- Editorial: African Writing Systems
by Dr. Gloria Emeagwali, Chief Editor
- Dr. Ayele Bekerie, Cornell University, African
- David S. Zerbe, Ayele Bekerie, Ethiopic,
An African Writing System - a Review
- Dr. Ayele Bekerie, Cornell University,
- Dr. Haines Brown, History Dept., C.C.S.U.,
Africa and the Net
- Shauna Brown, CCSU Student, Hollywood's
By Gloria Emeagwali - Chief Editor
Vai, Bamum, Nsibi, Mande and Ajimi are significant West
African writing systems of indigenous origin. In Northeast Africa,
the now extinct ancient Egyptian writing systems coexisted with the
Nubian Meroitic and Ethiopic writing systems.
In this issue of Africa Update, Dr. Ayele Bekerie
of Cornell University reflects on the latter writing system. He argues
that there are fundamental connections between the spiritual beliefs,
language and writing system of precolonial ancient Egypt
This issue also contains a review of Ayele Bekerie's
Ethiopic: An African System (Red Sea Press, 1997). The reviewer,
David Zerbe, examines some of Bekerie's basic propositions in a provocative
analysis. We asked Dr. bekerie to respond to Zerbe's critique and
received a lucid and scholarly clarification on issues such as the
syllabic nature of Ethiopic; distortions and misceptions in Ethiopian
historiography; connections between the Puntites, ancient Egyptians
and ancient Ethiopians; and the interconnections between the Agau
language, Ge'ez, and Ethiopian writing systems in general.
Bekerie's comments about the Puntites provide insights
into the ethnic composition of ancient Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and
Egypt. He points out that the Puntites were regarded by the Egyptians
as having the same origins as themselves. Pharaoh Hatshepsut's diplomatic
overturesto punt are cited.there is the consideration that the land
of Punt should not be restricted to the domain of the Isaak clan of
Somaliland, but includes also sections of the Ethiopian highlands.
Bekerie identifies this region as lying between Suwakin in the North
and the Cape of Guardafui.in the Southeast.
There is also,a clarification of the Kebra Nagast and
its significance in Ethiopian history as well as its relevance to
the Solomonic dynasty. Recent excavations by Boston University archeologists
in conjunction with their Ethiopian counterparts illuminate various
dimensions of ancient Ethiopia. Bekerie's research into the cultural
and literary dimensions of Ethiopia's scripts are significant for
ancient Africa in general and more specifically the history of writing
and written documents in Northeast Africa.
We have included in this issue another installment of
Haines Brown's series on wireless digital communications in Africa.
We have taken note of forthcoming conferences on Africa
in Japan, Moscow, and Latvia, and included as well Shauna Brown's
comments on Hollywood's African-Americans. We thank all the contributors
to this issue.
Return to Table of Contents
By Ayele Bekerie, Cornell University
Cultural Background of Writing Systems
Writing could be simply defined as a representation
of speech and thoughts through various forms of sound images or graphs.
A writing system, then, is a conventional and principled way of actualizing
activity and thoughts, such as languages, natural science, theology,
commerce, and aesthetics.
It is our contention that writing systems are more than
a technological tool to languages. Most of our understandings of writing
systems are generally confined to linguistics and languages. Close
and careful examination of writing systems, from Ethiopic to Vai,
from Cretan to Meroitic, from Han'gul to Latin, reveals layers of
knowledge beyond language and linguistics. It could be argued that
the study of writing systems may provide a new approach to knowledge
creations, organizations, and disseminations. Writing Systems are,
indeed, rich sources of human intellectual activities, such as history,
philosophy, social order, psychology, and aesthetics.
The Quipus of the Incas of South America, for instance,
show parallel features with some of the thought patterns, organizations,
and utilizations of the ancient Egyptian writing system. Further,
the Dravidian writing system of southern India also appears to share
parallelism in shapes or sign structures with the Easter Island Rongo-
Rongo writing system, perhaps suggesting historical continuity between
South Asia and the Americas much earlier than the Columbus era.
