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Occasional Papers No. 25




Secretary of the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People

Author of

The Book of American Negro Poetry
The Book of American Negro Spirituals
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
God's Trombones— Seven Negro Sermons in Verse
Etc., Etc.




Secretary of the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People

Author of

The Book of American Negro Poetry
The Book of American Negro Spirituals
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
God's Trombones — Seven Negro Sermons in Verse
Etc., Etc.


'WK 9 - 1927


We are glad to add to the Occasional Papers published by the
Trustees of the John F. Slater Fund this brief treatment of a
large and difficult subject. It seems to me that Dr. Johnson has
handled the matter not only clearly and concisely but very interest-

In spite of the increasing number of publications the general
ignorance of most of us in America in regard to Africa is as
dense and dark as the great Continent was once supposed to be.
I know how great was my ignorance of the history and present
conditions of the Negro Peoples of Africa until a visit and con-
sequent readings brought me some knowledge and many surprises.
This publication is issued in the hope that it will help to increase
or correct our knowledge and widen our view of a story which
may be said to branch over to America.


July, 1927.


1 am indebted to Mr. Herbert J. Seligmann for
invaluable assistance in the gathering of the
material for this pamphlet and in its preparation.

Native African Races and Culture

By James Weldon Johnson

The African continent, with its eleven million square miles,
almost four times as large as the United States of America, has
a history reaching to the very dawn of human consciousness and
of written or carven record. It has been not only a cradle of
races and nations, but of refining arts, technology and crafts as
well. Vast folk migrations have passed through the African con-
tinent from one end to the other; with the consequence that it
now holds in its population of well above two hundred millions,
the most diverse races, nations and languages imaginable.

For Americans, Africa and more particularly African Negroes
have derived their chief significance from slavery. To speak of
the Negro was to refer to a man of color, usually thought of as
"black", brought on a slave ship to America, without possessions,
without culture or aptitude, who had to learn laboriously the
language of the country to which he had been brought, as well
as the simplest tasks imposed upon him. The descendants of
the slave labored under the disabilities which had been imposed
upon him. They were at first denied the possession of human
souls. They were thought of as being nearer to the beast than
to man. All their achievements, Avhether they attained to the
rank of artisan or eventually began to take their place in indus-
try, science and the arts, were attributed to their new environ-
ment. They were held to be the beneficiaries of their new home.
They had brought nothing with them. What they became, what
they are, is attributed entirely to the beneficence of their home
in the Western Hemisphere.

To adopt this point of view, as it has been generally adopted
in the United States, is to ignore the African background of the
Negro. That background is both an ancient and a richly varied
one. To that background it is the purpose in the following pages
to give brief consideration.

6 Native African Races and Culture

African Races

To begin with, there is no single and uniform Negro type or
race. The most careful and scientific writers on the subject of
African races have found it virtually impossible to give any defi-
nition of what constitutes a Negro since not only in stature, in
physical conformation, but in skin color as well there is infinite
variation among the African peoples. Thus, as Du Bois says,
"the mulatto . . . is as typically African as the black man",
and Sir Harry Johnston attributes to African races an admixture
of Caucasian blood varying from one-half to one-thirty-second.
While his generalizations are not meant to be taken as exact or
literal, it may be worth while to give here his estimates of the
proportion of "white" or "Caucasian" blood in native African
peoples :

Proportion of Caucasian

Race blood

Hima 1/2

Masai-Latuka Vi^^ Vs

Suk-Turkana-Elgumi Yg

Nilotic 1/24.

