Senegal’s Museum of Black Civilizations

Unfortunately, to many people outside of Africa, the concept of a black or African civilization doesn’t register. Despite being the cradle of humanity, with a history spanning tens of thousands of years, few could name or envision any of its numerous cultures, kingdoms, and empires. The reasons range from the legacy of European colonialism—which downplayed, overshadowed, or even destroyed native cultures—to the simple fact that many African civilizations lacked written records.

Well, the West African nation of Senegal, long considered one of the continent’s great success stories, is looking to rectify that. A couple years ago, it opened the 150,000-square foot Musée des Civilisations noires (MCN), French for the Museum of Black Civilizations, which exhibits the cultures and accomplishments of African civilizations both in and off the continent (including the massive communities in the U.S., Brazil, and the Caribbean).

Located in the capital of Dakar, the museum’s distinct circular structure is itself an homage to African culture, being modeled after the traditional houses of Senegal’s Casamance region.

The Museum of Black Civilisations will open on Thursday in Dakar [Courtesy: Museum of African Civilisations]

As Al Jazeera reported, the museum covers a multitude of black and African cultural movements, artistic styles, and historical artifacts:

Its 14,000 square metres of floor space and capacity for 18,000 exhibits puts it in league with the National Museum of African American History in Washington. Its range of exhibits is, however, more far-reaching. 

The high-ceilinged exhibition halls include Africa Now, showcasing contemporary African art and The Caravan and the Caravel, which tells the story of the trade in human beings – across the Atlantic and through the Sahara – that gave rise to new communities of Africans in the Americas.

These diaspora communities — such as in Brazil, the United States and the Caribbean — are recognised as African civilisations in their own right here.

“Memory in Motion” by Haitian artist Philippe Dodard describes the stages of enslavement from Africa to the slave ship to the Caribbean plantation with floating eyes, wandering souls and chained hands and feet in black India ink against a white background.

Women of the Nation showcases women of African descent, including Angela Davis.

The scale of the project follows that of the Dakar Art Biennale and the Renaissance Monument, in which successive Senegalese presidents have cemented their legacies with works of culture, Mbow says.

“All of the phases of the inauguration of the museum is done by Africans,” he says.

Smithsonian Magazine provides more details about the exhibits (as of 2018), and notes the museum’s potential for housing artifacts taken during European colonialism, most of which remain in museums or institutions across the West.

Inside the Museum of Black Civilizations, visitors will find ambitious displays spanning both centuries and continents. The exhibition “Cradle of Humankind,” for instance, looks back to human origins in Africa and features early stone tools. “African Civilizations: Continuous Creation of Humanity” delves into the history of masks and “the traditions of Sufism and Christianity in Africa,” according to Brown. Another exhibition hall, “The Caravan and Caravel,” explores how African communities in the Americas grew out of the slave trade. Among the contemporary artworks to appear in the new museum are pieces by the Cuban artist Elio Rodriguez, South Africa’s Andries Botha, and the Haitian artist Philippe Dodard.

The collections, however, are not complete. The MCN has room for some 18,000 artworks, but according to Aaron Ross of Reuters, many of the galleries are not filled.

Now more than ever, it seems possible that the empty space could one day be taken up by African artifacts currently held in European institutions. In late November, French President Emmanuel Macron received a landmark report—written by French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr—recommending that he move forward with his plan to fully repatriate African artworks taken without consent from their countries of origin during the colonial era. Senegal was one of the first countries to subsequently request the large-scale return of its looted objects.

“We are ready to find solutions with France,” Abdou Latif Coulibaly, Senegal’s culture minister, said, “but if 10,000 pieces are identified in the collections, we are asking for all 10,000.”

This project was the culmination of a decades-long effort begun in 1966 by Senegal’s first president, Leopold Sedar Senghor, a noted poet and cultural theorist who envisioned his newly minted country as a center of black civilization worldwide.

In the following weeks, African luminaries such as Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and writer Wole Soyinka would converge on the Senegalese capital, as would others from the wider African diaspora: Jazz great Duke Ellington, the Martiniquan poet Aime Cesaire, Barbadian novelist George Lamming and American writers Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka.

Dakar would briefly play host to some of the leading black movements of the day. African liberation, the Harlem Renaissance, Jazz, and the negritude movement, of which Senghor was also a leading figure, were represented. Despite their differences, they shared an optimism that people of African descent, wherever they were, would define their own futures.

And as that utopian spirit hung in the air, Senghor stepped up to present a bold, new vision for a post-colonial Africa. Art and culture ought to be at the heart of development. And central to this would be a museum in Senegal that would present the past and present experiences of black people everywhere.

Notwithstanding its immense investment in art and culture—which at one point accounted for a quarter of all government spending—Senegal just couldn’t get the project off the ground. China stepped in as the main backer. Only when China stepped in as the main financial backer did Senghor’s dream finally materialize (albeit seventeen years after his death). China’s appetite for Africa’s abundant natural resources is well known and controversial, although the museum says it will operate independently.

Regardless, this is an important step towards giving the world a richer and more holistic view of human civilization, and giving Africans and their descendants the world over an opportunity to learn more about their own subsumed culture. The museum has already helped strengthen calls for France to return looted cultural heritage back to its former colony, which other African countries have echoed.

The Men of Bronze

The 369th Infantry Regiment was an all-African American and Puerto Rican regiment of the U.S. Army that served with distinction in both World Wars. Prior to its formation, any black man wishing to fight in the First World War had to enlist in the French or Canadian armies; indeed, despite the disproportionately high turnout of African Americans to recruitment centers – many of whom wished to prove themselves to a nation that little of them, at best – the U.S. initially rejected them. But as the war grinded on and the Allies found themselves facing a shortage of manpower, the U.S. relented and formed a new regiment to be specially comprised of blacks and Puerto Ricans.

However, because many white Americans refused to fight alongside blacks and Hispanics, and often harassed and denigrated serviceman of color, the U.S. Army decided to assign the regiment to the exhausted and decimated French Army – albeit with a warning to the French that African Americans were inferior and prone to rape. Continue reading

Mexico’s Unknown African Heritage

The first known successful and self-governing black community in the Americas was the town of San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo, which was established in Mexico in the 17th century by Gaspar Yanga, a leader of a slave rebellion. A former member of the royal family of Gabon, he successfully led a band of revolting slaves near Veracruz around 1570, fleeing to the difficult terrain of the highlands, where they built a small colony. The community grew for more than 30 years as a haven for other fugitive slaves, surviving off the land and by raiding caravans.

In 1609, the Spanish colonial government tried to retake the territory, but despite its superior numbers and weapons, failed in the face of the maroons’ effective guerrilla tactics and superior knowledge of the area. After seven years of stalemate, the Spanish agreed to Yanga’s terms: the community would remain part of the empire but be subject to self-rule, just as any other municipality. An independent community of blacks — let alone one of former slaves — was virtually unheard of at the time. This unique town was fully established by 1630, and remains to this day under the name of its founder, Yanga.

This wouldn’t be the last time that blacks played a prominent role in Mexican history. Several of the country’s revolutionary leaders and founding fathers, such as José María Morelos, were of African (and for that matter indigenous) descent. One of them, Vicente Guerrero, would actually serve as one of Mexico’s earliest presidents, and one of the Western Hemisphere’s first black heads of state. Though his term was brief, he managed to rebuff Spain’s efforts to reconquer Mexico, and issued a proclamation abolishing slavery on September 16, 1829.

To learn more about Mexico’s unique black heritage (and for that matter Peru’s), check out the following excellent documentary series from PBS: