Black History Month for White People: a Photo-Essay

Just a year ago I was preparing for a half-day online offering, digging back into a trove of photos from my first trip to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in 2016. One photo captured this interpretative text:                                                    “Cowrie shells, manillas, beads and guns changed hands in exchange for African men, women, and children.”

I looked up this one word…Manillas

and it opened up  a visual…and then visceral understanding of a slice of Black – and White – history that I share with you here. Accessed 11/15/21

Manillas: in the 1400s, variants of these metal bracelets or armlets were 

the most common form of “barter coinage” – aka money –  in Africa, 

and especially along the West African coast. 

They were highly portable,  

and usually worn by a woman to display her husband’s wealth. 

Their value was partly based on the sound made when they were struck. 

Manillas were the coinage of the African peoples – their tangible wealth, and their power,

 including their power of self-determination. Accessed 11/15/21

Photo Credit: Scott Semans

Manillas began to transform

In the 1470s Portuguese explorers became aware of the use of these “red gold”/copper bracelets – 

that had been mined and traded across the Sahara by Italian and Arab merchants long before the Portuguese arrival.

They contracted with manufacturers in Antwerp to produce these bracelet-like forms in a wide range of designs, sizes, and weights.

The British, French and Dutch followed suit. 

Bristol, as a copper manufacturing center, and then Birmingham as a brass center, developed in response.

Manillas became slave trade money.  

By 1505, a slave could be bought for 8-10 manillas,

and an elephant’s tooth for one copper manilla in Calabar, the chief city of the ancient Nigerian coastal kingdom of that name. 

(National Museum of African American History and Culture – personal photo, 2016)

“The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was the largest forced migration of people in world history.”

“The transatlantic slave trade grew as Europeans developed a new system of forced labor in the Americas. Cowrie shells, manillas, beads and guns changed hands in exchange for African men, women, and children.”

(Interpretive material from The National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC)

(National Museum of African American History and Culture – personal photo, 2016FrAn enslaved child’s manacles

From the shape of freedom and self-determination to the shape of enslavement

Manacles sized for a child

“Enslavement of Africans was a long process that began at the moment of capture 

and extended through a series of ordeals leading to the plantation fields or some other forced service.”

(Interpretive material from The National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC)

“In the 1400s Africans did not see themselves as African. The continent included many city-and-nation-states and, like Europe, it was made up of diverse societies. The people of one region might have little in common with their neighbors. The majority of enslaved Africans came from the western coast. These regions were known for their centers of learning, military prowess, vast empires, and diverse faiths. They traded with societies as far away as Asia and Europe.” [Interpretive material from The National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC]

Take a few moments to locate on the map the identities of the various “states” that are coded by color…the locations of natural resources – salt, gold, copper, ivory in black, and the various ethnic areas in red, and the land-trade routes in pink that run north and south.

I  remain stunned awake as I sit with this map and recall how I was taught about Africa: a dark undifferentiated continent. I was taught nothing of its history, knowledge, or cultures. Just undifferentiated Blackness, like the lens that I still must peer through when I see an unknown Black face in order to be able to see the individual human, not just a Black body, standing before me.

These symbols originated with the Ashanti people of present-day Ghana, a main departure point for slave ships – and  “convey knowledge, wisdom, and culture…Often seen on textiles, the symbols together tell a story. Throughout the African diaspora, objects made by enslaved people demonstrate the continuity of African knowledge and culture.”

[Interpretive material from The National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC]

Black – and White – history
as we continue to make it in the 21st Century

CBS News reports on the handcuffing of a 5-year-old Montgomery County, Maryland child

Roughly 39 minutes into this January, 2020 video, an officer briefly handcuffs the child, and can be heard to say:   

“You know what these are? These are hand-cuffs. These are for a person that don’t wanna listen and don’t know how to act.”

The handcuffing happened after the child’s mom arrived and he had calmed down. 

This Black History Month, let us White folks
commit to “return and get it.”
“Get” our single, shared, American history. Understand the blatant and subtle continuities
with the original sin that is slavery.
Make a way where there has been no way –
in ourselves, our neighborhoods, our places of worship,
our businesses, our institutions –
to racial reconciliation, restitution, peace,
and harmony after strife.

Dig deeper: two Black people making recent history

You have heard of Colin Kaepernick, and the price he paid for kneeling during the playing of the national anthem. You may not have heard (as I had not) of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who was suspended, then banished from the NBA in 1996.

And a couple of days ago, Google’s Doodle intoduced me to Mama Cax,  an American-Haitian model who walked the runway “showcasing her prosthetic leg,” challenging a whole bagful of “beauty atandards” as she did.

Make history…reshape, re-form, your own racialized history…walk a different future: lay down a fresh path walking

You don’t have to lay down this path alone.

Gather a group of 6-12 friends, colleagues, who share your desire and readiness. We can begin to imagine and create a world where racial healing is an ongoing feature of our personal lives and the world.

Pick my brain for 30 minutes about

    • a 2-hour practice-based format for working with our own lived experiences and racialized origin stories

    • A 4-hour practice-based retreat encounter with our personal and national history, the American Dream, and American Citizenship.

For those embedded in a family, community, or workplace challenged by today’s controversies and conflicts, I offer a bundle of six 1/1 sessions of support for personal inquiry, skill-building, and transformation to negotiate the rough waters of your racialized and gendered life.

Let’s take these illuminating and strengthening steps together.

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