Knowledge, power, and History
Updated: Jun 11, 2021
I have a lot to say about a lot of things, and sometimes there is a theme that emerges from the chaos that is my mind. When it happens, you get a blog post. And that’s what is happening now.
Yesterday, like a lot of other days, I was having three conversations at the same time in different places about completely different topics. Cuneiform via Twitter DMs, slavery in real life, and writing on Twitter posts. And this morning while I was having my second cup of coffee and the fog in my brain finally settled, it hit me. These are not completely different topics.
Quick recap first:
Cuneiform is one of the very first forms of codified alphabets (to give you the basic not quite accurate but understandable description) which was used in ancient Mesopotamia for millenia. It was used by the Hittites, the Phoenicians, the Assyrians, and a bunch of other people but this isn’t a blog post about cuneiform so I’ll stop here.
Slavery, you supposedly know about, but I’ll still say that it is way older than the USA, way older than European colonial Empires. It started mostly in Mesopotamia even before cuneiform was invented, and Black folks were the most common slaves. Yes, already. However, they had rights, or at least some rights, as written in the code of Hammurabi (google it please). You couldn’t just kill or steal or rape a slave in the the Hittite Empire. There were consequences.
Writing, as you know, is putting signs down so that others can read. When I talk about writing on Twitter, I mostly mean “the art of writing stories”, but you can’t write stories if you can’t write at all. And writing stories is necessary.
Do you see the link yet? I’ll try to put some words on it.
Cuneiform is a way for people to write. It has made it possible for people from different areas and ethnicities to understand and commerce with each other, it has enabled the existence of the code of Hammurabi. If you haven’t yet googled it, it’s one of the oldest known legal documents and on it are written a bunch of laws, in three different languages. It’s also absolutely beautiful, but that’s another matter. Thanks to this code, slaves were recognized as human beings, they just had less rights than people who weren’t slaves. Women had rights too, more rights than in some places in Europe later. At some point, white men fucked up bad. But I digress.
Writing has changed humanity. It has made us accountable to one another and to society. It has allowed some of us to have a minimum of safety and dignity. And it has given me, random person from the 21st century, the possibility to learn about people who lived more than 4 thousand years ago.
Writing has brought us knowledge of History, and that knowledge has made us aware of what is truly happening in the world and why. I’ve heard often that History repeats itself. That is not true. History does nothing at all except being there for us to learn from. The problem is what we choose to learn from it. What we choose to read. What he choose to write. Who we choose to teach how to write.
The belief that people who were enslaved in the USA were stupid is still around partly because the education of the enslaved was illegal. They couldn’t write to tell us what their life was like or what they thought because writing was forbidden to them. A lot of them still learned to read and write, but the sanctions if they were caught were horrendous. They tried to pass on their knowledge, their culture, their struggles through music and other art forms but it somehow has less lasting power than books. The belief that Black people are stupid and uneducated is still around partly because white people still don’t read Black authors. Because they believe there aren’t any, and don’t go look for them. The result is that, to this day, great scholars and amazing authors are dismissed, their work buried or unpublished, their brilliant thoughts unread, their stories told to the void. And this is true in Europe as in North America and elsewhere.
To this day some people don’t know their own history, because the powerful and the wealthy get to decide what everyone else is taught. And they don’t want people to know about the Hittite. They don’t want people to know about cuneiform. They don’t want people to know about the code of Hammurabi, and how enslaved people had more rights 4000 years ago than they did 200 years ago. They don’t want people to know about all the human beings who were torn from their homes only to be put in cages. In some idioms developed by enslaved people who were brought together, didn’t speak the same language and hence made their own, “house” is literally “the cage”. Because when slavers were done with them they’d tell them to “go back to your cage”, which was the closest thing to a house these people had. Let that sink in.
How many of you reading this right now knew? How many know that when the people in cages inevitably got sick they were thrown to the sea, to the sharks to eat? That if a woman gave birth, often the baby was thrown to the sharks as well? Yet these are the people who have built our countries.
These are the Colonial Empires slaves, those brought to what would become the USA and Canada. Those brought to the French overseas territories. Those brought to so many places they didn’t know, tortured and killed to build countries they weren’t even tolerated in. Enslaved people in Ancient Mesopotamia would never have been treated like so. If your slaves were healthy and happy and well fed you had the respect of your peers. You had good standing in society. Because how well you treated the people less fortunate than you reflected your character, and kindness was at the time a virtue and a quality. The powerful and the wealthy of today do not want you to know that, because their power and their wealth were built on cruelty and disdain for human lives. And they keep telling you we’re civilized. They keep telling us that people in days of old were savages. But if you look at History, who are the actual savages?
But that’s the thing, right? The whole point of this entire post. You don’t look at History. You can’t look at History. I know all of this because I talk to a lot of people about a lot of topics, and because I tried to study ancient civilizations and languages at University. It lasted 3 months but I learned a thing or two. It took some digging and curiosity on my end to acquire these informations. It took me already being sensitive to topics such as ancient languages and cultural migrations. Let’s face it, these aren’t very common interests, especially among people who are wondering every day if they’ll have food to eat the next.
I was lucky enough to have some periods in my life when I wasn’t struggling. I was lucky enough to have been born white and that opened doors to knowledge that is still unaccessible to people of colour. The classes I took were full of white people. Including a class about Ethiopia. My classmates were here for the exotic, the foreign, the morbid curiosity of wealthy folks who view the world from a throne made of bones yet refuse to see the throne itself. I honestly don’t know why I was there, I’d love to say my reasons were more noble, but they probably weren’t. I’ll dig into that question, it’s important. I digress again. Just know that for a lot of people the doors to that knowledge would remain firmly closed.
Do you see the link now? If I hadn’t studied cuneiform I wouldn’t have known about the civilisations of Ancient Mesopotamia. I wouldn’t have known how enslaved people were treated then. I wouldn’t have been able to make a parallel with how they were treated a couple of centuries ago. I wouldn’t have connected those dots to how Black people are treated now in our societies. And without writing I wouldn’t have been able to tell you any of this.
I keep saying that words matter. Which ones you choose, how you use them, how you form your sentences. But it goes way deeper than that. Words matter because words carry information, information is knowledge, knowledge is power. It is time to use our words to share our knowledge, to give power to those who have been deprived of it. To help people know their history, so that we don’t repeat History.