The Meroitic writing system of the Kushites of the Sudan
uses two or three dots as word separators, just like the extant Ethiopic
writing system, thereby suggesting a link between the two writing
systems in the Abbay-Atbara river complex. The Institute for the Study
of African Writing Systems was established in order to systematically
compile, categorize, analyze, and interpret the various forms of writing
in Africa. Writing systems are not only facilitators of speech and
communication, they are also tools in the creation and utilization
of knowledge systems, such as philosophy, astronomy, and numbers.
There were many different writing systems in Africa.
The writing systems were and still are, a reflection of various philosophies
[thought processes] found in African cultures and civilizations. Language,
to an African mind is part of your spirituality. Spirituality is a
way of life based on a society's belief systems and moral values as
they relate to a higher being. Your spirituality cannot be separated
from your being. Egyptians believed that God is everything and everything
is God as did many other Africans, not the idea that God is just in
everything. Spirituality is also the relationship between you and
your ancestors. When a person dies, the "spirit" returns to a higher
being. Your ancestors then become your link with that higher being.
Symbolism is a way of expressing that spirituality through individual
aspects of your culture. Therefore spiritual symbolism implies your
relationship with a higher being and your ancestors who are parts
of the higher being through the individual aspects of your culture
in everyday life. Much of the texts written by Egyptian scribes were
attached to an Egyptian spiritual belief system.
The Egyptian Language
The language consisted of approximately 121 bi-literals,
75 tri-literals, and various determinants and phonetic complements.
The bi-literals were individual symbols which expressed two sounds
and the tri-literals were individual symbols which expressed three
sounds. Phonetic complements were monoliterals found in front of and/or
behind multi-consonantal signs in order to provide clarity and also
to complete the meaning of the word. They normally repeated sounds
already found in the word, but had no separate sound value.
Special attention was given to the aesthetics of the
language. The sentences were not written with one individual symbol
after another. All words took a quadrangular form which some scholars
call the square principle; the symbols were placed in an imaginary
square and the upper ones took precedence over the lower. The language
was generally written from right to left except for occasional specific
purposes. The determinants were symbols which had no sound value and
were used at the end of the word to decipher the meaning between two
words with the same symbols. The determinant normally came at the
end of the word and demonstrated the meaning of the entire word. Many
of the determinants which were added to the words (sometimes more
than one per word) did not seem to be relevant to the word's meaning
to most European scholars, but I will show that there is a connection
between the language and the spiritual beliefs of the people who spoke
These symbols, "Medu Netcher" [Mdw Ntr], cannot be understood
without understanding African spirituality and African spirituality
cannot be understood without understanding Medu Netcher. The language
had to be deciphered in two ways; first it had to be transliterated
from symbols to orthographic text and then translated into English.
Ethiopic Writing System
Ethiopic is an African Writing System designed as a
meaningful and graphic representation of knowledge. It is a component
of the African Knowledge Systems and one of the signal contributions
made by Africans to world history and cultures. It is created to holistically
symbolize and locate the cultural and historical parameters of the
Ethiopian people. The System, in its classic state, has a total of
182 syllographs, which are arranged in seven columns, each column
containing 26 syllographs. Ethiopic is a knowledge system because
it is brilliantly organized to represent philosophical features, such
as ideography, mnemonics, syllography, astronomy, and grammatology.
To view the Ethiopic numeric system visit the following site: http://www.library.cornell.edu/africana/Writing_Systems/Geez.html
Return to Table of Contents
Ayele Bekerie, Ethiopic,
An African Writing System
(Trenton, NJ: The Red Sea Press, 1997.
