“Africa is a big country.”
-George W. Bush
The term, the idea of “Africa” creates more confusion than clarity. Africa is a continent, one that covers 11.73 million square miles. North America, by contrast—and this includes Greenland, Canada, the United States, and Latin America to the border between Panama and Colombia—covers 9.54 million square miles. In the present day, there are fifty-four sovereign nation-states and ten non-sovereign territories on the continent, and almost 2,000 languages and dialects that represent at least that many past cultures. Geographers divide Africa into eight major regions—Sahel, Sahara, Savannah, Swahili Coast, Ethiopian Highlands, Rain Forest, Great Lakes, and Southern Africa.
Generalizing about “Africa” now, then, is comparable to generalizing about all of Eurasia. Generalizing about Africa’s history is even more problematic. Because there was a sort of continuity of record-keeping in the Judeo-Christian West, not least because of conquests, we have more access to “Western” history than we so to “African” history, except beginning with the violent Mediterranean and Western colonization of large portions of Africa—which presents a whole new set of problems, those histories themselves written from the limited points of view of a few conquerors.
This set of problems impinges with special force on any speculation about the many different forms of organization of kinship, gender regimes, and political structures that preceded colonization. Speculations about how “African” customs were imported into and modified by the institution of commodified slavery in North and South America, then, are highly tentative. Patricia Hill Collins rightly generalizes about pre-colonial Africa engaging in widespread subsistence agriculture, a fairly safe conclusion for many peoples living throughout Africa, for the same reason that we can speculate beyond the various European “histories” of kings and generals, that tend to ignore the overwhelming majority of peoples (also with many subcultures, languages, and dialects) throughout Europe and West Asia as being subsistence economies, too. Subsistence was the only means of survival that was available to the majority. Even early proto-states and states were unable to administer most territories in any detail. And they exercised political authority in ways that were more or less compatible with the plethora of prevailing customs. So what Collins says also applies to most “Europeans” prior to nation-state formation, capitalist development, and its attendant industrialization/urbanization.
The history of “Africa’s” lack of “history” pivots on the trans-Atlantic slave trade inaugurated in the sixteenth century. Any study now of the importation and modification of “African” customs into slave populations has to pass through these catastrophes. And North American slavery differed in several key respects from slavery elsewhere. For example, by the time of manumission in the United States, no slaves had been born in Africa, and few if any knew their own genealogies. By contrast, when the Haitian Revolution began, in which former slaves successfully gained independence, around seventy percent of Haitians had been born in the African continent. During my own numerous travels to Haiti, it was no uncommon for a Haitian to know that he or she was, e.g., Kongo, Fulani, Yoruba, etc.
US slavery accounted for only around six percent of the total slaves born in the African continent, because after the trans-Atlantic importation of slaves was prohibited in 1804—a direct response to the Haitian Revolution that succeeded that year, provoking terror among US slave holders—US slave owners “bred” slaves. Over the next six decades of selling, re-selling, and general suppression, US slaves were effectively cut off from their own histories in any significant detail.
What we can know is that more than half of all US slaves’ ancestors originated in the Western continental area generally now known as Senegal, Cameroon, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Angola, Gabon, and Congo. The rest came variously from the zones that include modern Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, and Eastern Nigeria. These same areas, prior to the trans-Atlantic slave trade were kingdoms and empires including the Wolof (who were the first to cooperate with the Portuguese in the trans-Atlantic slave trade), Songhai, Ghana, Kangaba, Mali, Akan, Yoruba, Benin, Hausa, Kongo, Lundy, Musumba, Fulani, Nri/Igbo, and Luba. While there were, just as in Medieval and pre-Medieval Europe, many conquests and cultural interchanges that defy clear lines of demarcation between many of these earlier social entities, there were also distinct, and now largely unknowable, distinctions between them with regard to kinship, gender regimes, and political structures.
The first thing in history that gave any coherence to the notion of “Africans” was the diaspora created by colonization and slavery, which began to homogenize slaves through the horrific experiences of that practice and institution, a homogenization that corresponded, in the United States after its independence, to the systematic erasure of the cultures and histories of the enslaved.
There were certainly matrilineal (not matriarchal) groups, as Collins also notes, and there are many East and Central African cultures that are matrilineal to this day (our reason for making educated guesses about pre-“history”). The same kind of educated guess applies to marriage forms (in some areas) that include monogamy, polygamy, levirate/sororate, (rarely) polyandry, and even in a few instances woman-woman marriage.
I'm working on a book about gender relations and race, ergo this preoccupation with kinship and gender, that will concentrate first on Western social evolution of family, gender, and marriage in light of the public-private distinction, because the history of the Roman and post-Reformation churches is largely Western, and the hegemonic global Western-designed economy we have now grew directly out of Christendom.
As is evidenced by the contradictions between Black and White experience, even those who were not of “the West” (white capitalist Atlantic state patriarchies) have been pulled into the orbit of the West by conquest, military and economic. On the other hand, we cannot incorporate the invention of race and Black experiences without incorporating speculations about this general pre-“history” of people’s who were swept up in the slave trade. The invention of Whiteness as normative is, in too many ways—note the example of Haiti, absolutely dependent on the corresponding invention of Blackness as definitive of what White (or in liberal evasions, normative) is not. And while we can but speculate based on what evidence there is about the unrecorded past, we have ample evidence from historical records with regard to the actual adaptations and accommodations that have been made, with regard to family, gender, marriage, and law, by African Americans during and after slavery, up to the present conjuncture.
The purpose of this particular constellation of subjects in the book draft, from an interdisciplinary standpoint, is twofold: to begin unpacking the public-private dichotomy with attention to how the idea has differed in our racialized society, and to denaturalize the subjects of family, gender, marriage, and even law as seen through the public-private lens(es?). Gender, as custom and structure dividing power, remains the core issue for the book, and it cannot be separated out from kinship, marriage, law, and, in the case of the capitalist metropoles, especially the United States, race.
 With the spread of neoliberalism through globalization, what was once Western ideas and culture are growing in influence around the world, especially through consumerism. Urban Chinese, for example, are experiencing an explosion of childhood obesity and diabetes rates with the increasing popularity of McDonalds and other junk-food outlets. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5129322/
 All pasts are selectively recorded, at any rate.