Africans must rewrite own history by Phillip Emeagwali

The enormous contributions of Africans to the development and progress of other nations has gone unacknowledged.

WE need to tell our children our own stories from our perspective. We need to decolonise our thinking and examine the underlying truths in more than just movies. We need to apply the same principles to history and science, as depicted in textbooks.

Look at African science stories that were retold by European historians; they were re-centred around Europe. The earliest pioneers of science lived in Africa, but European historians relocated them to Greece.

Science and technology are gifts ancient Africa gave to our modern world. Yet, our history and science textbooks, for example, have ignored the contributions of Imhotep, the father of medicine and designer of one of the ancient pyramids.

The word ‘science’ is derived from the Latin word ‘scientia’ or ‘possession of knowledge’. We know, however, that knowledge is not the exclusive preserve of one race, but of all races. By definition, knowledge is the totality of what is known to humanity.

Knowledge is a body of information and truth, and the set of principles acquired by mankind over the ages. Knowledge is akin to a quilt, the latter consisting of several layers held together by stitched designs and comprising patches of many colours.

The oldest patch on the quilt of science belongs to the African named Imhotep. He was the world’s first recorded scientist, according to the prolific American science writer Isaac Asimov.

The oldest patch on the quilt of mathematics belongs to another African named Ahmes. Asimov also credited Ahmes as being the world’s first author of a mathematics textbook.

Therefore, a study of the history of science is an effort to stitch together a quilt that has life, texture and colour. African historians must insert the patches of information omitted from books written by European historians.

There are many examples of the mark Africans have made on world history. Americans are surprised when I tell them Africans built both Washington’s White House and the Capitol, which houses the United States legislature.

According to the US Treasury Department, 450 of the 650 workers who built the White House and the Capitol were African slaves.

Because the White House and Capitol are the two most visible symbols of American democracy, it is important to inform all schoolchildren in our globalised world that these institutions are the results of the sweat and toil of mostly African workers. This must also be an acknowledgement of the debt America owes Africa.

Similarly, discussions of globalisation should credit Africans who left the continent and helped build other nations throughout the world — most nations on Earth.

Africans who have made contributions in Australia, Russia, and Europe must be acknowledged, so that our children can have heroes with African roots — and be proud of them. The enormous contributions of Africans to the development and progress of other nations has gone unacknowledged.

We have yet to acknowledge, for example, that St Augustine, who wrote the greatest spiritual autobiography of all time, titled ‘Confessions of St Augustine’, was an African; that three Africans became pope; that Africans have lived in Europe since the time of the Roman Empire; that Septimus Severus, an Emperor of Rome, was an African; and that the reason Beethoven was called ‘The Black Spaniard’ was because he was a mulatto of African descent.

Why are we reluctant to acknowledge the contributions and legacies of our African ancestors?

We cannot inspire our children to look toward the future without first reminding them of their ancestors’ contributions. Look at the long struggle of African Australians, who recently became citizens with rights on their native continent. Africans have been living in Australia for 50 000 years.

Yet, African Australians were granted Australian citizenship just 37 years ago, in 1967. According to CNN, African Australians were not recognised as human beings prior to 1967. They ‘were governed under flora and fauna laws’. For many years, African Australians were described as the ‘invisible people’. In fact, the first whites to settle in Australia named it the ‘land empty of people’.

The contributions of Africans to Russia must be reclaimed. Russia’s most celebrated author, A.S. (Aleksandr Sergeyevich) Pushkin, told us he was of African descent.

Pushkin’s great-grandfather was brought to Russia as a slave. Russians proclaim Pushkin as their ‘national poet’, the ‘Patriarch of Russian Literature’ and the ‘Father of the Russian Language.’

In essence, Pushkin is to Russia what Shakespeare is to Britain. Yet Africans who have read the complete works of Shakespeare are not likely to have read a single book by Pushkin.

The journey of discovery to my supercomputer was a titanic, one-man struggle. It was like climbing Mount Everest.

On many occasions, I felt like giving up. Because I was traumatised by the racism I had encountered in science, I maintained a self-imposed silence on the supercomputer discovery that is my claim to fame.

In the 1980s, supercomputers could perform only millions of calculations per second and, therefore, their timers were designed to measure only millions of calculations per second.

But I was performing billions of calculations per second and unknowingly attempting to time it with a supercomputer timer, which was designed to measure millions of calculations per second. I assumed my timer could measure one-billionth of a second. It took me two years to realise my timer was off a thousand-fold.

I was operating beyond a supercomputer’s limitations, but I did not know it. The supercomputer designers did not expect their timers to be used to measure calculations at that rate.

I almost gave up because I could not time and reproduce my calculations which, in turn, meant I could not share them, two years earlier, with the world.

After years of research, my supercomputer’s timer was the only thing stopping me from getting the recognition I deserved. I realised the timer was wrong, but I could not explain why. I spent two years mulling over why the timer was wrong.

It took two long and lonely years to discover why I could not time my calculations. My 3,1 billion calculations per second, which were then the world’s fastest, were simply too fast for the supercomputer’s timer.

What I learned from that experience was not to quit when faced with an insurmountable obstacle — and that believing in yourself makes all the difference. I learned to take a step backward and evaluate the options: Should I go through, above, under, or around the obstacle?

Quitting, I decided, was not an option. Indeed, the old saying is true: When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Looking back, I learned that most limitations in life are self-imposed. You have to make things happen, not just watch things happen. To succeed, you must constantly reject complacency.

I learned I could set high objectives and goals and achieve them. The secret to my success is that I am constantly striving for continuous improvements in my life and that I am never satisfied with my achievements.

The myth that a genius must have above-average intelligence is just that, a myth.

Geniuses are people who learn to create their own positive reinforcements when their experiments yield negative results. Perseverance is the key. My goal was to go beyond the known, to a territory no one had ever reached.

I learned that if you want success badly enough and believe in yourself, then you can attain your goals and become anything you want in life. The greatest challenge in your life is to look deep within yourself to see the greatness that is inside you, and those around you.

The history books may deprive African children of the heroes with whom they can identify, but in striving for your own goals, you can become that hero for them — and your own hero, too.

I once believed my supercomputer discovery was more important than the journey that got me there. I now understand the journey to discovery is more important than the discovery itself; that the journey also requires a belief in your own abilities.

I learned that no matter how often you fall down, or how hard you fall down, what is most important is that you rise up and continue until you reach your goal. It’s true, some heroes are never recognised, but what’s important is that they recognise themselves.

It is that belief in yourself, that focus, and that inner conviction that you are on the right path, that will get you through life’s obstacles.

If we can give our children pride in their past, then we can show them what they can be and give them the self-respect that will make them succeed.

Transcribed from a speech delivered by Phillip Emeagwali at the Pan-African Conference on Globalisation in Washington, DC, USA. Emeagwali helped give birth to the supercomputer, the technology that spawned the Internet. He won the 1989 Gordon Bell. This article is reproduced from

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