Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed

By Philip Emeagwali


Transcript of Black History Month keynote lecture delivered by Emeagwali. Part 1 was delivered at Arizona State University West, Phoenix, on February 17, 2003. Part 2 will be delivered in February 2004. The third lecture entitled "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" will also be available in 2004 BHM. Article reproduced with permission of Emeagwali.com

When I was ten years old, living in Africa, my father posed the following question to me: "The story or the warrior, which is mightier?" "The warrior!" I replied." My father shook his head in disagreement. "The story. The story is mightier than the warrior," he said to me. "How can that be?" I asked him. "The story lives on long after the warrior has died," he explained. This month is Black History Month. We celebrate it by telling stories of the contributions of black Americans to America. Also, today is President's Day. We celebrate it by telling stories of the contributions of American presidents to America. We tell stories about Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States. We tell how Jefferson coined the phrase "All men are created equal." A phrase written in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson wrote, "All men are created equal." But he meant, "All white men are created equal." Jefferson did not believe that white women are equal to white men. He did not believe that black men are equal to white men. Not much has changed two centuries later. As they say, the more things change, the more they remain the same. In his one and only published book, called "Notes on Virginia," Jefferson explained why white men are intellectually superior to black men. Jefferson wrote that it would be impossible for a black person to understand the mathematical formula in Euclid's famous book called "The Elements."
Jefferson wrote in his book "Notes on Virginia" that Africans are intellectually inferior and cannot understand mathematics.
Euclid wrote his book, called the "The Elements," 2,300 years ago. It is the second most reprinted book in history. It is second only to the Bible. And Euclid is, perhaps, the world's greatest mathematician of all time. To the ancients, Euclid's Elements was a notoriously difficult textbook. The story is told about a discouraged student that asked Euclid: "What shall I profit by learning these difficult things?" Euclid, visibly angered, said to his assistant: "Give this boy a penny, since he must make a profit out of what he learns." Because The Elements was notoriously difficult to understand, Jefferson wrote that it would be difficult for a black person to understand the work of Euclid. He believed that only people of European ancestry could understand the subject of Geometry. As an African mathematician, I studied and understood geometry. There was nothing in my experience that could lead me to believe that whites have greater mathematical aptitude than people of other races. Yet, that stereotype persists among white mathematicians. While researching the origins of the Euclid's work, I was surprised when I learned that Euclid never even traveled outside Africa. "How could Euclid be Greek, if he was born, raised and educated in Africa?" I asked. It occurred to me that Euclid, the greatest mathematician of all time, was neither Greek nor white. It occurred to me that he was probably black and full-blooded Negro. I found the best explanation in a book on "History of Mathematics." The author explained that ancient Egypt was not in Africa. "Egypt was part of Greece," he added. I was curious about how Euclid looked in person. As I probed further, I discovered a widely circulating photo of Euclid. It was the photo of white male that seems to be 90 years old. I asked: "Is this a true portrait of Euclid?" Upon reflection, I realized that it was a fictitious portrait. It was drawn 2,000 years after Euclid died. Euclid died 2,300 years ago in Africa. And we do not have any true portrait of any person that lived before Jesus Christ. We do not have any true portrait of any person that lived even 500 years. I later learned that many Greek scientists of ancient times were born, raised and educated in Africa. And I still wonder if those Greek scientists were actually black Africans.
This false portrait of Euclid as a white male reinforced Jefferson's views that mathematics could only be comprehended by whites. Since there is no proof that Euclid ever travelled outside Africa it makes sense to assume that he is full-blooded Negro.

