographical diversity. The continent possesses the largest desert in the world, high snowy mountains, rich tropical forest, open grassland, mixed savanna (grasslands and trees), pine forests, temperate climates—pick a climate anywhere in the world (except Antarctica) and you can find it somewhere in Africa. Africa lies both inside and outside of the tropics, is massive, and has tremendous elevation differences. North American media reports on Africa often suggest that population control is desperately necessary, that Africa is brimming with people. Africa has only slightly more population per square mile than does North America. There are vast areas of Africa as large as North America itself (Africa being 3 1/2 times as large as the United States) that are almost totally unpopulated. Many African nations have very high rates of population growth, which can pose serious challenges for weak economies and fragile ecologies. These are kinds of problems that face many other nations in the world too.

Myth Eight. North Africa is not a part of Africa.

False. North Africa is often conceptually removed from the rest of Africa because (1) its people are, on average, of lighter skin color than the majority of Africans as a whole and (2) Arabic and Arab influences are more noticeable there than anywhere else in Africa. It is indeed important to understand North Africa, or at least parts of it, as part of what we commonly call “the Middle East.” At the same time, North Africa is an integral part of Africa itself, being a part of the continent. North Americans (both Black and White) are often uncomfortable with the idea of African diversity and are often quick to therefore separate North Africa from West, Central, East and South Africa. To make a comparison closer to home, removing North Africa from Africa is like removing the American South or West from America because each of the two areas contains distinct characteristics and unique cultures and has populations which are, on average, darker in skin color than those in the north and northwest. Cutting parts of continents off in such, a summary and unjustified (not to mention racist) manner because they do not fit preconceived notions is, of course, ridiculous.

Myth Nine. Africans are not normal people. There are two very different versions of this fundamental myth. Form A: Everything Africans do is worthless, a failure, and Africans can essentially only do bad things; Africans have no part in the history of civilization. Form B: Everything Africans do is perfect, worthy, harmonious, better than anything anybody else can or did do; Africans are the only or the primary origin of all civilization, especially Western Civilization and even the ancient Native American civilizations.

False. Let us begin with form A of the Myth. The idea that Africans have made no contribution to civilization is and has been the key Western myth of Africa and Africans. It is a myth, like other Western myths, born of racism and ignorance. It is related to all the preceding myths we have discussed. In this myth, Westerners see Africans not as competent and creative human beings like themselves but as stunted, “primitive tribespeople,” incapable of doing anything right, interesting, or worthwhile. Now let us turn to Form B of this myth, which is the flip opposite of the Western myth. The idea that Africans have a better civilization than others and in fact are the origin of everybody else’s civilization originates as an attempt to correct the lies perpetuated by the Western myth. It arises from the struggle to claim a rightful dignity and a respectable place in world history and civilization for Africans. To note the greatness of African civilizations and their contributions to Western civilizations is accurate. The relationships and contributions of Ancient Egypt to the civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean (especially Greece), for example, have been historically underplayed by Western historians over the last several centuries. On the other hand, societies borrow from each other and Africans have incorporated elements of other cultures and civilizations into their own societies just as much as they have contributed to others. To claim that Africans are the single or primary origin of Western and Latin American civilizations (versus the fact that Africans have made significant contributions to those civilizations, just as they have received from them), is now common in some social circles. This myth does not rest on real evidence and reproduces the myth that civilization and culture originated only in ONE place and spread from there to everywhere else (in academic jargon this theory of civilization is known as “hyperdiffusionism” and has always been associated with racism; it was used effectively by the West to denigrate Africans and bolster racism). To claim that Africans invented civilization for Europeans and Latin Americans is as insulting to them as the claim that Europeans were the origin of all civilization is to Africans.

Both of these versions of the myth that Africans are not normal people are wrong because Africans are not robots, they are human beings like everyone else. Africans love, hate, fear, promote excellence, tear down societies, build civilizations, wage war, appreciate diversity, act intolerant, cry, sing, are born, die, make good art, make bad art, fashion social justice, act like tyrants: they do and feel everything that everyone else does. Restoring Africans to their proper place in world history and civilization means neither seeing Africans merely as stereotypes—as devils or as angels—but as complex individuals building complex and varied societies and civilizations, doing the kinds of things that humans anywhere else in the world do.

Myth Ten. African history is basically a history of poverty, ignorance, slavery, violence, failure—of negative things. It is therefore both boring and depressing to study.

False. How could I, as a professor and human being, devote my teaching career to such a “depressing” topic as African history if this myth were true? African history is a total mix. Some of the more depressing aspects of African history are concentrated in the last two centuries, the modern times, in which Africa has been subordinated in the world economy. These experiences will feature prominently in this course, which includes African history during the time of the slave trade and colonization. If we look into Africa’s past we fund much that is positive and uplifting that more than counterbalances many of Africa’s problems today. To see African history only as negative is the equivalent, say, of considering European history and achievements only by the scores of wars that have been fought on that continent or by narrowing our vision to the Holocaust only. In this class we will explore a range of African experiences, from cultural and intellectual achievements to the scourges of slavery and colonization.

We often encounter the notion that Africa is a “problem” that needs to be solved. Like all other human societies, Africa faces challenges, many of which aren’t unknown to us as Americans. Many well-intentioned Americans and Europeans see it as the West’s job to “save” Africa. Helping people in need is an admirable notion, but let’s dismiss the notion that Africans need us to save them. Let’s also avoid reproducing attitudes about African “backwardness” that helped create many of these myths to begin with!

Put your myths aside, come, and learn about Africa and Africans in modern history.