Black People Can’t Write—Ancient Writing Disproves Illiterate Myth

Written by PlayBack

By Marissa Johnson

Anyone who said black people were barbarians incapable of reading, needs a reality check. The Eurocentric view of the European conquest and colonization of Africa would have you believe that black people never managed to create a written language and therefore needed Europeans to save them, Christianize them, and bring them up to the modern age.

This just isn’t true, though. Africans had a written language far before the ancient Greeks or Romans even managed this feat. And, out of the continent of Africa, there’s not just one African written language created, but eleven!

“Africa has the world’s oldest and largest collection of ancient writing systems.” Atlanta Star explains.

Just about anyone who has taken a high school history class has heard of the Egyptian hieroglyphics writing system. That was one of the writing styles. In fact, Yale discovered in 1999, as evidenced by the proto-Saharan writing system, that Phoenician writing actually began in Africa.

Egyptians were responsible for three scripts. These included the aforementioned hieroglyphics (used usually in formal settings and sacred places like temples), hieratic system (the business language), and demotic (the language of everyday Egyptians). These writings were usually found on pottery and papyrus.

Another African written language was Nsibidi which was used from 5000 BCE into present day, mainly in West Central Africa. This language was spread via the slave trade to Cuba and Haiti. This is evidence of the influence of the African language outside the continent. We have rock paintings as testimony that this language existed and thrived.

Other African written languages include Vai (3000 BCE-present day), the Meriotic system, the “Ethiopic system”, and Old Nubian. Old Nubian is preserved mainly in religious documents.

As you can tell, the African written language was vast and plentiful. Africa did not need Christians to show them how to conduct formal worship or how to write. People forget pre-colonial Africans were a very literate people, because many of these places lost their languages or the languages went underground as Europeans forced Africans to learn their language for diplomacy and business if they hoped to advance in colonial Africa.

In Africa today, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) reports 38% of Africans are illiterate. UNESCO further adds that the majority of the illiterate are females and only 1% of the national educational budget has been utilized to address literacy issues. UNESCO partnered with Procter & Gamble in 2011 in an effort to promote literacy for females in Senegal and other parts of Africa.

In the United States, The Huffington Post reported in 2011 that nearly half of Detroit’s adults are illiterate today. How is it that Africa has better literacy rates than Detroit? It’s about resources. Cities like Detroit don’t have the available funds or educators to fully ensure literacy.

So, taking a page from African history, black people were not dumb and illiterate. Ancient Africans had a thriving and complex society with great emphasis not just on the oral tradition, but writing as well.

Just because certain black communities globally do not have the highest literacy rates does not mean black people are incompetent. It’s a testament to available resources and the priority many groups place on black education.


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