Vol. XI, Issue 1 (Winter 2004): Amistad and Education in The African Diaspora



Gloria Emeagwali
Chief Editor

Walton Brown-Foster
Copy Editor

Haines Brown


Olayemi Akinwumi

Zenebworke Bissrat

Paulus Gerdes

Mosebjane Malatsi
(South Africa)

Alfred Zack-Williams
(Sierra Leone)


Tennyson Darko
Asst. Dir. ITS, CCSU

Peter K. LeMaire
Professor, CCSU

Bernice A. LeMaire
Website Designer

For more information concerning AfricaUpdate
Prof. Gloria Emeagwali
CCSU History Dept.
1615 Stanley Street
New Britian, CT 06050
Tel: 860-832-2815



Table of contents

Editorial: Amistad and Education in The African Diaspora
by Dr. Gloria Emeagwali

Dr. Tunde Zack-Williams delivered the First in the Annual Amistad Lecture Series on November 14, 2003 at the Torp Theater, Central Connecticut State University, New Britain. Dr. Tunde Zack-Williams, Professor of Sociology at Central Lancashire University, Preston, was chosen for this distinguished lecture because of his outstanding academic work on Africa and the African Diaspora. His research on diamond - mining in Sierra-Leone provides us with a definitive study of the intersections between indigenous mining activities and British colonial corporations such as the Consolidated African Selection Trust (CAST), which assumed a monopoly in mining and prospecting in Sierra Leone until 1936. Dr. Zack-Williams eloquently discusses the South African De Beers mining group and indigenous African interest groups such as the Kono Progressive Movement. More recently he has analyzed the significance of child soldiers in the recent conflict in Sierra Leone including the role of conflict diamonds in the war that evolved. Dr. Zack-Williams has published extensively on the African Diaspora in Liverpool in particular and the United Kingdom in general.

We are pleased to include the First Amistad Lecture in the current issue of Africa Update.

Dr. Gloria Emeagwali
Chief Editor, AfricaUpdate

Amistad and Education in The African Diaspora:
The First in the Annual Amistad Lecture Series, CCSU
by Alfred B. Zack-Williams, PhD
Professor of Sociology
University of Central Lancaster,
United Kingdom


Distinguished Colleagues, Fellow Students, Ladies and Gentlemen. May I start off by thanking the organizers of this symposium for inviting me to give the First Annual Amistad Lecture. In particular, I want to thank Dr Charles Mate-Kole, the Director of the Africana Center and Dr. Gloria Emeagwali, the Chair of the Amistad Committee for their effort in getting me over here. Indeed, I feel quite honored. I am aware of the academic links between our two institutions. Every year I have students from Central Connecticut State University among our growing number of international students. Your students are often surprised when I start mentioning the names of distinguished colleagues from your institution with whom I am acquainted.

My own history is very much tied up with Segbe Pieh Cinque, partly because like him, I am from that country which the Portuguese initially called Sierra Lyoa, or Lion Mountains. Pedro da Cintra and his crew who came down the West African Coast around 1462 in search of the sea root to the East (India), must have arrived during the rainy season and were greeted by the roaring of thunder and flashes of lightning, and with the series of mountainous landscape that constitute the peninsular of Freetown. They were convinced that the land they had arrived at was a land of lions. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, as the vegetation of coastal Sierra Leone could not sustain savannah-type predators like lions.

As we celebrate Amistad, a monumental occasion in Africana or dare I say in American history, it is important to note two things:

  • The state of Africa in the pre-Columbian era. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to sail down the African coast in search of the sea route to the spice trade of the East. By 1462, Pedro da Cintra had carved his name on a giant mural on Freetown harbor. Da Cintra and his crew continued their journey and became one of the few Europeans to witness the Empire of Benin in contemporary Nigeria at its peak. He wrote of Benin as a city with very wide and clean streets, unlike anything he had encountered in Europe and that the people were also well clad. This on the eve of the outbreak of the destructive Triangular Trade from which Africa is yet to recover.
  • Secondly, in Segbe Pieh Cinque I recognize a spirit of determination of not giving up in the face of adversaries, or when others have written you off. I recognize a spirit of Harambee, a spirit of togetherness. I want to refer to this as the spirit of the Amistad. Just recently among Sierra Leoneans there has been a debate as to the ethnic origin of Segbe Pieh Cinque. The consensus is that he came from the Bullom or Sherbro ethnic group from Bonthe Island in the Southwestern corner of Sierra Leone. Pieh in Bullom indicates that he was the second born son in that family, and as a seafaring people, Segbe Pieh Cinque must have learnt seafaring activities from various fishing adventures by the time he was captured into slavery, in April 1839. Perhaps, it is this seemingly rudimentary knowledge of the southern Atlantic coast that enabled him to take control of the Amistad after the Spanish Captain had been killed.