Our history books are full of erroneous statements. Black History Month is a period for us to re-examine the erroneous statements in our history books. A period for us to challenge these erroneous statements in our history books. A period for us to teach our children the truth. Teach them that Euclid was not Greek. That he was not white. That was born, raised, educated and worked in Africa. That he is African. A period for us to acknowledge that science is the gift of ancient Africa to our modern world. If Euclid never traveled outside Africa, we should assume that he is African. Which raises the profound question: If Euclid is African, then Thomas Jefferson must be wrong when he argued that an African couldn't understand the work of Euclid? Euclid was the warrior and Thomas Jefferson was the storyteller. As my father taught me, the story is mightier than the warrior. The story lives on long after the warrior has died. Thomas Jefferson's belief that an African cannot understand the subject of geometry lives on 200 years after Jefferson has died. It lives on in the belief that whites make better mathematicians than blacks. It lives on among historians of science who are reluctant to acknowledge the contributions of Africans to mathematical knowledge. When I was young, I believed that the warrior is mightier than the story. I did not understand that the pen is mightier than the sword. As a young man, I believed history is about the truth. As an older man, I learned that history is both truth and illusion. I learned that the value of my scientific discovery is in the perception of those evaluating it. I learned that the black student considers me to be his role model. I learned that the up and coming white scientist is reluctant to accept me as his role model. I learned that the established white scientist considers me to be an anomaly. Considers me to be a "freak of nature." Considers me to be the anti-Christ. Considers me to be a scientific vampire that sucks on the white race. Visualizes me as a monster with couple of horns on his head. I learned that what I am is not as important as what I am to you. I learned that when you ask me: "Who Are You?" that you really meant "Who Am I?" I learned that you are searching for yourself in me. Twelve years ago, a magazine hired a white man to prepare an illustration of a supercomputer wizard riding an ox. I was supposed to be the supercomputer wizard. But the white illustrator, who knew that I am black, portrayed me as a white person in his published illustration. I learned that the white illustrator was searching for himself in me.
The first draft of a portrait that depicted Emeagwali as a supercomputer wizard driving a carriage powered by thousands of chickens (a metaphor for his 65,000 weak processors that performed the world's fastest computation). The "Negro Emeagwali" (shown in this illustration) was rejected and replaced with a "Caucasian Emeagwali" (shown below).

A "whitened" Caucasian portrait of Emeagwali was acceptable and widely published. One illustrator argued that Emeagwali has a trace of Caucasian blood and said that he could see the "Caucasian look" in his face.
Five hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned to paint his masterpiece "The Lord's Supper." Before the Renaissance period, many paintings of the Madonna depicted a black woman. The infant God or Christ-child was depicted as black. But Leonardo da Vinci was searching for himself in Jesus Christ. He re-depicted Jesus Christ as white. The Bible did not tell us what Jesus looked like. But we know that he lived in the Middle East or an eastern extension of Africa. We know that the Hebrews sojourned into Egypt and Africa. We know that Moses had a Cushite (Ethiopian) wife. When we put the facts together, we know that Jesus likely looked like a dark-skinned Palestinian, Yemenite or Egyptian.
Michelangelo used his family to pose for Jesus Christ. Michelangelo was searching for himself in Jesus Christ. During the Renaissance, the mother of Christ became a white woman. I learned that King James wrote the Bible the way he believed it was supposed to be written. I was trained by white mathematicians. I read books about History of Mathematics written by white authors. I learned in schools controlled and dominated by Eurocentric thoughts. Considering where I came from, it was heresy to suggest that Euclid was African. Psychologist named this phenomenon "cognitive dissonance." I call it "The Fear of the Truth." We are afraid of the truth that the real Jesus Christ is dark-skinned. We are afraid of the truth that the real Euclid was an African and a full-blooded Negro. I learned that Euclid was portrayed as a European to instill a sense of pride in white students. To embed a feeling of intellectual supremacy into their collective subconscious. I learned that European mathematicians were searching for themselves in Euclid. I learned that Africans are the pioneers in many other fields of study. I learned that the modern chemist is not aware that the word "chemistry" meant "black man's science." I learned that the word chemistry was derived from the word "Kemet." And that Kemet is the ancient name for the land we now call Egypt. And that Kemet translates as "land of the blacks." And that "chemistry" means "black man's science." Yet the story of black people's contribution to the science of chemistry is not included in chemistry textbooks. As my father taught me, the story is greater than the warrior. We Africans have to tell our story. We underestimate the power of the story. "What happened to the black people of Kemet," the traveler asked the old man. "For legend had it that the people of Kemet were black? What happened?" "Ah," wailed the old man, "they lost their history and they died." Isaac Asimov is the author of more than 500 books. One of his books called "Biographical Encyclopedia of Science," is standard reference in many libraries.
Isaac Asimov, the most prolific science writer, acknowledges that mathematics, science and technology are the gift of ancient Africans to our modern world.