Bantu 1/lGto 1/32

West African None


Bushman (Hottentot)

This same author divides the native Negro inhabitants of the
African continent into three main groups: first, "the Negro in
general", ranging from Abyssinia on the East Coast to Senegal
and from Lake Chad to Cape Colony in the South; second, the
Congo Pygmy; and third, the Hottentot Bushman, living in the
southern triangle of the Continent. In the northern two-thirds
of the African Continent are more than one hundred "separate
and independent language families" each group of languages be-
ing "so separate from the other and without outside affinities that
any one of them might be Asiatic or American so far as special
African affinities were concerned." In the southern one-third of
the African Continent, on the other hand, there is but one lan-
guage-family, the Bantu; its only rival being the Bushman-Hot-
tentot tongues which, together with the Sandawi in East Africa,

Native Akrican Races and Culture 7

are spoken by, at most, 50,000 people as against the 40,000,000
who at the time Sir Harry Johnston wrote spoke the Bantu

The descriptions of these races, even to one who has not seen
individuals or pictures of individuals, will give some idea of the
diversity which prevails. Thus the pygmies, whose existence was
at first doubted, and who were believed to be the invention of ex-
plorers with a taste for tall stories about short people, are a tiny
race, often less than five feet tall, inhabiting the Congo forests
of Central Africa, living chiefly by hunting and trapping. Their
color is variously described as being coffee brown, red and light
yellow. In those northern portions of Africa, bordering on the
southern fringe of the Sahara desert, and extending across the
continent at its widest, known as the Sudan, are a bewildering
variety of races, of all colors and forms. The Fellatahs, Ni-
gritians, Berbers and Arabs, all with different degrees of Negro
admixture, vary in color from light brown, and almost white, to
a dark brown. The Ewe speaking peoples in the western part
of this area, on the coast and in the countries adjoining the
coast, have a strong Moorish cast of feature, some of them with
reddish hair. Dowd quotes Canot as saying of the Fellatah girls:
"I do not think the forms of these Fellatah girls, with their com-
plexions of freshest bronze, are excelled in symmetry by the
women of any other country."

In what Dowd calls the northern and the southern cattle zones
of Africa, where cattle keeping is the main occupation of the na-
tives, are the Masai, whose "aristocratic class" averages about six
feet in height, are "spare in figure and recall the 'Apollo type' ",
whose young women "are especially pleasing in their physiog-
nomy". On the plateau west of Lake Victoria, one of the Great
Lakes of Africa, are the Bahima, "a tall, and finely formed race,
of nutty-brown color, with almost European features. They
have oval faces, thin lips and straight noses." In the southern
part of the Continent are a group of races, including the Hotten-
tot, Kaffir, Zulu, Basuto, Makololo, Herrero, Matabele, etc., whose
colors and statures are as varied as those of other races of Africa.
Thus, to traverse in a swift birds-eye glance the races of this
ancient Continent, the Continent of mystery, is to range from the
Pygmies of the Congo forests to the Turkana-Suk, one of the

8 Native Africax Races and Culture

tallest races living on the surface of the globe. The late Captain
Wellby met with a district in which he estimated the average
height of the men as being seven feet; and Sir Harry Johnston
found very tall men, a number of them as tall as six feet six

Origin of the African Races

While the culture of ancient Egypt, the land of pyramids and
of the sphinx, of colossal statuary and enormous temples, is well
known to Americans, it is not often called to mind that the Ne-
gro played an important part in Egyptian civilization, that
Egyptian civilization not only radiated downward into Africa,
but that the Negro furnished rulers, officers, artisans, as well as
a substantial part of the population during Egypt's long history.
The ancient chronicler, one of the first and greatest historians,
Herodotus, as Du Bois points out, alluded to the Egyptians as
"black and curly-haired." And measurements in the tombs of
Egyptian nobles of the eighteenth dynasty indicate that Negroes
then formed at least one-sixth of the higher class.

In the chief art museums of Europe, in the Egyptian col-
lections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and in
the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, are beautifully carved heads
and full statues of Egyptian rulers, many of them plainly bear-
ing evidence, in Negro cast of features, of the part played by the
Negro in Egypt's history. Is it not significant that the features
of the great Sphinx are negroid ?

