As I noted in an earlier post, Africans often considered European explorers ugly, strange, or pitiable because of their white skin. But African attitudes about skin color were not simply black or white. Things were much more complicated than that, and still are.
Perceptions about skin color among Africans go back at least 2,500 years, when lighter-skinned Egyptians reviled darker-skinned Nubians as uncultured savages. Gradations of skin color became part of cultural and racial identity, and remain so. Northern Africans such as Arabs, Berbers, and Tuaregs often have dark skin but call themselves white to contrast themselves with southern Africans. They sometimes assume that their relative lightness makes them racially superior to black Africans, just as Europeans assumed that whiter meant better.
Northern Africans, past and present, also feel a sense of superiority because they are Muslims. Northern peoples became the first African converts to Islam as the religion swept across the region, but for centuries the regions below the Sahel remained unconverted. The Qur’an forbade the enslavement of Muslims, but the black Africans who lived to the south were pagans and hence legitimate targets of Muslim slave-raids. This relationship reinforced racial attitudes.
Yet some black Africans from the Sahel made their own racial distinctions and didn’t consider themselves truly black, and still don’t, perhaps a holdover from their longer tradition of Islam compared to tribes farther south. My guide in northern Nigeria, for instance, was a Fulani who remarked that the Kanuris of eastern Nigeria, in contrast to Fulanis and Hausas, were truly black. My other guide in Nigeria, also a Fulani, shaved this distinction even finer. Describing a subgroup of nomadic Fulanis called the Bororos (or Wodaabes) from Gambia and Senegal, he told me, as he rubbed his skin, “They’re really black. We are whiter.”
Yet in the 1820s explorer Dixon Denham noted that in Bornu, home of the Kanuris, the copper-colored Shuwa women were looked down upon as too white: “black, and black only,” wrote Denham, “being considered by them as desirable.” Such are the absurdities of cultural attitudes based on skin color.
One stark contemporary example of how African attitudes about race still operate is found in the Janjaweed, the murderous raiders in southern Sudan. They have black skin but are descended from Islamic Arab tribes, so their war cry as they attack black tribes (now Christian rather than pagan) is “Kill the slaves!” The Janjaweed’s tactics resemble those used by the Kanuris of Bornu during slave raids, and described by Barth —kill, rape, terrorize, and leave nothing behind for survivors except smoking rubble.