Volume 9, Issue 4
Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora. Michael A. Gomez. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 219 pp.
Marcus Garvey famously remarked that “a people without knowledge of their history is like a tree without roots.” Reversing Sail retraces and documents the rich, diverse history and culture of the African diaspora. This reversing sail that Michael Gomez captains resonates an important message: if we are to truly appreciate the contributions and complexities of Africa and its diaspora then we have to journey back to its past that predates slavery, colonialism and exploitation. The metaphor of reversing sail is even more powerful because it echoes the Akan concept of sankofa - literally, to return in order to move forward.
Gomez embarks on the ambitious odyssey of chronicling millennia of African history and culture from ancient Egypt to the late 20 th century Diaspora. It is here that both the stellar contribution as well as the key weakness of the book is to be found. The noble effort of documenting Africa and its Diaspora's history ends up rushing and oversimplifying much of its meaningfulness and complexity.
The book is not a classic and does not need to be. However there is great value in its eclectic compilation of arguments and sources scattered in a plethora of places. It presents an accessible and readable narrative of a story that is far from linear. Reversing Sail and its thrust for a new approach to African history must be credited with emphasizing that the scourge of slavery is not the event that places Africans and their descendants into “history.” Africa 's recorded history preceded both the slavers as well as the racism that blessed them on their way from Europe to Africa . Its primary readership will be undergraduates and its lack of proper textual notation is heavily compensated for by a very helpful list of further readings.
Apart from the readability of the text, the structure is also quite uncomplicated. The book is divided into two parts. The first is “Old World Dimensions” and tells the story of Africa prior to European contact and the journey through the middle passage to the Americas that resulted in “Maafa.” In the first chapter, Gomez skillfully navigates the story of African antiquity and is careful to (re)iterate that Africa 's ancient history is not just that of Egypt , Ethiopia and Nubia , but extends across the Horn of Africa. The main impetus of this recounting of antiquity is to debunk the myth that Africa and its progeny were “fated to be subjugated” and more importantly, to reveal the intellectual debt that Western and human civilization owes to Africans and their systems of learning and progress.
The depth of the relationship between Africans and religion is adequately addressed. From the spirited discussion of “Africans and the Bible” which outlines the complexity of the text and its unfolding as history, to the realization that the Bible has been used both as a guide for liberation and African pride [given their critical role in the text itself], as well being the “divine justification for African slavery and subjugation.”
In Chapter 3, Gomez continues to examine religion and the African diaspora by examining “Africans and the Islamic World.” He assesses how “millions of Africans entered Islamic lands, where they made important contributions to extraordinary civilizations…” (p. 29). In detailing this penetration of Africans into the Islamic world, Gomez continues to connect the dots that lead to the birth and development of African slavery in the modern world.
Part 2, “New World Realities,” begins the torturous journey of Africans to the New World . The “energetic Europe [that] burst on the world scene” (p.59) was bent on the exploitation and enslavement of Africans as the vehicles for its progress and enrichment. Gomez is however quick to reveal that it was “several global developments [that] gave rise to the transatlantic slave trade” (p. 59). Nonetheless the highlighting of the varied events that led to slavery is in no way an attempt to abrogate primary European culpability for the dehumanization of Africans. Throughout the next few chapters Reversing Sail is a critical assessment of the reality that “ Europe 's…economic prosperity was fundamentally related to exploitation of Africans,” an argument so rightly credited to historian Eric Williams. (p. 82).
The chapter entitled “Asserting the Right to Be” outlines the way in which scattered Africans had to reassert their freedom to a system of oppression that had dehumanized them for centuries. More importantly the chapter reveals the persistent interconnectivity of the struggle against slavery. From the slave revolts all over the Caribbean , Latin America and the U.S. to maroonage to the intellectual assault of abolitionists, it was obvious that the links between the African diaspora were parts of a chain that always went back to Africa . The ‘transatlantic moment' through the middle passage “did not completely rupture ties to the homelands'' (p. 79).
The final two chapters complete the circumnavigation of the African diaspora to their ancestral homeland in the form of physical and psychological reverse of sail or repatriation. It was apparent that Africa 's progeny “were reversing sail in their minds and hearts, if not with their bodies” (p.162). Not only did the diaspora reconnect with Africa but it also created sub-diasporas such as Caribbean blacks migrating to the U.S. in the 19 th and early 20 th century. The mobility of the African diaspora meant the dynamic melding and reshaping of culture, politics and the inevitable challenge against all the forms of oppression blacks had become subjected to (p.193). The final word in this “gem” of a book points to the reality that the reconnections with Africa , the place of origin and human civilization, needs to be deeper and more practical given the current era of despair and impoverishment across the black world.
Reversing Sail has accomplished its goal of being “an interpretive history of the journey of people of African descent.” The book is a meaningful primer for persons who doubt the simplicity of the declaration that Africa and Africans did not enter history as slaves and impoverished nations.J. Omar McCalpin