Just where and how the race called Negro originated is in dis-
pute and constitutes a question to which no completely satisfac-
tory answer may be given. Johnston believes that the Pygmies
are nearest the basic Negro race ; that they were driven deeper
and deeper into the recesses of the Congo forest by successive in-
vasions from the North, the chief invaders being the group of
races now known as Bantu; that there was a strong admixture
from time to time of Haraitic peoples who crossed the Red Sea
from Arabia or wandered down from Egypt. Dr. Alexander
Francis Chamberlain, in the Journal of Race Development, 1911,
indicates the part which Negroes played in ancient Egypt. He
points out that Nefertari, Queen of Egj'pt, was a Negro woman
of great beauty, who lived about 1700 B. C, was highly honored

Native African Races and Cultuhr 9

and venerated, and had many monuments erected in her honor.
This author states that "the Egyptian race itself in general had
a considerable element of Negro blood, and one of the prime rea-
sons why no civilization of the type of that of the Nile arose in
other parts of tlie Continent, if such a thing were at all possible,
was that Egypt acted as a sort of channel by which the genius
of Negroland was drafted off into the service of Mediterranean
and Asiatic culture. In this sense Egyptian civilization may be
said, in some respects, to be of Negro origin." He points out
further that Ethiopian women, "black but comely", as v.'ives of
satraps or governors of provinces, and kings, were often the real
rulers of Oriental provinces and empires. Negro poets were
known in Damascus and other Oriental cities. The presence of
Egyptian types among the peoples further south in the conti-
nent is repeatedly commented upon by explorers and writers.
Among the Bahima in the Uganda Protectorate have been noticed
again and again "a type of face startingly Egyptian in its main
features, and sometimes not much darker in complexion."

What part, if any, the early Phoenician traders and their Car-
thaginian descendants played in contributing to the formation of
the African races remains a matter of conjecture. There is,
however, no doubt whatever that Moors and Arabs, all the races
inhabiting northern Africa, as well as many inhabiting the Near
East, have not only absorbed Negro strains but have been ab-
sorbed during the invasions, folk-wanderings and commerce on
the African Continent.

PoIiticaJ Organization

In the Sudan especiallj' once existed great empires and king-
doms testifying to the organizing power of the Negro and of
African races. These empires were not confined to the Sudan.
There were powerful leaders and dynasties in the heart of Africa,
and in South Africa as well. In the Uganda protectorate, for
example, which centers in the great African Lakes at the head-
waters of the Nile, Johnston estimates that the history of these
kingdoms extends as far back as the 14th century of our era.
This author re-tells the legend of what he calls the "Norman of
Central Africa," a conqueror whom he thus compares with Wil-

10 Native African Races and Culture

liam the Conqueror who led the Normans to a conquest of the
Anglo-Saxon population of England. His name, so legend tells,
was Muganda or "the brother", and he came with a pack of
dogs, a woman, a spear, and a shield to the Katonga Valley. He
was a poor man but so successful in hunting that large numbers
of the aboriginal Negroes flocked to him for flesh. They finally
became so devoted to him as to invite him to become their chief.
He accepted and soon "erected his principality into a strong and
well-organized power." "The Kings of Uganda", says Johns-
ton, "kept up their prestige, maintained their wealth, and as-
serted their influence over the aristocracy by the continual raids
they made over the adjacent countries of Busoga, Bukedi, Uny-
oro, Toro and even Ruanda . . . The limit of their power
to the west at times was only the wall of the Congo Forest. Mr.
Lionel Decle, in his extended explorations of the country imme-
diately north of Tanganyika, found in a village an ancient
Uganda shield, supposed to have been there about a hundred
years, and according to the traditions of the natives it was ob-
tained from one of the warriors of a Uganda expedition who fell
in battle against the people of Burindi. These powerful Negro
kings maintained a certain civilization and a considerable amount
of law and order in the territories which they governed."

The history of these kingdoms extends back for hundreds of
years. They were not merely the sudden and evanescent cre-
ations of some chieftian, but were established empires with regu-
lar succession of rulers, a hierarchy of court officials and pro-
vincial governors, and all the ceremony incidental to such a po-
litical structure. "So far as tradition goes," says Sir Harry
Johnston, "the Bahima of Ankole can trace the genealogy of
their kings for about 300 years back. The Baganda can recall
their kings of a period as far distant as the fifteenth century.
The genealogy of the Uganda sovereigns includes thirty-six
names (prior to the present king) ; and if the greater part of the
earlier names are not myths, this genealogy, reckoning an aver-
age of fifteen years' reign to each monarch, would take us back
to the middle of the fourteenth century . . . Assuming that
they are to be reduced because they contain repetitions or imag-
inary or concurrent names, one is still entitled to assume that
Uganda, Unyoro, and perhaps Ankole and Karagwe to the

