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African Beginnings
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African Beginnings

by James Haskins, Floyd Cooper (Illustrator), Kathleen Benson

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When we think of the year 1492, we immediately think of Christopher Columbus setting sail to the New World, but most of us don't call to mind an African empire in which manuscripts and books were more prized than any other merchandise. And yet, the kingdom of Songhay was flourishing when Columbus set sail, one of the greatest in a succession of African empires dating


When we think of the year 1492, we immediately think of Christopher Columbus setting sail to the New World, but most of us don't call to mind an African empire in which manuscripts and books were more prized than any other merchandise. And yet, the kingdom of Songhay was flourishing when Columbus set sail, one of the greatest in a succession of African empires dating back to before Christ.

From the ancient kingdom of Kush, whose black pharaohs ruled Egypt for nearly a century, to the kingdom of Ghana, where between A.D. 450 and 1230 more gold was traded than anywhere else in the world, to the legendary fifteenth-century metropolis of Benin, where houses were made of red clay polished to such a high luster that it looked like marble, the African continent rang with a series of glorious civilizations that have had a lasting impact on the world's history, and on American culture.

Meticulously researched by both the authors and the artist, this fascinating introduction to Africa's ancient empires is illustrated with breathtaking paintings that evoke all the richness and wonder of the complex, dynamic history of Africa.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
9.28(w) x 10.96(h) x 0.11(d)
Age Range:
7 - 12 Years

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African Beginnings


One of the oldest and wealthiest of ancient African cultures was southern Egypt and northern Sudan. The Nubian culture, which began around 3800 B.C., had plentiful resources and used advanced farming methods. Nubia carried on a thriving business in gold (nub was the word for "gold" in Old Egyptian), ebony, cattle, ivory, ostrich plumes, and more.

Egypt was Nubia's major trading partner, in both materials and ideas. Many archeologists argue that the idea of divine kingship (the belief that a ruler is a god in human form) originated in Nubia, even before it appeared in Egypt around 3100 B.C. The Nubians created elaborate tombs with many chambers for their kings. These great mounds of gravel were filled with whatever the dead might need in the afterlife: incense burners, mirrors, inscribed plaques, and magical figurines to serve them.

African Beginnings. Copyright � by James Haskins. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

James Haskins is the author of more than a hundred books for both adults and children, including The Cotton Club, which inspired the motion picture of the same name, and The Story of Stevie Wonder, which won the Coretta Scott King Award. He was honored with the Washington Post/Children's Book Guild Award for his body of work, and his books Black Music in America, and The March on Washington both won the Carter G. Woodson Award. Mr. Haskins passed away in 2005.

In His Own Words...

"I was born in Dentopolis, Alabama and spent my childhood in a household with lots of children, a household where I felt a great need for privacy. One of the places I found privacy was in books. I could be anywhere at all, but if I was reading it book I was by in myself. Sometimes it was hard for me to get books. In the 1950s, when I was a child, the South was rigidly segregated. The Demopolis Public library was for whites; I black child could not go there. My mother arranged for a white friend to get books from the library for me. Many years later, I returned to Demopolis and gave some of the books I had written to the library I could never enter as a child. Some Years after that, I was invited to give an important speech it that same library.

"I attended high school in Boston, Massachuetts, and college in a variety of places, the first of which was Alabama State University in Montgomery. It Was the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began after a black woman named osa Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man. Inspired by her action and led by a young minister Martin Luther King, Jr., black people boycotted the buses for more than a year until the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional. I helped hand out leaflets urging black people to stay off the buses and Was expelled front the college for doing so. Georgetown University In Washington, D.C., then offered me a scholarship, and I enrolled there.

"After graduating from college, I moved to New York, where I sold newspaper advertising space and worked as a stock trader on Wall Street before I decided to become a teacher. I taught music and special education classes in Harlem; My first book, Diary Of a Schoolteacher, was a result of my experiences.

"It was the 1960s, and college and high school Students were demonstrating against the war in Vietnam and for the civil rights of black people. My students were aware of those events and wanted to know more about them. But there were no books written on their level. So I started writing books for young people about the various movements—antiwar, civil rights, black power. After that I began writing biographies of black people, because young people black and white—like to read about how successful people grew up and overcame the barriers of poverty and racial discrinination.

"Since the early 1970s, I have taught on the collage level, and I have continued to write books. I have published more than 125 on many subjects for children, young adults, and adults. In 1994, the Washington Post Children's Book Guild honored me for my body of work in nonfiction for children.

"I have learned a lot from writing books. I have also met many important people, including Mrs. Rosa Parks herself, because I helped her write her autobiographies for young adults, Rosa Park: My Story; and for children, I Am Rosa Parks. When I think about that, I am amazed that the woman who was so important to my experiences as a young college student—not to mention the whole civil rights movement—now my friend.

"Books were once—and still are—a way to find my own private world. But they have also introduced me to a world far larger than I would otherwise have experienced. I love books, and I feel very fortunate to have been able to share this love With so many People."

Floyd Cooper received a Coretta Scott King Award for his illustrations in The Blacker the Berry and a Coretta Scott King Honor for Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea and I Have Heard of a Land. Born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Mr. Cooper received a degree in fine arts from the University of Oklahoma and, after graduating, worked as an artist for a major greeting card company. In 1984, he came to New York City to pursue a career as an illustrator of books, and he now lives in Easton, Pennsylvania, with his wife and children.

In Her Own Words...

"I was born in New Hampshire and spent my first five years in the small town of Winchester. One of my earliest memories is of the two marble busts of great men (I don’t remember who they were) that graced the entryway of the town’s public library. I am told that I got my first library card when I was three, and that I insisted that I could write my own name on the card and did not want my mother to do it.

"My parents divorced when I was very young. When I was five, my mother remarried and we moved to Connecticut. The small house into which we moved had an unfinished upstairs, and my stepfather worked nights after work and weekends to create bedrooms for my stepbrother, who was two years older, and me. In my bedroom he built a knotty-pine shelf across the front of the room, and my mother made a pink fabric skirt for it. It was there that I nestled with a flashlight and read after I should have been in bed. I liked to read books in series—the Bobbsey twins books and a series about a little girl named Mayda come to mind. I also enjoyed biographies. I could not have been more than eight when I proudly announced to friends and relatives that I was reading thirty books a month.

"At the University of Connecticut, I became interested in history and enrolled in the first black history course taught at the school. While I was still in college, I worked two summers at the Museum of the City of New York, which is dedicated to the history of New York City. I then took a full-time job in the museum’s education department, and many years later I am still there. I started the New York City History Fair, which is part of the National History Day program, and I enjoy helping students do historical research and using what they have learned to create projects for the History Fair. To me, there is nothing more exciting (and sometimes frustrating) than the “detective work” one has to do to uncover the past through primary documents. I serve on various committees and panels of archivists and historians, whose aim is to bring history to life for young people. I also coordinate the museum’s exhibitions with outside community and cultural organizations whose work is making history now.

"I have written one work of fiction, published many years ago and long out of print. Joseph on the Subway Trains was about a little boy who got separated from his class while traveling on the subway to visit a museum. Even that book was based on an actual incident involving a class visiting the Museum of the City of New York (the little boy was eventually located at a faraway subway station). But I prefer to write nonfiction, because what actually happens to real people is more exciting to me than anything I can make up."

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