When searching for information on history, how should we interpret the information we find? For example, how can we tell if the icons we are presented with are truly icon worthy or just over idealized historical figures? Recently, for Women’s History Month, one of my friends posted something on Facebook about Queen Nzinga Mbande. It was interesting information presented in an attention grabbing way–a bit scandalous and a bit sensational, but certainly left me wanting learn more. As a female myself, I am always interested in learning more about strong female icons, especially the scandalous ones who accomplish the seemingly impossible, the ones like Queen Nzinga, who (if you believe the first account I read) single-handedly kept the Portuguese from enslaving her kingdom.
A quick Google search provided me with plenty of results. As I scrolled through the results, I opened and read all the pages that appeared to come from reputable sources. After the fourth or fifth version of Nzinga’s story that I read, I got frustrated. Each story was so different in details that it brought up more questions, than answers. I had to consider that I would likely never know who exactly Nzinga was, what she did, or what her motivations were for doing what she did.
I also had to consider that in reality, her story might not have been as inspirational as I perceived it. I wondered: was she really a faultless hero? Were authors projecting their own wishful thinking onto her story? Why was her story so different from page to page?
The Metropolitan Museum of Art published an article entitled, “Ana Nzinga: Queen of Ndongo,” by Alexander Ives Bortolot. The article provides a factual account of Nzinga’s life, with a few presumptions on her motivations. Bortolot paints Nzinga as a hero simply trying to protect her people from being enslaved by the Portuguese and/or killed by “neighboring African aggressors.” Bortolot also mentions Nzinga converted to Christianity, but there is no mention of her forcing her people to do the same (as other articles have claimed).
I also found a book written by Dirk C. Gibson and published by ABC-CLIO. ABC-CLIO’s asserts themselves as “the established leader in reference, contemporary thought, and professional development resources.” Gibson’s book even sites Bortolot’s article as one of its references, yet it is titled, “Legends, Monsters, or Serial Murderers?: The Real Story Behind an Ancient Crime,” describes Nzinga as a serial murderer. There is certainly no mention, or even the slightest implication, of Nzinga being a serial murderer in Bortolot’s piece. The question begs, which source, the Met’s article by Bortolot or ABC-CLIO’s publication by Gibson, should I believe?
Trying to figure out which source to hold in higher regard has been a recurring struggle in my life. Whenever I have asked this question of my trusted elders, I have been told that I should look at all the sources and realize that the truth lies somewhere in between them all. While likely true, and perhaps the best we can hope to do, this always feels like a complete cop-out. So on that note, on that completely unsatisfactory note, I leave you with the idea that maybe it is more important to ask the questions than to truly know the answers. Perhaps it is in the act of questioning that the answers are most relevant.
By Michele Louis