December 3, 2008

Historical Method: A Comment on Deeper Roots

The book promised to be "what the other book (Roots) promised to be but never was. Rather than an incapacitating, sentimental Euro-centric tracing of ethnicity, the author reconnects the Americas to the culture of pre-colonial West Africa and the universal way of Islam."

My next door neighbor in Oman gave me the book in our discussions on Islamic theology and law. He has traveled widely in America, so I assume he picked it up there. Anyway, the book brought up an old, yet still relevant issue: did Africans reach America before Columbus? Before I go on, a note on methodology is in order. While I think that is highly likely that Africans did reach the Americas before Columbus (and Dr. Quick presents numerous pieces of evidence, mostly gleaned from the work of Ivan Van Sertima) there is also the problem of how admissible certain pieces of evidence are. The reasoning behind Quick and other scholars' work is that an accumulated mass of similarities must ergo equal pre-Columbian contact. Yet a word from a comparative anthropologist is most germane here:

It can never be assumed that apparent likenesses between cultures are fundamental, while obvious differences are coincidental or due to special local circumstances. The selection of similar elements from different cultures and the dismissal of differences must always be justified logically, in detail, and in both historical and functional terms. As in any scientific enterprise, we must not simply choose our facts to suit our theories but must demonstrate that the cultural similarities considered to be fundamental are similar in detail and durable, while dissimilarities must be logically explicable as easily changeable cultural features.
For example, Quick cites Ferdinand Columbus, who writes about people in northern Honduras as being "black in color. They pierce a hole in their ears large enough to insert a hen's egg." "Black in color" indeed tells us very little of these people's concrete cultural origins, and should not be taken as evidence. However their piercings might tell us a little more. Even if piercing were practiced in West Africa similar to how Columbus described (quite likely), how do we know that this practice emerged in the Americas from contact with Africa? Independent invention seems just as likely. Happily for the scholar, their are some almost irrefutable pieces of evidence relating to language and other traveler's reports which put us on firmer ground. Overall the book gives some fascinating insight into what is in many ways still an underground history. Quick ends by meditating on a dynamic that has been much studied of-late, and remains relevant to African Studies in an Indian Ocean context:
"The real challenge is to be "Mecca-centric" yet in touch with the African world, to be an authentic Muslim yet still in touch with African American spirituality, to be a moral person yet still in touch with the pulse of African American youth, and to develop Islam in America without getting lost in the crises of the Muslim world."


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