I emphasize that for our young people to inculcate the Spirit of the Amistad if they have to become relevant in what others have called the post-modern world. They must also be aware of the great heritage from which they descend. I am concerned with the conspicuous absence of young African men in public spaces. I use the term African young men to refer to African-Caribbean men in Britain and African American men. It seems to me that African men are in crisis by their failure to encompass the spirit of Segbe Pieh.

As a sociologist I am acutely aware of the role education plays in social mobility. If I could draw from a source I know quite a bit about, Continental Africa, where I taught for a number of years following my doctoral work. Many of the African leaders that we as African Diasporic people champion today, such as: Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Cheik Anta Diop, Leopold Senghor, Jomo Kenyatta, Samora Machel, Eduardo Mondlane and Amilcar Cabral, were all descendants of peasant households, who seized the opportunities, however small within colonialism to educate themselves and in many cases in order to liberate their own people. These great African nationalists were all united in the belief, yes belief 'that the pen is mightier than the sword'. This is precisely because education provides us (as members of society) with the skills, tools, and knowledge to function in fast changing technological societies. Clearly those who fail to seize the time soon find that they lack the vocational and intellectual skills to become employable, thus swelling the rank of the chronic unemployed.

The German sociologist, Max Weber wrote about social closure. By this he meant the strong tendency for social groups to seize upon certain social criteria as marks of distinction, and as a means of setting themselves apart from outsiders. These criteria include such things as gender, race, cultural background and nationality, educational level, and common occupation. By using some criteria to close themselves off from others, the members of a social group attempt to monopolize resources that will bring them economic success and social esteem. The worst example I can think of was the state organized slavery that became known as apartheid, where vast amount of money was spent on educating white children in South Africa and only a fraction was spent on African education.

Another vehicle of social closure is educational credential. The argument is that by achieving a certain level of education (possessing certain types of diploma) the members of a group hope to establish a minimum credential for entry into certain occupations with high payoffs in terms of privilege and prestige. In the context of the United States, this is what a British Sociologist, Frank Parkin has to say:

'Educational credentials have become the new property in America. That nation, which has attempted to make the transmission of real and personal property difficult, has contrived to replace it with an inheritable set of values concerning degrees and diplomas, which will most certainly reinforce the formidable class barriers that remain, even without the right within families to pass benefices to their children'.

Writers such as the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu refer to this as cultural capital, which gives progenies of these groups some kind of head start in life. At the risk of being misunderstood, the above argument is not to suggest that educational credential is the only means of social closure. There are other means, some of which I have already referred to above. Pedro Noguera has recently argued that for Black males in the US education 'now increasingly serves as a primary agent for reproducing their marginality'.

The problem of the invisibility of Black men and young Black men in particular in public space has engaged the attention of researchers for a number of years. In the United States, Cornel West and Pedro Noguera have written of the 'crisis of the Black male', the endangered, at risk and marginalized group. Noguera has also drawn attention to the low number of African American males enrolled in higher educational institutions and has called for a supportive and nurturing environment in order to keep retention figures up. Incidentally, this is not an African American male problem, but an African Diaspora concern. Indeed, a few years ago I published a paper in the journal of the National Association of Black Social Workers, entitled: 'Ethnicity and Gender in Access Education: Some Comments on The Experiences of African-Caribbean Men Within the Academy'. This was followed up by a polemical piece with inspiration from the work of Cornel West, in the Journal of Social work Education, entitled, 'Nihilism and the Social Construction of Black Sexuality'. Both studies examined in the position of African Caribbean men in Britain.
Now, the absence of Black men in public spaces is mirrored by the over representation within the criminal justice system and within institutional psychiatry. Booker writes of the disproportional involvement of African American male within the criminal justice system; and the ever changing, yet ever-present process of "criminalisation” that has entrapped Black men through out history, thus creating a major barrier to their collective development. The Nehemiah Consulting Group has drawn attention to the fact that African American males are 14 times more likely to be murdered than their white counter parts.

