Introducing black history to children can be tricky. The most common concern among parents is how to make black history palatable for children, especially small children. My advice is that you won’t have to make black history palatable if you start with the positive. After all, black people have existed since the beginning of time and have made numerous contributions to the history of this world. We do not want to reduce black history to slavery and marginalize the black experience.
I already discussed one way I introduced black history. You can read about it here. Today, however, I will talk about the second method I used to introduce my African American children to black history. That method was studying history through the lens of ancient African kingdoms. Yes! We started our history lessons in Africa and studied many African countries, cultures, and ancient civilizations by gathering around and reading beautiful picture books together. This particular method was how we started the discussion on Black people’s influence in world history.
Why study ancient African Kingdoms? I wanted my children to understand that their history did not start with colonization and slavery. I wanted them to know that black people were, and still are, intelligent and innovative people—people who governed sophisticated and successful kingdoms for centuries before those horrific events took place. I wanted them to know that they came from a bloodline of intellect, strength, and royalty.
In other words, I wanted to lay an accurate and positive foundation of black history before delving into the heavy stuff. I wanted my boys to look into the eyes of these ancient African rulers and see themselves as individuals capable of leading a nation. For I am well aware that as a man thinks, so he becomes.
With that said, I want to introduce three ancient African kingdoms to you today. These empires are great introductions to black history for children of all ages and races. They are very mysterious and not much is known about them, but that’s part of the allure. I will provide books and links where you can study these kingdoms more in-depth with your children. I must add that there are several ancient African kingdoms I did not mention here, but due to time constraints, I decided to list my favs.
1. The Mali Empire
The Mali Empire was a West African country from 1235-1645 where the Mandinka people resided. Wealthy rulers like Mansa Musa—the richest person to have ever lived, made this empire widely known throughout Europe and the Middle East. The Mali Empire’s most important industry was gold, and it was a prominent trading center for the gold industry. In fact, the empire had so much gold that it caused the market to crash for a period when Mansa Musa bought a ton of the precious metal to Cairo.
There are few written accounts detailing the greatness of the Mali Empire. Most written accounts that exist came from Arab scholars who traveled through the region. However, Mandinka locals were sure to preserve Mali history by passing down stories through oral histories, songs, and poems. The Mali Empire also left a piece of its history through architecture. Its most famous work of architecture is the Great Mosque of Djenné, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The mosque was rebuilt in 1907 and can still be visited in Djenné today.
Learn More about the Mali Empire!
Sundiata: Lion King of Mali
If You Were Me and Lived in…the Ancient Mali Empire: An Introduction to Civilizations Throughout Time
Mansa Musa and the Empire of Mali
2. Ancient Nubia
Nubia was a northeastern African country that dates to around 6000 BC. Located on the coast of the Red Sea, a prominent trading port, Nubia became known for their trading. In 2300 BC, Nubia was first mentioned in Old Kingdom Egyptian accounts of trade missions. Egyptians imported gold, copper, ebony, incense, ivory, and exotic animals from tropical Africa through Nubia. This trading relationship with Egypt eventually increased Nubia’s wealth and stability.
Unfortunately, the Nubian culture faced many hardships and declined in power several times. These hardships forced the kingdom to break into three smaller kingdoms that flourished on their own. Such kingdoms were named after their capitals; Kerma, Napata (also called Kush), and Meroe, which all deserve a study of their own. Today, the region of Nubia is split between Egypt and Sudan.
Learn More about Ancient Nubia!
Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile
The Kingdoms of Kush and Aksum – Ancient History for Kids
Step Back in Time to Ancient Kush
3. The Land of Punt
The Land of Punt is a name for a geographic place mentioned in Ancient Egyptian records as “God’s Land.” Historical accounts of the kingdom date to around 2500 B.C. The land was known for producing and exporting gold, aromatic resins, blackwood, ebony, ivory, and wild animals. The land even produced and exported exotic animals like apes and leopards. Inhabitants of Punt formed three groups that wore different clothing and hairstyles. The people also held cattle and lived in houses on stilt.
The exact location of this kingdom is debatable, as it is not known where this territory was, exactly. Some scholars believe Punt was located to the southeast of Egypt, while others believe it is located in the Arabian Peninsula. It is also possible that the territory covered both the Horn of Africa and Southern Arabia.
Learn More the Land of Punt!
Ancient African Kingdoms: A Captivating Guide to Civilizations of Ancient Africa Such as the Land of Punt, Carthage, the Kingdom of Aksum, the Mali Empire, and the Kingdom of Kush
Description: w: Great Mosque of Djenné
Title: Great Mosque of Djenné 1
Credit: from  JCarriker (304322 bytes) (used with the permission of Andy Gilham of www.andygilham.com
Author: Andy Gilham
Usage Terms: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0
Attribution Required?: Yes
Description: Nubians in worship
Credit: Own work
Author: Nubian Muesum
Usage Terms: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0
License: CC BY-SA 4.0
Attribution Required?: Yes
Description: This is a fine relief of members of Hatshepsut’s trading expedition to the mysterious ‘Land of Punt’ from this pharaoh’s elegant mortuary temple at Deir El-Bahri. In this scene, Egyptian soldiers bear tree branches and axes.
Title: Relief of Hatshepsut’s expedition to the Land of Punt by Σταύρος
Usage Terms: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0
License: CC BY 2.0
Attribution Required?: Yes
Description: Sheet 6 out of 12. Detail showing Mansa Musa sitting on a throne and holding a gold coin
Title: Detail from the Catalan Atlas Sheet 6 showing Mansa Musa
Credit: This image comes from Gallica Digital Library and is available under the digital ID btv1b55002481n
Author: attributed to Abraham Cresques
Usage Terms: Public domain
License: Public domain
Attribution Required?: No