Constructing Our History Consciously

Constructing Our History Consciously

Written By

Rahel Kassahun, Ph.D.

In the late eighteenth century, the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Fredrich Hegel (1770-1831) introduced the world to a new method of analyzing history, known as philosophic history. This method of inquiry into history emphasizes thoughts and ideas over events and actions.


In his classic book, The Philosophy of History, Hegel argues that world history is an account of the development of a fundamental Idea or “Spirit” in time as it struggles to achieve self-consciousness. Hegel explains the nature of Spirit by comparing it to its opposite, matter. While the essence of matter is gravity, that of Spirit is freedom. What is driving world history is the Spirit’s intention to come to self-awareness in the material realm; thus, the Spirit’s movement in time is motivated by self-determination, towards greater realization of its own nature, which is essentially freedom.

To make the journey towards the realization of freedom in the material world, Spirit embodies itself in people and nations. And for Hegel, the development of a people or nation is determined by the extent that they realize the essence of the Spirit within themselves.

If we examine a strand of U.S. history - African-American history - in light of Hegel’s framework, we see that the ascendancy of Barack Obama to the presidency is a natural outcome of hundreds of years of struggle for equality and liberation by Black Americans. This started with rituals of resistance during the slave era followed by various movements, including the civil rights and black liberation movements, led by brave individuals, some of whom paid the ultimate price for the cause. Drawing attention to the level of seriousness and dedication that the liberation process requires, Malcom X said, “If you're not ready to die for it, take the word ‘freedom’ out of your vocabulary.”

The Harriet Tubmans, Fredrick Douglasses, and Martin Luther Kings of Black America heeded the call of the Spirit and have led us to this point in U.S. and world history. The election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States reveals the evolution of this country from one that believed that Blacks were second class citizens who could not and should not have equal rights as white America, to a nation that enthusiastically elected a man of African descent to lead it out of one of the biggest crises that this country has ever faced. This is indeed a great moment in U.S. history - we are being witnesses to the unfoldment of America’s soul coming into its own, as its people recognize that there is something honorable and good in all of its citizens.

This transformation in U.S. history took place in less than one hundred years and is a testimony of what is possible when people want more for themselves and take actions believing that their individual efforts will make a difference. In Philosophy of History Hegel notes that the world's historical men such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte are among those who have greatly contributed to the development of the Spirit. Although they were not aware of it, their aims and goals were the will of the Spirit. These were practical and political men who were not conscious of the larger role they played. Nevertheless, Hegel argues, they were thoughtful and had insight into what needed to be done during their time and “…others follow these soul leaders for they feel the irresistible force of their Spirit coming out in the heroes.”

Some leaders such as Barack Obama have that irresistible force that Hegel speaks of, and are able to mobilize large numbers of people and resources around an idea whose time has come. Others work on a smaller scale, to nurture and care for their families, organize their neighbors to address pressing issues such as crime or lack of adequate social services, etc. Big or small, progress in human history becomes possible when individuals take certain actions motivated by their passions and needs.

Passion is an important ingredient in the making of history since it is the driving force of will and activity. In Hegel’s words, “nothing great has been accomplished in the world without passion.” Passion, coupled with reason - which is sensible and judicious - is the transformative power that we need to bring about change to live a more peaceful and prosperous life. In their articles titled, “What Barack Obama Means to Young Africans,” and “Change Africans Can Believe In,” Abdul Mohamed and John Mulaa, respectively, point out the significance of this moment in U.S. history to the youth of Africa. We have a role to play in ensuring that the energy that has been unleashed in the youth, and in each of us, continues to gain momentum and is also directed into positive action.

In the tradition of the intellectuals of his time, as well as their descendants, Hegel presents the West, and more specifically the Germanic world, as the embodiment of the universal, and dismisses the rest of the world in a way that has been harmful to our development. For Hegel, the Germanic tribes are the chosen people who have helped and promoted the development of the Spirit. Others make little or no contribution. His treatment of Africa is particularly dismissive; in his introductory chapter, he wrote, “At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it has no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit.”

Statements like this are likely to invoke some intense reactions from within us, but the important question for me is, what are we doing to embody and reveal more of the Spirit to which Hegel refers? If the quest to realize freedom is what drives human history, how are we participating in it?

Each one of us who is passionate about Africa has a unique contribution to make to the advancement of the continent. It is up to us to find out what that contribution is. Our African-American brothers and sisters have shown us the kind of progress that can be made when people take responsibility for their own advancement. Emphasizing the role of personal responsibility, Martin Luther King said, “No Lincolnian emancipation proclamation or Johnsonian civil rights bill can totally bring… freedom. The negro will only be free when he reaches down to the inner depths of his own being and signs with the pen and ink of assertive manhood his own emancipation proclamation.”

Emancipation from physical or mental bondage requires our willingness to engage in a struggle. Some choose to lead the struggle, others participate in it, while the rest opt to reap the benefits when progress is made. There is no free-riding on this journey called life, however. Sooner or later, each of us will have to do the work. May we all have the courage to participate in the making of our history, consciously.


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Ajayi Olutayo

Ajayi Olutayo

11. October, 2012 |

People like you are needed on this continent to take us to where we should be. Keep it up man!

Marcus Edibogi Akor

Marcus Edibogi Akor

11. October, 2012 |

Thanks for this powerful article. I am very glad I read it. Keep up your great work and remain Blessed Law!

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