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Learning Our History through Art

Written by Regina Herring

You can discover art in everyday life. Whether it’s painting/drawing, music, writing or cooking. Art is how you feel.

Recently, I came across an oil painting titled “Empress Califia of California” captured by artist Moises Suriel. It’s a portrait of a beautiful black woman nestled within a map of the state of California. Empress Califia’s jewelry is something you see in modern times.

The title first captured my attention because I never associated royalty with The United States of America. As I stood mesmerized by the deep warm yet simple colors, I wondered why California was chosen. I decided to put the internet to use to find out more about this beautiful black Queen. I like many other Black Americans do not know the history of Empress Califia.

As I surfed the internet, I discovered that Empress Califia ruled islands of women from California to Hawaii. Moorish islands ruled by a Black Amazon warrior queen. It sounded like a story from Wonder Woman. California was part of her land which is where the state got its’ name.

Spanish writer Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo brought Empress Califia to the forefront in 1500 by writing about her in his novel, Las sergas de Esplandián (The Adventures of Esplandián). Is this part of our history real or was our very first royal created by a writer?

As I continued researching (Google became my best friend), I learned Blacks had a presence in America before Christopher Columbus. In school, we were always taught Columbus discovered America. Apparently that’s not entirely true. Archaeologists have discovered skulls and skeletons they believed were of African descent. Professor Andrej Wiercinski of Warsaw University in 1974 showed proof that African skulls were located. The summer of the same year, archaeologists from The Smithsonian Institute discovered two African male skeletons in the US Virgin Islands. After further research it was determined one skeleton was pre-Columbus and the other was post Columbus. Dr. Ivan Van Sertima has spent many hours researching the presence of blacks before Columbus. You can find additional information including pictures in his book They Came Before Columbus.

Native Black Americans came to the islands in large black ships. Spears with metal gold tips were used by the Amazonian women on these islands; gold was one of the most desired metals of that time. For verification of the gold used, Columbus sent the tips to experts in Spain in order to prove the legitimacy. This proved how valuable gold was to Black and Native Americans.

Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo stated his account in the story of Empress Califia is fictional but there are clues that will lead you to the true identity of Califia. I would like to believe the story is true because there is a new piece of history little girls can admire.

You are probably thinking, “What does this have to do with art?” The portrait of Empress Califia depicted by Moises Suriel led me to research a piece of history not talked about in schools. How many others did the same? Black art shows our history. You may come across a piece that can lead you to discover more. I have always said black people are some of the most creative souls.

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