Pp. 176, $18.95 paperback)
Reviewed by David S. Zerbe
As the title of the book suggests, this study examines
the origins and history of the system of writing called Ethiopic,
from which the first language in Ethiopia formed was Ge'ez , today
the liturgical writing system of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. This
fact, however, is never articulated in the text. Nor is there a discussion
as to how other offshoots of the Ethiopic system of writing were established,
such as Tigre, Tittering, or Amharic, and these are but two of the
deficiencies in this text. The introduction establishes the conceptual
framework of the study.
The conceptual framework is based on "locational theory."
Ayele Bekerie postulates that the roots of the writing system of Ethiopic,
as a system of knowledge, is an endogenous creation. What is theorized
by Bekerie is that there is an endogenous flavor regarding causality
between the Ethiopic writing system and Ethiopian civilization itself,
i.e. that both are indigenous to Africa, and that the Ethiopic writing
system is an effect of the establishment of an indigenous Ethiopian
civilization, indigenous to Africa and not from South Arabia. Ayele
Bekerie in fact refutes the South Arabia historiographic paradigm,
which hypothesizes that the roots of Ethiopic as a writing system
are contained in the Sabaean civilization's writing system, which
emanated in South Arabia from the area of what today comprises the
state of Yemen, and according to some historians was transplanted
through commercial activity across the Red Sea to what is today the
Eritrean coast and Ethiopian hiqhlands.
From this theoretical model, Ayele Bekerie commences
with the first of a four chapter text. He attempts to examine Ethiopian
historiography in the context of Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula.
Bekerie argues that the genesis of Ethiopian civilization itself is
not of Semitic origin, that this is in fact a synthesis of 19th century
Eurocentric historiography, which still remains in place today. The
argument continues that Ethiopian civilization is a result of the
migration of the Puntite peoples of Upper Egypt southward, and is
therefore indigenous to Africa.
Besides secondary source information which shows commercial
relations to have existed between Egypt and the "land of Punt" from
2743 BCE, there is no primary-source data, no linkage to the claim
of Puntites establishing themselves in what is today Ethiopia, and
no mention that Puntite and Sabaean civilizations could have coexisted
in the highlands of what is today Ethiopia. Further, he does not establish
that the Puntite peoples are the original inhabitants of Ethiopia
and, if assumed the Puntites are the original inhabitants of the Ethiopian
highlands, Bekerie does not effectively argue that Ethiopic as a writing
system had its origins with the Puntites. It is commonly held to be
the case in the historiography of the Horn of Africa that the Puntites
today are the ancestors of peoples from the Isaak clan in what is
now the de facto state of Somaliland.
Regarding Egypt, Bekerie also attempts to link the writing
systems of Ethiopic and ancient Egypt, but cannot explain why there
is a system of hieroglyphics in Egypt and not in Ethiopia, and consequently
he fails to establish a solid link between the Ethiopic and ancient
Egyptian writing systems. There is only cursory mention of the relationship
between Coptic and Ge'ez scriptures. Even without any evidence or
with scant evidence, Ayele Bekerie is bent on arguing that Ethiopic
is not of Semitic origin, but of African origin, but does come to
the conclusion in the second chapter that the origins of Ethiopic
and of Ethiopian civilization itself are to date still indeterminable.
Ayele Bekerie moves forward and discusses in some detail
the principles of Ethiopic as a writing system. He establishes this
discussion on the premise that the writing system of Ethiopic is actually
a philosophy, because the ideographical iconography of the Ethiopic
alphabet is conducive in generating knowledge, such as beliefs and
concepts. Though he does not address the relationship between linguistics
and the philosophical knowledge directly, he establishes that The
Ethiopic Book of Henok, written in the BC era in Ge'ez, is not
only a religious text but a philosophical one as well.
Throughout chapters three and four, Ayele Bekerie demonstrates
the significance of Ethiopic as a writing system through Abyssinian
literature, such as the Book of Enoch, and the legendary epic tale
Kebra Nagast. This book was written in the time of Amda-Tsion in the
14th century, but this pertinent information is not included in the
text. This tale of Solomon and Sheba helped lead to the consolidation
of the Solomonic dynasty in Ethiopia until 1974 by claiming that Menelik
I was the son of the two, thereby directly relating Ethiopia to King
Solomon. The literary and historiographic magnitude of this on the
system of personal rule in Ethiopia is neglected. It does show, however,
that the Ethiopic writing system in the form of Ge'ez has produced
a number of culturally significant works.
