Monday, 9 May 2011



On February 8, 2000 Baruch hosted one of its liveliest lecture presentations. World-renowned author and public lecturer Runoko Rashidi delivered “The African Woman as Heroine—Great Black Women in History.”

The forth annual Donald H. Smith lecture, named in honor of one of Baruch’s first black administrators, opened by a song and a dance by an African troupe. Drums added to the richness of the performance, by providing a rhythmic background.

Soon Rashidi commanded the stage with his pictures. While going from slide to slide, he offered explanation for each picture. Their places of origin, cultural significance, and other relevant information, were relayed in a clear, witty manner that the audience enjoyed. 

Rashidi started off by showing the earliest bones of an African woman (known as Lucy) ever found in Ethiopia. Throughout the lecture, he alluded to historical facts on which he based his discoveries. He showed pictures of black women as leaders in different dynasties of Kemet (or ancient Egypt). Many of them were women warriors, doctors and queens. Among these he mentioned were Queen Nefertari, Makeda (Queen of Sheeba) and Queen Nzingha. These women were mothers of great kings and warriors through civilization and antiquity. 

“That is what folks in ancient Egypt looked like,” said Rashidi, referring to the picture of an African woman’s statue whose features were pronounced and very distinct. “But how many of you have seen that on the cover of a book?” Rashidi emphasized that some of the pictures shown had their facial features, mostly the noses, intentionally cut off by Europeans like Napoleon Bonaparte. Rashidi elaborated that it was important for colonizers and enslavers to strip Africans of their true history by distorting the past. 

From North Africa, Rashidi’s pictures moved to those of women in Western and central Africa. Women from such countries as Djibouti, Ghana, Angola and Congo (formerly Zaire) were represented. Following that, Rashidi moved eastward to the women of Arabian Peninsula. He showed blacks living in Yemen, Oman, Israel and Turkey, among others. 

“There are perhaps a billion Africans scattered around the world,” Rashidi explained. “That is why during this period of time, we don’t look just at America but we look at Africans globally.”

Rashidi’s description of a group of outcastes living in southern India called the Untouchables (or Dalits), most of whom are black, brought groins of pain from many in the audience. According to Rashidi, these are the most oppressed people in the world even though their numbers total more than the combined populations of England, France, Belgium and Spain. 

Some of the Dalits have light skin while others resemble Africans in Nigeria. One photo was of three Dalit women each holding rifles with angry facial expressions. Rashidi explained that these people are tortured, burned alive, raped and murdered daily for the smallest offences such as taking bread to keep from starving, or for no reason at all. 

Moving eastward, Rashidi displayed photos of Blacks in Southeast Asia. His search of Blacks worldwide has been disappointed. There are black people living in Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

Even down under in Australia and Tasmania, an island off the Australian coast, Rashidi met Blacks who admitted that their ancestors had migrated from Africa thousands of years before. The government of Australia did not recognize these indigenous inhabitants as human beings until 1967. Currently, the percentage of original, Black Australians is less than two percent due to the white’s violent colonization techniques. 

One woman photographed was called the “Black Saint” mostly because of the care she provided to many orphaned children. 

From the South Pacific, Rashidi moved north to the archipelagos and the ancient and modern Americas. The faces shown from those regions were more familiar to the audience. The spectators sighed and nodded their heads in recognition of Amy Jacques and Amy Ashwood Garvey, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells and Sybil Clarke. Other pioneering faces included those of the first woman licensed to practice medicine in South Carolina, journalists, aviators, educators and activists. 

Rashidi brought the presentation full circle by bringing it back to Africa. The lecturer spoke of Black goddesses such as Mut and Hathor. One picture that elicited looks of surprise from some young spectators was that of Black Madonna and child.

“We were taken out of Africa,” said Rashidi,” but we took some Africa with us. Get comfortable with it. He was referring to the similarities between Africans in the Diaspora and those in Africa.

Last but not least, Rashidi concluded the presentation with the picture of an old, stooped Black woman sitting on a chair, eyes closed, holding her cane under her chin. For Rashidi, the woman represents the state of black people today: “ancient and wise but kind of asleep.”   

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