The Encyclopedia of Science: Acknowledges that an African named Imhotep is the Father of Medicine. It acknowledges that an African is the Father of Architecture. It acknowledges that an African is the first scientist in recorded history. It acknowledges that the earliest Greek scientists were educated in Africa by Africans. That they lived and worked in Africa. That they were even born in Africa. If the earliest Greek scientists lived in Africa, then it leads to the profound conclusion that Greece is not the birthplace of Western civilization. It leads to more logical conclusion that Africa is the birthplace of civilization. The oldest mathematics textbooks are called the Rhind, Moscow and Berlin papyri.
The ancient papyri are our primary source of information about the mathematics of Nile Valley civilization. A page from Ahmes papyrus which is about one foot tall and 18 feet long. This book was renamed "Rhind Papyrus."

The Rhind Papyrus was not written by Alexander Rhind --- the Scottish traveler that purchased it. It was written 4,000 years ago by an African named Ahmes. But it was renamed after a non-mathematician that purchased it. The Moscow Papyrus was not excavated in Moscow. It was excavated in Africa. But it was renamed after the city of Moscow. The Berlin Papyrus was not excavated in Berlin. It was excavated in Africa. But it was renamed after the city of Berlin. Ladies and gentlemen, we should give credit where credit is due. Scholars name a book after its author. Scientists name a discovery after the discoverer. And technologists name an invention after the inventor. Why then were African textbooks Europeanized by naming them after European cities and persons? The reason is that the story is mightier than the warrior. Ancient Africans were the ancient warriors and modern Europeans are the modern storytellers.


A digital facial reconstruction of a mummy believed to be Queen Nefertiti. The British forensic experts that performed this reconstruction were astonished when the image of a black woman emerged on their computer screen! (Image courtesy of USA Today, August 13, 2003)

History is called "his story." It is a story told from the perspective of the storyteller. From the bias of the storyteller. With the prejudice of the storyteller. "What is history?" asked Napoleon, the conquered French emperor. "History is nothing but a lie agreed upon!" Napoleon answered. Carter Woodson is the name of the historian that founded Negro History Week in 1926. Woodson wrote:

"When you control a man's thinking, you do not have to worry about his actions." "You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his (proper place) and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary," said Woodson who was the son of former slaves. Someone asked me: "Why don't we have a White History Month?" "Every month is White History Month." I explained to him. However, our goal is to make every month Black History Month. Our goal is to include black history into American history. And to include African history into world history. African history is a search for answers to profound questions. Universal questions such as: Who are we? Where have we been? And how did we get here? History is the compass that tells us who we are, where we have been, and where we are going. We now know that Africa is the birthplace of humanity. It is the Motherland of all people: black or white. We should teach our children that: Science is the gift of ancient Africa to our modern world. Finally, and most importantly, we should remind them that Africans were the carriers of light. Africans were not waiting in darkness for others to bring light to them. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with you tonight.

Emeagwali won the 1989 Gordon Bell Prize, which has been called "supercomputing's Nobel Prize," for inventing a formula that allows computers to perform their fastest computations - a discovery that inspired the reinvention of supercomputers. He was extolled by then U.S. President Bill Clinton as "one of the great minds of the Information Age" and described by CNN as "a Father of the Internet;" and is the most searched-for scientist on the Internet.
The second part of this lecture will be delivered during Black History Month celebration of 2004.


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Re: Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed
G-force posted on 02-07-2009, 06:07:52 AM
There so much to tell, so much to re-discover !
Re: Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed
PatrickIroegbu posted on 02-24-2011, 23:54:49 PM
I have learnt by reading this piece with deep interest. At the comming opportunity to present a Guest Speech at the Black History Month at African Centre in Edmonton on February 26, 2011, I will recall the insights of your speech. Very informative and well tailored. My speech is entitled "Culture as a Mechanism of Diversity, Unity and Integration in the Light of Black History Month".

Dr. Patrick Iroegbu
Author of Introduction to Igbo Medicine and Culture in Nigeria (2010)
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