Ayele Bekerie concludes the text with the convincing
argument that Ethiopic, whether the roots are indigenous to the Puntites
and spread to the Ethiopian highlands, or whether Ethiopic as a writing
system originated from South Arabia in the BC era and became extinct
there, is an African writing system by virtue of the fact that Ge'ez,
Amharic, Tigrinya, and Tigre directly correlate with the Ethiopic
writing system. To end the tome, the author poses questions for his
next work, many of which are not addressed here, such as the relationship
between a writing system and a philosophical system of knowledge,
why and how 19th century archaeologists discovered evidence linking
Ethiopic to Semitic origins in South Arabia, or the process of extinction
and resurrection of writing systems.
The text entitled Ethiopic decisively demonstrates that
there is a great literary tradition in Ethiopia, and as such the third
and fourth chapters carry the strongest arguments of the study. Paradoxically
perhaps, the greatest strength of Ayele Bekerie's argument is also
its greatest weakness, other than clinging to the notion that Ethiopic
is not Semitic in origin. Though thoroughly demonstrating that through
Ethiopic there has been a rich cultural, literary, and religious tradition
among the languages associated with Ge'ez, such as Tigre, Tigrinya,
and Amharic, this is only true among the Christian highlanders of
Tigrinyan, Tigrean, and Amhara ethnicities.
Implicit in Ayele Bekerie's study of Ethiopic is the
historiographic misconception that the Ethiopic writing system itself
is representative of all Ethiopians, which is a fundamental weakness
in the argument, for the Oromo, Somali, Afar, Gojjame, and even the
Maji linguistics are not of Ethiopic origin. They are of Cushitic,
Nilo-Saharan, and Omotic linguistic origin, respectively. As such,
they do not conform to this linguistic and cultural model, for the
aforementioned ethnic groups combined comprise over 50% of present-day
Ethiopia's population. As such, the Ethiopic writing system, a system
imposed on the predominantly Muslim Somali and Oromo peoples through
the system of imperialist Amhara personal rule from the 19th century,
has ended with the EPRDF government in Ethiopia, from 1991 to the
present. Ethiopic, even if not Semitic in origin, certainly is not
of Cushitic, Omotic, or Nilo-Saharan origin.
Prof. David Zerbe is a graduate of Central Connecticut
State University and the American University at Cairo.
Return to Table of Contents
From: Ayele Bekerie, Cornell University
Thank you for inviting me to send you a rejoinder to
the review of my book by David S. Zerbe.
First of all, I commend Mr. Zerbe for taking his time
to review the book. The review seems to concentrate on paradigmatic
issues that are addressed from the perspective of the old school.
According to this school, the origin of the Ethiopian civilization,
its writing system, its classical language are presumed to have external
origin. True to the old school, the reviewer continued to divide the
Ethiopian people by identifying the Ethiopic writing system with the
"Semitic" people of the northern part of Ethiopia, thereby continuing
to pursue a racist divisive theory, between the so-called Semitic
and Hamitic peoples of the Horn of Africa.
Contrary to the claim that "imperial Amhara's imposition"
of their language and FIDEL writing system (a modified and expanded
Ethiopic writing system developed for Amharic) on non-Amharas, the
people of the south, just to cite one example, chose Amharic after
1991, as their official language together with FIDEL. In other words,
Amharic is no longer the imperial language; it is a language the majority
of the Ethiopian people opted to have as their official language.
Besides the diverse ethnolinguistic groups in Ethiopia, they do have
constitutional rights to use their languages as major modes of communication
and commerce in their geo-cultural regions.