Thus it might not seem such an exaggeration to talk of crisis of the Black male. In what follows I want to focus on three points:
  • Further evidence of the crisis
  • Implication for gender relationship
  • An attempt to explicate this situation away from the usual patronizing and anthologizing explanations based on demonizing the Black family and Black women in particular.

The Crisis
Noguera has pointed out that to talk of a crisis is to imply a deviation from a more stable norm, suggesting 'a period of temporary urgency, or even a short-term emergency, and not a prolonged persistent degenerative condition' (p.1). Whilst it is always easy to be nostalgic of a distant past, and the growth of a Black middle class in both Britain and the US tend to mask the problem of a crisis. However, there are some telling statistics. In Britain the unemployment rate among Black men is at least twice that of their White counterpart and they are underrepresented in professional and managerial position. According to Noguera the situation in the US is not much different. He noted that African American males earn on average 73% of the income of White males and that they too are underrepresented in the professional and managerial positions. In education on both sides of the Atlantic Black males are at least four times more likely than white males to be excluded from school and in the US 9 times more likely to be sent to special classes. In the US Noguera points to the decline in number of Black male entrants to colleges and universities. As he observed:

'For a growing numbers of Black males, prison rather than college is a more probable destination during adolescence and young adulthood. In 1995, one out of three Black males (versus one out of every 10 white males) between the ages of 18 and 30 were either incarcerated or in some way ensnared by the criminal justice system. …In California, the percentage recently increased to 40%…'

Implications for Gender Relations

Before looking at some explanatory reasons for the poor showing in educational achievement of Black males, we need to consider the gender implications. This is of course a very sensitive area, particularly as it involves personal relationships. Since both Britain and America are patriarchal societies, this new development raises a number of challenge issues. Patriarchal societies always assume a household headed by men: with men as the breadwinner and women's income at best supplementing the male income. Now since the evidence is pointing to Black women as heads of many households, this in itself is a challenge to domestic patriarchy. In my view any challenge to domestic or public patriarchy is to be welcomed. However, the fact that jobs are difficult to come by for Black males will inevitably produce status displacement in such relationships as well as the strain in the ability to carry out the essential functions of a partner and more important a father. In my view this is equivalent to the loss of status, which many working class men go through soon after retirement. The danger is that this process has a tendency to self reproduction as fathers who are busy hunting for 'non-existing' jobs will not be around either to help in the socialization of the offspring, thereby failing to provide a reference group for the young, who in turn may show anomic regards for the values of the group. Thus boys who come from household where only Mummy reads to them would soon realize that reading is gendered process and that the significant other (male) in his life, do not read. This soon becomes a self-perpetuating process. Already there are anecdotal evidences of intra-ethnic cross-gendered questioning of the status quo. Women complain of being tired with their double role as mothers, breadwinners and father-surrogates. In my view Black men in the Diaspora need to seek the spirit of Amistad. Segbe Pieh. They never gave up, they pooled together in the spirit of what Jomo Kemyatta used to call Harambee, meaning togetherness.

In this quest for Black men to fight back against the social exclusion and increase their self-worth, Black men will have to work with Black women as equal partners, in the manner in which Black feminists have noted that Black men have been their partners and protectors against racists and racism.

Trying to Explicate Black Male Educational Underachievement: Beyond Social Pathologies

The traditional or orthodox explanations of Black underachievement have tended to blame the victims of racism and to pathologies Black culture. This is true of the work of people Jensen (in the US) and Eysenck (in the UK) and other IQ testers who over- emphasize the role of heritage in educational achievement and down play the role of environmental factors. The problem with this type of analysis is that it is tautological: Black and working class people underachieve because they have poor pool of achievers; white people and middle class people overachieve because they have a high genetic pool to foster achievement.

Recently this rather circular argument has been resuscitated by the underclass theorists such as Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein who not only point to what they saw as differential educational performance between African-American and White students. Using Armed Forces Qualification Test data for the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth they concluded that intelligence is distributed unequally among various ethnic groups. The poor educational achievement on the part of African American students is put down to hereditary factors. They went on to argue that there would be diminishing returns for African- Americans from the impact of additional years of education on earnings or intelligence. In their view social policy efforts designed to improve African American students' academic achievement through more years of education or affirmative action are waste of limited educational resources.

