Nonfiction / History / Ages
October 19, 2021
In a richly designed work with maps, portraits, and graphics throughout, the award-winning author of the Jumbies series shows readers this underrepresented side of Black history and Black excellence.
In African Icons, the author seeks to fill several gaps in the history of the African continent by selecting ten persons who made significant contributions to their communities and regions, most of whom are unknown to the wider public. In the Introduction and Authors Note, Baptiste makes clear her intent to shed light on Africa’s historical importance and influence on civilizations beyond Africa from the evolution of homo sapiens through the nineteenth century. Interestingly, through her research, Baptiste highlights several female notables (that have not received the attention of better documented individuals such as the Ndongo Queen Nzinga (Angola) or the Asante Queen Mother Yaa Asantewa (Ghana). Nonetheless, the reader is introduced to a few known historical figures as well as several lesser known individuals who made an impact in the regions of the Nile Valley, northern Africa, the sahel, and western Africa.
African Icons leads with Egypt and the story of Menes (aka Narmer) the first king to form and preside over a unified Lower and Upper Egypt (ca. 3032 BCE). Baptiste patiently describes the political challenges, religious beliefs, and natural constraints (Nile River cataracts) that impacted his leadership and those who followed. The trials of internecine warfare and human sacrifice undergird explanations of the transfer of power as well as burial practices that led to the construction of royal tombs, and later pyramids. Queen Merneith, a granddaughter of Menes and the second “icon” showcases the role of royal women in dynastic Egypt as kingmakers. Baptiste points to recent archaeological finds of her tomb and human sacrifices at Abydos as evidence of Merneith’s powerful reign. Imenhotep (aka Amenhotep) is featured in the Third dynasty as a well-known vizer to Djoser and exceptionally talented public official who rose from common origins to become the pharaoh’s physician and principal architect. From the building of the Step Pyramid to his contributions in medicine and elevation to godly status, Imenhotep’s reputation is etched in world history. Baptiste selected Aesop, the literary genius of supposedly Ethiopian and slave origins as the fourth “icon.” He was known for the folktales and trickster stories he produced in Greece in the 6th c. BCE, that were translated and proliferated throughout the western world. Completing her Nile Valley selections, Baptiste skips the great 25th dynasty kings of Kush who rose out of the South to dominate a vast swath of territories from Nubia to Egypt to Assyria for nearly a hundred years (8th – 7th c. BCE). Instead, she presents Queen Amanirenas of Kush who challenged Roman rule (from 40 BCE). Although the Romans demolished the capital at Napata in 22 BCE, Kushite resistance under her leadership led to a renewal of trade agreements and an expansion of wealth.
In North Africa, Baptiste selected two “icons” from Carthage. The first, Hannibal, is the better known for his use of elephants with his troops in the Second Punic Wars against Rome. The well-detailed summary of his exploits in crossing the Italian Alps will capture the attention of young readers. The second, Terence Publius Afer, had been enslaved in his youth and taken to Rome where he was educated and ultimately freed. He became a greatly admired playwright, showing great agility in creating new works derived from Greek tragedies in Latin for voracious Roman audiences.
West Africa is represented by the great Mansa Musa, the king of Mali who was named the Caliph of the Western Sudan by his Arabian counterparts during his epical voyage to Mecca in 1324 CE. He traveled with 60,000 people and 24 tons of gold, making gifts and building mosques along the way. His control of gold sources brought renown to the region. Another “icon,” Tin Hinan (aka Tiski al-Ardja), a woman trader from Morocco, established an oasis rest stop to cater to Tuareg trans-Saharan merchants seeking gold, salt and iron in the 4th century. She was recognized as a warrior, entrepreneur and queen. Coastal west Africa is represented by Queen Idia, wife of the Oba of Benin (Nigeria) who defended her son’s enthronement after the Oba’s death. Internecine conflict threw the kingdom into civil war. Queen Idia was a formidable military strategist who directed her own armies and assisted her son against external threats. Baptiste notes the emergence of a new title that gave the queen mother new authority and her own palace with dedicated staff.
As a children’s fictional author, Baptiste should be praised for her effort to produce an African history text written in accessible, straightforward language about the complexities of Africa, including its land, peoples and cultures. Interspersed among the ten “icons” are sections on geography, natural resources (iron, gold, salt) and interregional trade (trans-Saharan, Mediterranean). Information about local markets, foods, crafts, libraries, and folktales frame and provide a context for the environment where “icons” lived and thrived. The narratives include descriptions of social hierarchies, classes and castes. The plates of the Catalan maps and Mansa Musa should generate some interesting conversations among young readers.
Teachers should use a reliable African history text alongside African Icons to assist in providing a timeline inclusive of significant events and persons that dedicated Africanist scholars suggest shaped regional African histories and to correct some of the errors not only in the narrative, but particularly in the maps. For example, in the section on Across the Golden Sand, p. 92-93), “Ghana” refers to both the modern-day nation of Ghana and the ancient empire of Ghana (aka Wagadu) whose capital was Kumbi Saleh in what is southeastern Mauretania today. Wagadu, a centralized state founded and inhabited by Soninke people, gave rise to the Mali Empire under Sundiata Keïta, a Malinke (Manding), with its capital at Niani. The Mali Empire was later conquered by the Sunni Ali, the founder of the Songhay Empire with its capital at Gao. This is basic information for an understanding of state formation in the history of west African sahel. Likewise, the symbol for the Kingdom of Benin is placed in the modern-day nation of Benin on the map instead of in Nigeria. The narrative of Queen Idia is correct, but the map is not. Further, it is surprising that ironworking appears in southern Nigeria, but not in other kingdoms such as Kongo (known for its “blacksmith” kings) or Meroë or Great Zimbabwe to name a few. Moreover, the Bantu (p. 42) did indeed move across “the middle of Africa” carrying linguistic and cultural similarities into new regions along southwestern and southeastern migratory routes, but not into western or northern regions as “widely across the continent and beyond” might suggest.
Although references to the slave trade are limited, Baptiste does not mention the relationship between the trans-Saharan slave trade, the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the loss of European access to sugar fields in the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 15th century. Africans were enslaved and tapped as labor for sugar production as plantations moved western, first into southern Europe and the islands of the Mediterranean and then across the Atlantic to New World destinations. In addition, of concern to teachers should be the lack of sources on the eastern, central or southern Africa. This work is not meant to replace textbooks on African history written for young readers.
To her credit, Baptiste provides bibliographical references for each section in Source Notes at the end of the volume. Further, the book’s visual presentation –from the black and white graphic designs on the hardcover to the colorful illustrations of the men and women selected as “icons”– benefits from the artistry and creativity of Hillary D. Wilson, making it quite appealing for younger readers.
Jeanne Maddox Toungara, PhD.
Professor emerita, History Department, Howard University
Published in Africa Access Review (January 21, 2022)
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