It seems to me that apart from presenting a general
description of the format of the text as well as some critical and
valuable comments, the review does not thoroughly interrogate the
"history and principles" of the Ethiopic writing system, which is
the central defining theme of the book. This point became apparent
to me when Mr. Zerbe referred to the Ethiopic writing system as an
"alphabet." The Ethiopic is not an alphabet; it is a syllabic writing
system. As a matter of fact, I suggested a term "syllography" in order
to reflect the syllabic feature of the system. I wonder how such a
critical distinction ended up being overlooked by the reviewer.
In Chapter 1 on "The Arabian Peninsula in Ethiopian
Historiography," I clearly stated my positions:
"The most critical question that must be raised is:
What is the logic of beginning a history of a people from a source
other than their own? Are Ethiopians incapable of making their own
history? A history of a people that begins with an external source
is quite problematic. It would not be the history of the Ethiopian
people, but the history of South Arabians in Ethiopia. A history of
a people cannot begin from outside or by outsiders. History records
the material and spiritual cultures of all peoples. All people make
history. All people are of history." (p.38)
This is the principle that I followed throughout the
text. The purpose of my study was to investigate the historical data
regarding the Ethiopic writing system, primarily from within and to
present an interpretation of the history, fully cognizant of the languages,
the cultures, and experiences of the people of Ethiopia.
In one of his critical comments, Mr. Zerbe wrote: ".
. . Ethiopian civilization is a result of the migration of the Puntite
peoples of Upper Egypt southward, and is therefore indigenous to Africa."
The "migration of the Puntite peoples of Upper Egypt" was not my idea.
I see migration, in the African context, with its varying and vast
ecological zones as multidirectional and the initial migration was
probably from the south to Upper and Lower Egypt.
Punt is a term the Ancient Egyptians reportedly used
for the people of the south. The coastal region of northeast Africa,
roughly between today's Red Sea port of Suwakin in the north, and
the Cape of Guardafui in the southeast, was known to the ancient Egyptians
as the land of the Punt, the land of spices, incense, and deities.
"The Puntites were regarded by the Egyptians as having the same origin
as the Egyptian themselves. The physical characteristics of the Punts
from the wall-picture of Deir el-Bahri, based on studies made, differ
little from the Egyptians' physical attributes. Zayed (1990) attempted
to limit the geographical locale of Punts to Somaliland; he cited
the similarity of the term BARCHI or headdress both in Somali and
ancient Egyptian language. Zayed perhaps did not know that round seats
with three legs are also called BARCHUMA in the Amharic and Oromo
languages of Ethiopia." (p. 53)
At least from the time of the V Dynasty, there was a
reference to the Land of the Punt. "In the XVIII Dynasty, Pharaoh
Hatshepsut sent Nehasi to Punt with five ships. He was accepted by
the Punt king Perehu. All Godly fragrant woods of God's land was presented
by the Queen to Amon." (p.53) The Godly fragrant woods, such as incense
woods are found on the highlands of Ethiopia. In other words, the
land of Punt cannot be restricted to the "Isaak clan" in Somaliland.
Regarding the question of pictographic writing systems,
Mr. Zerbe was quick to point out my "failure to establish a solid
link between the Ethiopic and Ancient Egyptian writing systems." While
it is true that comparable pictographic writing system to Egyptian
hieroglyphics are not yet found in Ethiopia, the Ethiopic writing
system definitely displays pictographic and ideographic properties.
(Please see the part on the "Description and Analysis of the Major
Properties of the System, pp. 82-96, particularly Table 13 on p. 85.)
According to Mr. Zerbe, the epic tale of KEBRA NAGAST
(THE GLORY OF KINGS) "was written in the time of Amda-Tsion [1312-
1342A.D.] in the 14th century." King Amde-Tsion was not the "restorer'
of the Solomonic line of rule. Saint Takla Haymanot in the reign of
Yekuno Amlak (1268-1283) is recognized in Ethiopian history with gratitude
and reverence as the "restorer of the Solomonic line of rule," with
its capital moving out of Aksum to Shoa, in the central part of present
It is important to note here that Ethiopians as sovereign
and free people had cultural and economic relations with various peoples
and states of the ancient as well as medieval world, including the
Israelites, Romans, Syrians, Egyptians, Nubians, and Yemenites. These
relations partly involved significant cultural exchanges and adoptions.
