Who is Sunjata?
Sunjata, also known as Sundiata Keita, was the prince and founder of the Mali Empire. This empire reigned in west Africa as one of the largest empires in western Africa. This Empire reigned from 1230-1600.
This map shows the expansion of this empire.
He founded the empire circa 1235 and ruled until his death in circa 1255. He is known as one of the greatest African rulers in history. Sunjata was unique in the was he treated his people. He treated them all with respect and would visit with the lower classes and would have discussion and conversation with them. he built relationships with his people. So much that his people wrote stories and legends of him. the most famous of these was Sunjata. He is truly a king for all of his people.
Sunjata is what is known as an epic poem. An epic poem is, to put simply, an extremely long poem. This poem begins with Sunjata’s dad named Maghan Kon Fatta, who is the king of Mandinka, being told that he will have a son that rules a massive empire. The only catch was that he was going to marry an ugly woman. Though he was already married and already has a son named Dankaran, he met an ugly woman with a hunchback and married her because of the prophecy. This woman’s name was Sogolon. When his father died, his first son took the throne instead of Sunjata against his father’s request. Sunjata was born unable to walk but was able to after his father’s death. His brother exiled Sunjata and his mother from the kingdom. They end up seeking refuge in the Mema kingdom.
During his time there, Sunjata grows very strong and works his way all the way up to the heir to the throne. His mother wants Sunjata to go take his spot on the throne of Mandinka where his brother has left due to a tyrant named Soumaoro Kante who is king of Sosso. This king has captured 9 kingdoms. The people of Mandinka call for Sunjata so he fights off the king of Sosso and takes his place as the first king of the Mali empire. The people loved Sunjata which helped him to gain his power and for the government to form there. It also allowed his empire to reign for longer.
Sunjata was one of the most powerful and influential people in the world during his reign. To say he did not have an impact on the world would be absurd. Though he is not well known, many compare his impact and legacy for the west African empires to that of Alexander the Great. It is also widely speculated that there is a popular Disney movie whose story is a reflection of Sunjata and his story. This movie is the Disney classic called Lion King. It is widely known that the writers of this movie and Disney itself have said that this movie is based off of Hamlet, but when looking at comparing the story, setting, and the similarities in the impact Sunjata and Hamlet both had, it is easy to see why people would speculate. Sunjata is also said to have grown into the strength of a lion. He was also nicknamed “The Lion King of Mali.”
Why is Sunjata not More Well-known?
If Sunjata ruled such a massive and one of the longest lasting empires of all time, then it stands to question, why is he not more well-known? Could it have been because he was black? Because it was African? Let’s look at the time periods when his dynasty ruled and when his history may have been written. It would not be unheard of for him to be in direct opposition to the whiteness of our history. The United States of America is exceptionally lacking in history of cultures other than white culture. Growing up in the United States educational system, I know for a fact that we did not cover very much of any cultures in Africa nor Asia. The question is, is this due to racism? I cannot say for sure, but it is important especially in today’s world to cover the history of other peoples. This is especially so with major empires and people such as Sunjata and the Mali Empire.
But what about Disney? Why does Disney not claim the fact that their movie The Lion King, named the same as Sunjata’s nick name and based in Africa, not even based on him at all? Disney has a vast trail of racism scandals and themes in their work. These examples include Peter Pan with calls to Native American stereotypes and referring to them as redskins among other things, Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp representing anti-Asian stereotypes, a Siamese cat in Aristocats playing piano with chopsticks, a group of crows in dumbo with seemingly black voice actors with the lead crow being named Jim Crow (Jim Crow Laws), and much more. The founder of Disney, Walt Disney also had a running with racist allegations. Walt was known to take part in Nazi propaganda and attend Pro-Nazi Organizational meetings. It begs the question; did Disney leave this fact out due to its racist backbone? More recently, Disney has done a good job of fighting racism in its content but not when The Lion King was released. Whether it is due to racism or simply just a lack of education of certain part of the world, it is evident that the awareness of this great king and ruler and founder of the Mali dynasty should be more well known and celebrated like his comparative white counterpart, Alexander the Great.