Penn professor presents African culture

Oscar Abello

Students, professors and other community members packed into the De Leon conference room in the St. Augustine Center for a presentation about pre-colonial African culture by Dr. Lee Cassanelli of the University of Pennsylvania, on Tuesday, Feb. 21.

Cassanelli filled an hour with a quick overview of several pre-colonial cultures, from the ancient to the modern.

“The worst thing about European colonialism in Africa was that it was assumed there was no history to be lost by African cultures,” Cassanelli said. “The denigration of African history was due to the incorrect assumption of historians that the way they were was they way they had always been, rather than acknowledging that they actually had connections to, influences on and influences from the greater world around them.”

Of particular interest was the peculiar relationship between ancient Ethiopian culture and the biblical Queen of Sheba. Menelik, a former king of Ethiopia, is purported by ancient Ethiopian manuscripts to be the end result of the union of Solomon and Sheba in the Old Testament’s Book of Kings, according to Cassanelli’s presentation.

Additionally, the Church of St. Mary of Zion is claimed by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians to be the final resting place of the biblical Ark of the Covenant. As in biblical times, no one is permitted to actually see it, although facsimiles are paraded annually in the city of Axum in northern Ethiopia. Cassanelli offered several images of the disputed church’s exterior.

Such proudly-held ties to biblical history led followers of Ethiopian emperor Haille Selassie to found the religion of Rastafarianism, based on Ethiopia being the land promised to God’s people, in 1930.

Cassanelli also spoke of the western African kingdom of Mali, which included the noted city of Timbuktu.

“Mali, and its predecessor Ghana, were known as the land of gold,” Cassanelli said. “Salt mined at the edge of the massive Sahara desert was exchanged at places like Timbuktu for gold from areas south of the kingdom.”

“Gold drove the economy in Europe, and they had it in Timbulktu. Even maps were decorated with what might be called advertisements for Mali gold.”

Such riches were the focus of European culture on Africa, rather than the actual African cultures that had flourished previously.

“There were some European colonial powers that looted artifacts and brought them back into museums, thus preserving some of the culture, but now there is much struggle to return many of those artifacts,” Cassanelli said. Even today, there are still dangers of looting.

“There is even the sense that the publishing of new archaeological finds seems to attract the presence of looters to new sites,” he added.

Cassanelli is the former director of UPenn’s African studies program and now chairs the African studies executive committee. His lecture was the sixth in the anthropology series of eight lectures, co-sponsored by the Office of Mission Effectiveness with Villanova’s Africana studies program, headed by Dr. Crystal Lucky, in her first year as director.

“It’s been hectic, but it’s been rewarding,” Dr. Lucky said. “The best part has been meeting the students, going to Black Culture Society meetings and the first ever BCS Expo. Events have been well-attended and publicized, and we’ve got some great ideas for the years ahead for the program.”

Former Program Director Dr. Maghan Keita founded the Africana studies program in 1994 as an opportunity for a minor or concentration in the field. Keita left this year to become the new director of the Arab and Islamic Studies department.

Several students have participated in the program, and notable graduates include Professor Walter David Grayson, now teaching at Ursinus College, PA.