The mythology of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon should be seen
in the context of cultural exchanges.
In his concluding paragraph, Mr. Zerbe wrote: "Implicit
in Ayele Bekerie's study of Ethiopic is the historiographic misconception
that the Ethiopic writing system itself is representative of all Ethiopians,
which is a fundamental weakness in the argument, for the Oromo, Somali,
Afar, GOJJAME, and even the Maji linguistics are not of Ethiopic origin."
(Emphasis added.) First of all, as it is stated at the outset, Ethiopic
refers to the Ge'ez writing system. The book is not about Fidel or
the Amharic writing system. Fidel and Amharic language are now widely
used by choice among the peoples of southern Ethiopia, whose indigenous
languages include "Cushitic, Nilo-Saharan, and Omotic linguistic groupings!!"
The Oromos have opted to use Latin script for Orominya
and the script is widely used in the Oromo region. As I stated in
the book, the Oromo language could have found a sounder script in
the Ethiopic system for the system has already addressed the question
of explosive and implosive sounds that are found in most Ethiopian
languages, including Orominya and Amarinya (pp.94-96).
As to the Gojjames, I am not sure if Mr. Zerbe has the
information right. Gojjam is one of the most important centers of
Ge'ez and Amharic literary traditions and scholarship. Gojjam is also
home to the Agaus, one of the most ancient peoples of Ethiopia. The
Agau language is believed to be older than Ge'ez and yet it contributed
quite significantly to the development of both Ge'ez and Amharic languages.
A quick glance of Table 21 (Major Centers of Quine [Poetry]) would
have prevented the hasty and wrongful generalization.
To conclude: The Ethiopic writing system's elaborate
and complex knowledge properties, such as philosophy, linguistics,
and aesthetics, which are indigenous only in Ethiopia, and the arduous
processes associated with the creation and perfection of a writing
system, make the external hypothesis very difficult to accept. Moreover,
the system is truly self-sustaining and autonomous production. All
the components of the knowledge were produced within the country -from
goat skins to inks to ideas. Finally, Ethiopic is of African origin.
Professor Ayele Bekerie is in the African Studies Program
at Cornell University
Return to Table of Contents
Africa and the Net
By Haines Brown, CCSU , Emeritus
This article continues the series on wireless digital
(vs. analog voice) telecommunications in Africa that began in the
summer issue of Africa Update, with a brief discussion of high-frequency
radio. Although not likely to be the principal mode in the future,
HF radio may continue to have some use, and it provides a useful context
for a discussion of newer higher frequency communications.
HF (high frequency) radio, which refers to frequencies
below 30 MHz ("short- wave"), has the advantage of reaching a great
distance with little power and of being independent of land lines
and expensive satellites. A computer coupled with a HF radio transceiver
becomes a node in a wireless network able to cover great distances.
Such a wireless transmission of data has long been investigated by
radio amateurs, and thanks to their effort the technology is mature.
Put simply, a "modem" converts the digital language
of computers into an analog form that can be transmitted by FM radio.
By techniques such as PACTOR, the computer's ASCII data bits are placed
into "packets" with a coded address that enables them to be forwarded
automatically from one network node (transceiver) to another, with
automatic error correction. These data packets are carried by an e-mail
protocol such as SMTP or UUCP. Such a network of HF client stations
is able to transmit data transmission at 1200 or 2400 baud.
There are at least eight current projects using this
means: Bushnet, WFP, MAF, DHA/OCHA Geneva, DTS, WaveMail-Shumperlin,
and IFRC/UNHCR. Bushnet is the best known of them, and it would be
worthwhile to describe its services, perhaps in a future article.