These findings are colonial and must be strongly rejected. They reminding of the 'backward slopping supply curve theory' invented by colonial anthropologists in the Dutch East Indies. (Explain). Clearly, such theories do not help policy makers other than to further marginalize vulnerable groups. In direct opposition to social pathologies I want to draw attention to explanations based on the social structural position of Black people within contemporary capitalist societies.

In the early 1980s the British Government commissioned a series of report (the Rampton and Swann Report) Education for All, which pointed
differential attainment between White, African Caribbean and Asian children. In my view for the first time an official report put racism as an important causal factor in the underachievement of Black children. Other factors alluded to include: teachers' perception of Black kids; ethnocentric curriculum and the need for strong pastoral care for Black children. The result was an increase support for non-standard entrants to higher education, support for access programmes and minority languages in the curriculum and greater link between home and school.

In January 2002, one of the few African Caribbean women in the British Parliament, Ms Diane Abbott made an important intervention when she pointed to the fact (which many IQ testers and other social pathology theories fail to realize) that the educational achievements of Black boys in general at infant and junior schools continue to be high, and in many cases outstripping their white counterparts. However, by the time they arrive at secondary school, age 12 their performance fall dramatically, and the rate of exclusion rises dramatically. Ms Abbott's explanation is that the fact that Black boys on average tend to be bigger than their White counterparts fosters a persona, which seemingly appears intimidating to young White female teachers, who quickly interprets this as a sign of disobedience, insolence and aggression.

Diane Abbott's argument, which raises the question of the public persona of young Black men leads me on to my contention that the attack on Black intellectual ability can be explicated through an analysis of the concept of nihilism and the social construction of Black male sexuality. In my view this concepts have strong heuristic function in locating certain causal factors in black male educational underachievement.

According to Cornel West:

'Nihilism is to be understood …not as a philosophical doctrine that there are no rational grounds for legitimate standards or authority; it is far more, the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and lovelessness. This notion of nihilism differs fundamentally from the Marxist notion of alienation. Though both are the product of capitalism, the former has a specific racial dimension. As West observes, it is the product of a fast paced market driven culture, which is obsessed with sex, and is fuelled white supremacist ideas relating to Black sexuality. The net effect is that it is deracinating and highly radicalized in its impacts. In this respect 'nihilism' is a much more severe threat than alienation, the generic product of capitalist oppression.
According to West nihilism produces 'a numbing detachment from others', 'a self-destructive disposition towards the world', and 'self-hatred' leading to life without meaning, hope, and love breed(ing) a cold hearted, mean-spirited outlook that destroys both the individual and others'. The visitation of nihilism is not new to African Diaspora conditioning. It was triggered off by the destructive effect of the slave trade, heightened by the brutality of the middle passage and institutionalized by the inhumanity of slavery. Yet in these early struggles, African people were able to construct and consolidate civil societies, communal networks, which not only offered meanings to their lives, but also created a barrier against collective self-destruction.

However, the impact of endemic white supremacist beliefs unleashed by imperialism led to the breaching of the cultural structures and institutions of Black civil society. By undermining traditional; values of sacrifice and selflessness among the poorest, in favor of hedonism, self-gratification and machismo, imperialism laid the basis for the demise of Black self-belief and spiritual enrichment. Of more significance is the fact that white supremacist thoughts and representations which permeate Western societies and culture, attack the intelligence and ability of Black people as well as Black beauty, leading to deep-seated anger and despair of Western sense of justice.

This attack on Black intellectual ability can be located within the realm of the social construction of Black sexuality, and the resulting caricature of Black sexuality from this contraction. Clearly knowledge of the social construction of Black sexuality holds an important key to an understanding of the nihilist threat, of which Black male educational under-achievement is a symptom. The analysis of Black sexuality is nothing new. A number of writers such as Eldridge Cleaver, Patricia Hill Collins, Robert Staples, Isaac Julien, Kobena Mercer and Cornel West have tried to analyze Black sexuality by locating how this affects the black condition. The problem with much of these writings is that they tend to be specific to either quest for a specific Black feminist perspective, (important as this project is with little reference to the Black male condition; or, when they relate to the latter, they tend to deal with issues of Black male sexual orientation, important though these issues are in societies riddles with homophobic and sexist hysteria.

