As with all good stories, we must start at the beginning. When it comes to Black American history, that story doesn’t start with slavery. Instead, we must go all the way back to where civilization as we know it began: Africa.
If we’re starting from the beginning, let’s make it count by starting with the first humans ever. Yes, African history actually encompasses all of human history, because the first hominins actually arose from Africa. So, regardless of our ethnicity or nationality, we all have much more in common than we’ve made ourselves believe.
The most famous hominin ancestor is “Lucy,” the nickname for AL 288-1. She’s the female skeleton from the hominin species Australopithecus afarensis and was discovered in the Afar Triangle in Ethiopia in 1974. While we know her as Lucy, she also has another name, the Amharic “Dinkinesh.” Dinkinesh means “you are marvelous,” and she certainly is, seeing how she holds some of the answers to human evolution.
Another ancient skeleton—”Little Foot”—was discovered in a South African cave in 1994. Whereas Lucy was dated as being 3.2 million years old, Little Foot was dated as being about 3.7 million years old, several hundred thousand years older than Lucy.
More recently, others born in the same land became inspiring leaders, generals, royalty, and adventurers rivaling the likes of the Roman and British Empires we are always taught about in schools. Of course, you have Egypt’s ancient rulers, the pharaohs. One cool pharaoh is Amenhotep IV, who renamed himself Akhenaton after establishing something no other Egyptian ruler had done—a monotheistic religion. This religion was based around Aten, the god of the sun. Even though Akhenaton’s monotheistic religion was abolished with the crowning of his son Tutankhamun (otherwise known to us as “King Tut,” the teenage pharaoh), his contribution to religion affected the practice of worship for world religions for hundreds of years to come.
The Kushites, who lived in current day Sudan, came to power in Egypt when the Kushite King Piankhi, also known as Piye, and his brother King Shabaka staged a successful coup and established Egypt’s twenty fifth ruling dynasty with King Piankhi’s son, Pharaoh Shebitku and Shebitku’s brother Taharqa.
Even though the Egyptians eventually regained their dominance over their region, Nubia cranked out exceptional leaders, like Queen Amanirenas, a battle tested queen who lost an eye in her conquests. She successfully waged an extended war against the Romans occupying her land. Her battle strategy led her to victory against Roman emperor Caesar Augustus, who not only ordered his troops to retreat, but canceled Rome’s demand for Kushite tribute.
Another warrior-queen was Queen Aminatu of Nigeria. Born in 1533, she was the daughter of Queen Bakwa Turunku and inherited her mother’s throne in 1576. Aminatu was known for her military might and was able to expand Hausa territory with each of her campaigns. She conquered the neighboring Nupe and Kwararafa states as she expanded her nation. She also succeeded in securing the trade route under Zazzau control, bringing Zazzau even more power. Her reign was the closest any ruler has come to unifying Nigeria under the power of one person.
Mansa Musa was the tenth Mansa or “sultan” of the Mali Empire. Musa is known as one of the richest people in all of history, reigning over a kingdom that is thought to have possibly been one of the largest producers of gold in the world. His wealth was documented throughout history, including in a 1375 Catalan Atlas, which depicts him holding a gold coin. This gold coin represented unfathomable riches, which he displayed throughout his pilgrimage to Mecca. It’s been recorded that his retinue consisted of sixty thousand men dressed in Persian silk and brocade. Of these, twelve thousand were slaves, carrying four pounds of gold bars each. The procession also included expensively dressed heralds wielding gold staffs and animals including horses and camels, the latter of which carried 50 to 300 pounds of gold dust. Even though Musa was, of course, flexing on those he passed by, the flex was supposedly for a good cause; Musa reportedly gave his gold away to the poor he met while on his trip. His wealth also allowed him to build a mosque every Friday of his journey, spreading the message of Islam while letting folks know he was on an economic level other rulers could only dream of.
Even more incredibly, Musa managed to buy back all of the gold he gave away, after realizing that his acts of charity devalued the price of metals in the cities he visited. So, on the way back from Mecca, he borrowed as much gold as possible from Cairo’s brokers. While hard to believe, Musa was indeed able to recover all of the gold he gave away. On top of that, he did it all in the same trip to Mecca. That legendary trip makes him the only man in recorded time to control the price of gold in the Mediterranean region. Wall Street and its brokers have nothing on the likes of this leader.
Askia Mohammad I, also known as Muhammad Ture or Askia the Great, was an emperor of the Songhai Empire. Born in Futa Tooro near Senegal and Mauritania in 1443, Askia’s rule consolidated the varying regions of the empire until the Songhai Empire became one of the richest in Africa. Like Mansa Musa, Askia traveled to Mecca with a retinue. His consisted of 500 horsemen and 300,000 pieces of gold. During that trip, Askia met the Caliph of Egypt and, through that meeting, returned with a new title: the Caliph of the Western Sudan, meaning he was the spiritual leader of all Muslims in West Africa. Askia expanded his kingdom to the Hausa in Nigeria and established the Malian city of Timbuktu as one of the world’s foremost areas for education and commerce. Under Askia, the Songhai region expanded to the size of the continental US.
The number of interesting characters in Africa’s history pre-slavery could fill up volumes of books or populate movie theaters with Marvel-esque film franchises. Unfortunately, a lot of this history has gone unrecognized by the Western world in large part due to the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which involved the kidnapping and trafficking of millions of Africans from their homes to the New World. It’s estimated that 12.5 million captives were brought from Africa to the Americas between 1525 and 1866. That means families were forever broken, knowledge was lost, and communities were deprived of parts of their identities.
It’s worth noting that some of the entries in this section include enslaved African Americans who differ in opinion about their treatment in slavery. As you’ll read, some actually liked their owners, whereas several more disliked their masters. The differences in opinion must be put in context; some who speak of less than-horrific experiences can only do so because they happened to have owners who were kinder than most. These types of masters, however, were the exception, and the overarching effect on slavery in the US perpetuated a system of racism that is so entrenched, we still feel its effects today.”
Monique Jones, The Book of Awesome Black Americans
Black Americans who have shaped their country and beyond: We are familiar with a handful of African Americans who are mentioned in American history books, but there are also countless others who do not get recognized in mainstream media. Their actions may not have appeared to shake the world, but their contributions to shifting American culture were just as groundbreaking.
There’s more than one way to make a difference: The achievements of the Black Americans included in this book range from athletic to artistic, literary to scientific. Their biographies vary greatly, but each one contributes to the course of Black history and its influence on the greater world. Their stories encourage readers, especially teenage boys and girls, to find their own path to change.
Celebrate the successes made possible by diversity: African Americans have made history by challenging and changing the American landscape. This was accomplished not by shedding layers of originality, but by wearing their colors proudly and openly in the world. Growth has been made possible by a resistance to conformity and a fusing of cultures, African and American alike.
Monique L. Jones’s The Book of Awesome Black Americans is more than a Black history book. It’s a celebration of Black people. In this book, you will find:
Amazing role models who brought on change by using their gifts and passions to overcome societal barriers
Stories mainstream media failed to mention that are sure to inspire, motivate, and educate readers of all backgrounds
Testimonies that demonstrate how American culture thrives when it celebrates diversity and promotes inclusiveness
If you enjoyed books such as 100 African-Americans Who Shaped American History, Bedtime Inspirational Stories, Black Pioneers of Science and Invention, or Becca Anderson’s The Book of Awesome Women, then The Book of Awesome Black Americans should be your next read!