HF wireless networks have two major handicaps which
limit their use. An important one is their slow speed of data transmission.
While 1200 baud might suffice for e-mail, it is not good for much
else, and so the major use for HF wireless networks is as an alternative
to surface mail and telephone.
Another serious limitation is that a HF data network
is expensive. While the air through which the radio waves travel would
seem to be free, in fact it is not. To reduce a potential saturation
of existing bandwidth, a charge is imposed based on volume (Kbytes
sent rather than time on the air) that aims to reduce demand to the
point that the quality of service (no delayed or dropped IP packets)
remains satisfactory. This reliance on market forces means that high
urban demand forces rural users to pay for access and in effect subsidize
the more affluent users in cities. In fact the charge reduces demand
well below the point at which bandwidth saturation becomes a danger,
and this means the price is artificially high and the system can't
Furthermore, HF equipment is expensive, and so while
e-mail by itself is perhaps affordable for some, HF radio data transmission
is not used for much else. A radio station (not including the computer)
costs $7000, which might be acceptable to major urban institutions,
but hardly to rural areas. Further, in some places there are exorbitant
customs duties on radio equipment, and the suggestion that tax-free
NGOs are the answer has raised the objection that this implies monopoly
pricing and control by well-fed bureaucrats.
Return to Table of Contents
by Shauna Brown (Hist 497: African History
As early as 1902 films were being made which were reproductions
of Black stereotypes popularized in American life and arts. Lawrence
Reddick noted nineteen basic stereotypes of Blacks in American society,
all of which he said "supplement each other, though they are sometimes
The Birth of a Nation was released on March 3, 1915.
Without question it has remained the most vicious anti-African American
film that has ever appeared on the American screen. It depicted Black
men after the Civil War as beasts, arrogant, lustful and villainous.
The movie Hallelujah was released in 1929. It was another turning
point in American film. Halleujah had an all Black cast but suggested
that African-Americans should avoid urban, modern living and remain
in rural America.
By the depression decade, the black domestic servant
was added. In movies such as Imitation of Life and She done him wrong,
Louise Beavers found frequent work as the loyal maid. This set off
a wave of films in which blacks were butlers,valets, cooks and domestics.
In Gone with the Wind, African-Americans were shown
as liars, devoted field hands and rapists. During World War II, the
industry did not present African American cultural themes or present
authentic Black characters. It opted for black images that stressed
assimilationist values. By the late 1940's, Black images were less
demeaning than earlier stereotypes, but still lacked any depth and
substance apart from values associated with integration. Sidney Poitier
rose to celebrity status at this period. No Way Out, The Defiant ones,
A Raisin in the Sun, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming
to Dinner were some of the relevant movies. in each of these movies
his characters were inscribed with assimilist aspirations and middle-class
Movies during the 1970's glorified African- Americans
as pimps, gang members, drug dealers, and tough guys. Movies such
as Shaft, Superfly, Coffy and others featured aggressive, violent
black women and men. Success was confined within ghetto boundaries.
By the mid to late 1970's, though, African-Americans had disappeared
from the vast majority of Hollywood films.They appeared as an afterthought.
Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor played a large part in
film in the next decade. In 1982, Richard Pryor acted in The Toy.
He played the part of a Black man who was literally bought as a play
thing for a spoilt white child. Eddie Murphy represented a loose,
jivey, close to vulgar Black man. He was accepted by the audience
because he really did not threaten Whites and their feelings of superiority.
Black women rarely had a chance to play important roles.They
often ended up playing exotics: Grace Jones as a Sepia Dragon lady
in such films as Conan the Destroyer, 1984.
In the 1990's images have moved into two directions
with performers like Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes and Whoopi Goldberg
taking on leading roles. We have a movement of African American filmmakers
creating a new kind of cinema and now becoming part of the commercial
There is more evidence of inter-racial male bonding,
with Blacks remaining as supporting roles as in The Last Boyscout,
where Damon Wayans plays the sidekick of Bruce Willis. Accomodating
servant figures still show up.