In his writing on black sexuality, Cornel West draws attention to the disgust and rejection associated with black social spaces such as Black churches, mosques and Black families. He points out that: 'they obsessively condemned those places where Black sexuality were flaunted: the street, the clubs and dance halls'.

In the case of America, West argues that this avoidance of Black social spaces is the result of the premium Black institutions place on survival. The need for 'accommodation' with White America means that those Black institutions and individuals who threaten or subvert should be avoided. Thus he notes:

'…Struggling black institutions made a Faustian pact with White America: avoid any substantive engagement with Black sexuality and your survival on the margins of American society is at least, possible'.

If West's analysis is correct then, we will argue that here lays the Pandora box of Black oppression and underachievement, particularly black male underachievement. West's analysis owes its inspiration to the work of Cleaver, who argues that white America in its domination over Black America has tended to monopolize the Mind whilst relegating the Body to Black America. Thus, the all powerful white male Cleaver categorizes as the 'omnipotent Administrator' and the dis-empowered black male the 'Super masculine Menial', divested of mind, but overcompensated with Body, brute power, strength and muscles.Central to white racism is the fear of Black sexuality. As West has argued, this fear is premised on the fact that it is a source of Black empowerment, or as he puts it, it is 'a form of black power over which whites have little control…. it proceeds as if whites don't matter'.

Given this Manicheanism based on the social construction of Black sexuality, there are two major implications for black men. In the first place given the fact that they are socially invested with the Body, whilst being divested of Mind, this means that a Black male in the academy remains a contradiction. Secondly, the fear of Black sexuality means that the black male despite the association with muscles and brute power is denied the essence and seat of masculinity: sex.' This form of Black power is premised on black males 'stylizing their bodies over space and time in such a way that their bodies reflect their uniqueness and provoke fear in others.' Outside of this narrow stylistic arena, Black men are thought incapable of making any serious contributions. This is particularly true of young Black men within the Academy, that 'alien place' with a clear, but fixed ideas of who belongs, and who can benefit from its deliberations.

The 'Alien' Academy

Many African Caribbean men who fail to complete their undergraduate programmes talk of the 'pressure', and the fact that they felt alienated within these institutions. For them the ethos and values of the institution do not validate their lived experiences. Some express the view that the institution 'was not yet ready for black men.' When asked to explain this assertion, the student noted, what is happening out there is not taken seriously around here (the University). Many Black men have to carry the baggage of out there, largely to do with racial and gender stereotypes e.g. Stop & Search. Their over-representation within criminal statistics often catches up on them as lectures are missed because of court appearance. It is important to note that not all issues surrounding Black men in the academy are race centered; there are issues of class and in some cases nationality. Thus one can envisage a situation in which Black middle class youngsters would be better prepared to deal with life in a racist academy.

Ladies and gentlemen, our young people need to dig deep and with the spirit of the Amistad they will find the basis of a new dawn.

Return to Table of Contents

The Regional Editors of AfricaUpdate

Olayemi Akinwumi
Olayemi Akinwumi is a professor at the University of Ilorin, Nigeria, West Africa. He just published a biography on the Aku Of Wukari, a descendant of Kwararafa Kingdom. He served as a Visiting Scholar at the Institut fur Ethnologie, Freie Universitat Berlin.
Zenebworke Bissrat
Zenebworke Bissrat served for several years as Senior Management Expert at the Ethiopian Management Institute, Addis Ababa. She is at present associated with the CMRS, Ethiopian Catholic Church, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Paulus Gerdes
Paulus Gerdes is the Rector of Mozambique's Universidade Pedagogoco Maputo, Mozambique. He has extensive publications on African mathematics and is the Chair of the Commission on the History of Mathematics in Africa.
Mosebjane Malatsi
Mosebjane Malatsi is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Development Bank of Southern Africa, based in Johannesburg. He is a leading member of the Pan-African Congress.
Alfred Zack-Williams
Alfred Zack-Williams is from Sierra Leone. He is a professor of Sociology and he teaches in the Department of Historical and Critical Studies at the University of Central Lancaster, UK. He is also a member of the Editorial Board of the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE), United Kingdom.
Return to Table of Contents