Native African Racks and Culture 11

south, have been settled kingdoms under dynasties of Ilamitic
(Gala?) origin for five hundred years." Dowd n^ports that at
the time of Stanley's visit the empire of the Waganda covered
an area of 70,000 square miles. "Up to the recent domination
by the British", says Dowd, "the Waganda were governed by an
emperor who had a well-organized government. His council in-
cluded a prime minister, several princesses, a chief butler, chief
baker, and a commander of the army and navy. There were feudal
lords ruling over provinces and owing allegiance to the king."
Stanley estimated the fighting force at 25,000 men and reported
that on campaigns the army was accompanied by women and
children who carried spears and other weapons, besides provi-
sions and water.

In the southern triangle of the African Continent, especially
on the eastern side, are remains of walled cities, which seem to
indicate powerful empires that have passed from the memory of

But even in recent times the South African races have demon-
strated their organizing power. Dowd tells of the Kaffir tribes:
"Their military life and habit of manipulating men has developed
a degree of constructive imagination far beyond that of any
other races of Africa. Their strategy in war and diplomacy in
politics would do credit to any race ; and some of their military
leaders have been not inaptly compared to Caesar. In 1852,
when Sir George Cathcart invaded Basutoland, his army was led
into a trap by the simple stratagem on the part of the native
leader, Moshesh, of exposing an immense herd of cattle in a po-
sition on the Berea mountain where their capture appeared easy.
The British army was surprised, defeated and forced to retreat."

It is, of course, in the regions just south of the Sahara, in
the Sudan and adjacent territories, that the most elaborate po-
litical organization has lasted even to our day. Kingdoms in the
Sudan existed for centuries, with mosques, archives and towns,
having flourishing fairs attended by thousands of people. These
fairs were thoroughly policed, good order being scrupulously
maintained, with an elaborate procedure for trying such cases
as arose out of disputes or breaches in good order. A. B. Ellis
states that Oyo or Yoruba was a powerful kingdom at least as
early as 1724. George W. Ellis says of these kingdoms in

12 Native African Races and Cultl-re

northwestern Africa: "Some of the kings — possessing two cap-
itals, and living in fortified castles that had glass windows and
were decorated with sculptures and painting — had pageantries
of the most stately magnificence. , Indeed, when England, Ger-
many, and France were just emerging from barbarism in intel-
lectual, scientific, industrial and political development, some of
these dynasties had attained a comparatively high degree of
civilization; and geographers and historians mention Ghana,
Timbuctu, and other interior towns as the resorts for the rich,
the learned and the pious of all countries."

A description of the magnificent ceremonies incidental to a
reception held by the king of Ashanti was noted in 1817 by Mr.
Bowditch of the Royal African Company, and reprinted by A.
B. Ellis: "Our observations en passant," wrote Mr. Bowditch,
"had taught us to conceive a spectacle far exceeding our original
expectations ; but they had not prepared us for the extent and
display of the scene which here burst upon us: an area of
nearly a mile in circumference was crowded with magnificence
and novelty. The king, his tributaries, and captains, were
resplendent in the distance, surrounded by attendants of every
description, fronted by a mass of warriors which seemed to
make our a])j)roach impervious. The sun was reflected, with a
glare scarcely more supportable than the heat, from the massive
gold ornaments which glistened in every direction. More than
a hundred bands burst at once on our arrival, with the peculiar
airs of their several chiefs; the horns flourished their defiances,
with the beating of innumerable drums and metal instruments,
and then yielded for a while to the soft breathings of their long
flutes, which were truly harmonious ; and a pleasing instrument,
like a bagpipe without the drone, was happily blended. At
least a hundred large umbrellas, or canopies, which could shel-
ter thirty persons, M'cre sprung up and down by the bearers
with brilliant effect, being made of scarlet, yellow and the most
showy cloths and silks, and crowned on the top with crescents,
pelicans, elephants, barrels, and arms and swords of gold; they

were of various shapes, but mostly dome The

king's messengers, with gold breast-plates, made way for us,
and we commenced our round, preceded by the canes and the
English flag." Mr. Bowditch estimated the number of warriors

