Born in 1946 in South Africa, in the Eastern Cape, Steve Biko engaged in political activism at a very early age, which ultimately caused his permanent expulsion from public schooling. Fortunately, he was able to enroll in and graduate from a private school, from which he entered the University of Natal Medical School to fulfill his life’s ambition to become a doctor. But his interest in political reform always remained strong, and in 1967 he joined the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), a multiracial organization dedicated to African civil rights. Biko soon became disillusioned with the NUSAS, however, when it seemed to him that “whites did all the talking and blacks all the listening.” The next year, he founded and organized the all-black South African Students’ Organization (SASO). While leading SASO, Biko formulated and spread the philosophy of Black Consciousness. The primary goals of Black Consciousness were to forge pride and unity among all black South Africans, to foil the government’s strategy of divide and rule, and to restore confidence in the ability of Africans to throw off their oppression. As envisioned by Biko, Black Consciousness was both a mental attitude and a way of life. He argued that true freedom could only be achieved once blacks realized that “the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” By challenging the premises and forces that created identities of inferiority and helplessness, Biko sought to awaken blacks to the potential power within each individual.
The apartheid government first restricted Biko’s activities, then banned all speeches and texts containing any reference to his person or his ideas. For a time, Biko cleverly avoided arrest, and Black Consciousness continued to gain momentum, resulting ultimately in the 1976 “Soweto uprising,” in which student protests against inferior education served as the spark for a massive, violent confrontation between African residents of townships and government security forces. In August 1977, Biko was finally caught at a roadblock, arrested, and severely beaten and tortured in jail over a period of several days. Bloodied, naked, and unconscious, he was then tossed into the back of a truck and driven over 700 miles to Pretoria, where he was pronounced dead at the age of twenty-nine.
The following text, “Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity,” was written by Biko in 1973 for inclusion in a book on black theology in South Africa. In this essay, Biko discusses the origins and expressions of racism and highlights their effect on people’s attitudes and lives. He also provides a clear definition and explanation of Black Consciousness and offers it as a solution to remedy dependency on whites and passivity in blacks. In doing so, he envisions a new identity for South African blacks that will empower individuals and give them the strength and determination to take charge of their own future.
Steve Biko, “Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity,” in I Write What I Like: Selected Writings, ed. Aelred Stubbs. Copyright © 1979 Harper & Row.
Rhode Islanders were the principal American slave traders during the eighteenth century, during which a total of approximately 1,000 slave-trading voyages set out from the colony to Africa. The “triangular trade” between the Atlantic seaboard, the Caribbean, and West Africa was the main source of great wealth for many families in this small British settlement. Among these families was that of John Brown, whose donation to a struggling college in Providence would lead to the renaming of the institution in his honor. Aware of their university’s explicit connection to the profitable and lethal slave trade, archivists at Brown University have attempted to tell the full story of voyages like that of the Sally. In the excerpts that follow, lines from the ship’s log are annotated with details of the events they describe.
John Carter Brown Library, http://cds.library.brown.edu/projects/sally/documents.html
This autobiography of a slave who would emerge as a leading voice in the abolitionist cause has been enormously significant for understanding Atlantic slavery. Equiano claimed to have been born a prince among the Igbo people of modern Nigeria around 1745, kidnapped as a child, and transported across the ocean to the West Indies and Virginia. Named by his first (of several) masters after the sixteenth-century king Gustav I of Sweden, “Gustavus Vas[s]a” would travel throughout the southern American colonies and the Caribbean, always longing to achieve his freedom. Shaming his Quaker master into honoring a promise, Equiano was freed in 1765, but he continued to suffer the indignities and risks attending a free black man living in a slave society. His published memoir was designed to galvanize antislavery forces, and his work elicited sufficient sympathy and respect to contribute to the abolition of the British slave trade (though not slavery itself) in 1807.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed., The Classic Slave Narratives (New York: Mentor, 1987), 99–100, 102–103.
In 1789, Olaudah Equiano published his autobiography, titled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African, written by himself. The title is most appropriate, for there is little doubt that he did indeed live a very interesting and exceptional life. Born around 1745 in what is now southeastern Nigeria, he was only eleven years old when he and his sister were kidnapped by African slave traders, brought to the coast, and sold to a European slave merchant. He was then shipped across the Atlantic to the West Indies, enduring and surviving a horrific experience during the “middle passage.” He was subsequently sent to a plantation in Virginia, where he was purchased by Captain Michael Pascal, an officer in the Royal British Navy. Equiano served Pascal well for several years, acting as a shipboard powder boy during several campaigns of the Seven Years’ War. While living in England, he was able to receive some schooling, and he converted to Christianity.
His next master, a Philadelphia businessman named Robert King, returned Equiano to the West Indies and employed him as a shipping clerk. Equiano took advantage of his tolerant Quaker master and his commercial travels to engage in some petty trading of his own, and he eventually saved enough to purchase his freedom in 1766. He continued his maritime voyages as a free man for several years, joining expeditions to the Mediterranean, Central America, and a near-fatal exploratory voyage to the Arctic. He later joined the British abolitionist movement and became a popular speaker against slavery and the slave trade in England. In 1787, he was briefly involved with an ill-fated project to repatriate free blacks to Sierra Leone, but he was forced to resign after he complained about corruption and mismanagement within the organization. He returned to his speaking tours across England and wrote his autobiography, which sold very well in Great Britain and the United States. By most accounts, he died in 1797, with his final wish to return to Africa as a missionary unfulfilled.
The reading consists of excerpts taken from Equiano’s autobiography. Although originally written to promote the abolitionist cause, his accounts of his experiences seem mostly accurate. His story begins with his description of village life in Africa prior to his capture. Here he acknowledges that Africans had their own institution of slavery, but he strives to make a clear distinction between it and the slavery that he experienced and witnessed in the Caribbean. He then recounts the manner in which he was captured, brought to the coast, and transported to the West Indies. His detailed and moving description clearly conveys the shock and subsequent demoralization that accompanied the loss of freedom and removal from one’s ancestral home. It is also interesting to compare his story with the account found in Jacques Barbot’s journal and to identify, analyze, and explain the ways in which they are similar and different. The next section focuses on Equiano’s experiences in the Caribbean, his views on African–European relations, and his unceasing efforts to win his freedom. Through his own example, he illustrates the behaviors and attitudes required for slaves to make the most of their situation. The reading ends with his final plea for abolition, in which he crafts an argument that blends both moral and economic factors in support of ending the trade in slaves.
Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African, written by himself, in Equiano’s Travels, ed. Paul Edwards (Oxford: Heinemann Press, 1996): 1–3, 6–9, 13–14, 22–28, 57–67, 143–46. Copyright © 1996 Heinemann Publishers.
Nzinga Mbemba (Afonso I)
A Portuguese sailor came into contact with the Kingdom of Kongo, which occupied a vast territory along the Congo River in central Africa, in 1483. When he returned in 1491, he was accompanied by Portuguese priests and Portuguese products, and in the same year the Kongolese king and his son were baptized as Catholics. When the son succeeded his father in 1506, he took the Christian name Afonso and promoted the introduction of European culture and religion within his kingdom. His son Henrique was educated in Portugal and became a Catholic bishop. However, Afonso’s kingdom began to deteriorate in subsequent decades, as the Portuguese made further inroads into his territory, pursuing ruthless commercial practices and trading in slaves captured in his dominions. In 1526, the king sent desperate letters to King João III of Portugal, urging him to control his own subjects and to respect the alliance—and the common Catholic faith—that bound the Europeans and the Africans together.