Return to Table of Contents
36th Annual Conference of the Japan Association
for African Studies
The 36th annual conference of the Japan Association
for African Studies will be held on May 29th and 30th, 1999 in Kyoto.
This year's host will be Kyoto University's Center for African Area
Studies, the only center in Japan devoted exclusively to the study
of Africa. Kyoto is a particularly attractive venue for the conference,
being one of the world's most beautiful cities and a major cultural
and historical center. Kyoto university is one of Japan's oldest and
most prestigious universities and should host an exceptionally fine
conference. Overseas scholars are welcome to present papers on any
subject related to African studies. Proposals for presentations should
be sent to the organizing committee before February 26, 1999. Visiting
scholars are also welcome to attend and meet their Japanese counterparts,
even if they do not choose to present papers.
For more information contact the conference organizing
committee chair, Professor Jiro TANAKA, <JAAS99@jambo.africa.kyoto-u.ac.jp>
or visit the Kyoto University Center for African Area Studies website
Return to Table of Contents
Arica at the Threshold of the New
8th conference of Africanists, Moscow,
28-30 September, 1999
The Scientific Council on Problems of African Countries,
Institute for African Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences and Russian
Association of Africanists have come to the decision to convene the
Eighth All-Russia Conference of Africanists on the subject "Africa
on the Threshold of the New Millennium" on September 28-30, 1999.
During three days besides two plenary sessions the work
of the conference is planned in the following sections:
- Section 1. African Economy: Past Lessons and Future
- Section 2. Contradiction of sociopolitical modernization
- Section 3: Middle East and North Africa Islam and
Reforms in Transitional Society.
- Section 4: Africa and CIS in World Energy and Natural-resource
Economy of the 21st Century.
- Section 5. Africa Towards the End of 20th century.
Seen by Historians.
- Section 6: Personality, Ethos, and Culture at Social
- Section 7. Africa and CIS, a Comparative Analysis.
- Section 8: Southern Africa
- Section 9: Men, Women and Children in Africa: New
Images and Roles career as one of political cultures factors.
- Section 10: Literature Studies
- Section 11: Linguistics
- Section 12. Africa in the Global Community.
- Relations between Russia and Africa.
- Section 13. North and South at the threshold of a
The working language is Russian, however simultaneous
translations into English and French will be organized during the
plenary sessions and the relevant assistance will be provided in the
The conference will take place at the IAS. Apart from
the travel and accommodation expenses the participants
are expected to pay a USD 200 fee. This includes copies
of abstracts and a report of proceedings in English as well as translation
of a participant's abstracts into Russian.
Please address all inquires to Conference Organizing
Institute for African Studies
30/1 Spiridonovka str.
Moscow, 103001, Russia
Tel: 7 (095) 290 6385, 290 2752;
Fax: 7 (095) 202-07-86
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AFRICA-BALTIC CONFERENCE (ABC) -
VALMIERA MAY 29 1999
A one-day conference is being organised under
the auspices of Vidzeme University College Valmiera, Latvia with the
aim of exploring academic/business interests between Africa and the
Our primary aim is to help bring people together in
a formal gathering, to debate, explore and build on activities of
mutual interests to the citizens of Africa and Eastern Europe.
The conference is targeted towards Africa and the Baltic
states of Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland.
Our objective is to establish dialogue first within
the academia, in the area of comparative studies. Furthermore, it
is vitally important to open up dialogue between the regions in the
field of business and other economic activity. The Baltic states are
keen to join the EEC, so too, are many African states keen to achieve
an "Associate" status with the EEC. This leaves all the academic and
potentials between Africa and the Baltic states totally untouched
For more information, get in touch with the Chair of
the Organising Committeee, e-mail mail oke@va. ou can write to Ms.
Baiba Traidase, Secretary-External
Vidzeme University College
Terbatas iela 10
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