Native African Races and Culture 13

present at this memorable scene at not less than 30^000. Ellis
reports that Ashanti has been known to Europeans as a king-
dom since the middle of the seventeenth century; "and their
military superiority, which has secured the capital from de-
struction by other tribes, has enabled them to preserve the re-
mains, and with them the memories, of former rulers."

Two forces in Africa, especially contributed to the formation
and the maintenance of the powerful native kingdoms. One
was the walled and fortified city with its regular social, religious
and family institutions. The other was the market, which is one
of the unique developments of the African Continent. Cham-
berlain says of the latter: "The institution of the market and
the fair, e. g., among the Negro peoples of the Sudan and the
development out of it of the village, the town and the city, are
one of the most interesting phenomena in all the history of
human culture. Among the questions involved in the evolution
of the market and the fair are: the greater share of women in
public and semi-public activities ; the breaking down of the nar-
rowness of mere tribal boundaries and clan-instincts, consequent
upon the gathering together of so many people at repeated in-
tervals; the movement toward abolition of war through the in-
stitutions of the marketplace and the prohibition of all hostile
acts during the time of fairs and markets, etc.; the amalgama-
tion of peoples resulting from the ultimately permanent char-
acter of these markets and fairs, and the absorption of those
conducting them more or less into the general population
by the consolidation of the temporary city without the walls
with the old city within them; the influence upon the general
honesty and morality of the community of the increasing impor-
tance of the right of asylum, the protection of the stranger
within and without the gates, the necessity of honest weights
and measures ; the autonomy of the market, the market-tax with
its corollary of protection of free-trade; the market-holiday and
its relation to religious and other festivals and ceremonial oc-
casions, etc."

It will be seen that in the case of African Negroes as indeed
with all other races, political institutions beginning in such ap-
parently simple needs as the desire to exchange commodities in
markets have permeated every phase of life, leading to the de-

14 Native African Races and Culture

velopment of cities, of kingdoms and empires and ceremonial
life on a large scale.

The simplest village life of some of the African tribes has
developed forms of common action which might well be emu-
lated by more "civilized" and complex communities. Land is
often held in common, being regarded as much a necessity of
existence as water or air. And problems of land ownership are
thus disposed of in a way to support all the population without
either extreme wealth on the one hand or the contrast of terri-
ble poverty on the other. Even in those tribes where slavery
has been practiced it has taken a form less destructive than it
took among white peoples. African slaves were for the most
part regarded as members of the family and often amassed
wealth surpassing that of their owners.

The law-abiding nature of the native African has often been
commented upon by travellers and explorers. "The fondness
of the African tribes for settling their disputes by recourse to
courts is well known," says Herskovits. "Penalties for theft,
murder, adultery, and other offenses are apparently fixed and
understood by these courts ; and, in general, the parties to a
dispute abide by the decision of the court, even where the ma-
chinery of enforcement seems to be lacking." Of the treatment
of slaves Dowd says: "Waitz was right in his contention that,
as a rule, slaves are better treated among savages than among
civilized people, for the reason first, that the savage master does
not place so much value upon time and labor and hence does
not rush his slaves, and second, that savage masters do not
draw such tight class distinctions."

The extent of native African villages may be gathered when
it is borne in mind that in a single town of the Latuka tribe,
for example, there might be as many as 10,000 to 12,000 head of
cattle. One tribe in the Sahara, the Tibbus, observed Denham,
had 5,000 camels.

Among the Hausas, "legislation was in the hands of the gov-
ernor of the state or city acting in conjunction with a council
of rich men or nobles. Among the Yorubas it was in the hands
of the king and local governor or councils, but sometimes the

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Online LibraryJames Weldon JohnsonNative African races and culture → online text (page 1 of 3)