Civilization is a movement and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbour – Arnold Toynbee
Firstly I don’t agree with Black History Month. I think it is at best tokenistic and at worst just tends to alienate people, especially those who don’t consider themselves ‘black’ or care about history. Secondly for those who have issue with the concept of black history wait and read to the end. Walk with me while I share why I still think that black history matters and is important.
What is Black history?
Each year for at least one month the countries of North America (February) and England (October) celebrate black history month. For the many events I have been involved in there is usually a dominant theme of the transatlantic slave trade and civil rights activism in the US. I think this is in many ways because the movement was inherited from the US.
Now whilst I am honest enough to say I do feel uncomfortable with the term black history, I think it is a start. Substituting it with African History, or Afrikan History as some of my peers would like to do, will just muddy the water and not all blacks identify as African, but it many ways I am glad it makes people, including me and Morgan Freeman, uncomfortable.
Way before slavery those defined as black or with Negroid features helped to shape and influence history. Take the Olmecs. A Mesoamerican civilization who were very similar to the pyramid developing and celestial worshipping communities of Nubia and Lower Egypt. An advanced civilization who paved the way for subsequent Mayan and Mexica (wrongly called Aztec) civilizations and one of the first civilizations to develop writing and calendars. I never learned this in school.
In what is known as modern day Mali the city of Timbuktu is famous. Western vernacular has used the term as a metaphor for a distant unimportant place but in the 14th century it housed one of the world’s largest libraries before the celebrated printed press of Guttenburg of the 15th century. It was also a trading city and the home of the world’s richest man, Manusa Musa II. What you never heard of him?
The history of the UK and US has often white washed (yes I did that on purpose) the contributions from members of the African Diaspora. For example, take the end of slavery. The dominant memes focus on the activism of say Abraham Lincoln or abolitionists such as William Wilberforce. Missing from the main texts are the slave uprisings of Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner in the US. Toussaint L’Ouverture and Nanny of the Maroons in the Caribbean. Cape Colony and others across enslaved Africa. How many reading this honestly know about Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Elouadah Equiano as abolitionists? This is why films like Lincoln and Wilberforce will always leave a bitter taste in my mouth.
Then there is the science. The scientific inventions and breakthroughs of George Washington Carver, Garrett Morgan, Patricia Era Bath and innovators of the modern era such as Jean-Patrice Keka, William Kwamkwamba and Miriam Benjamin. If history as it stands is taught we would only think that Marie Curie, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison were the only icons to study.
Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it – George Santyana
The other day I was having a discussion on Twitter. A commentator responded to a tweet about civilizations suggesting that Egypt was built on the back of slaves. Although so much evidence exists out there that skilled workers, who often had their own burial grounds nearby, built the pyramids the predominant thinking about the Egyptian dynasty is shaped by this assumption. Without a doubt much of this has been shaped by Hollywood and in my personal thinking from the Bible. This link here clearly debunks this theory as does this link and this one. It got me thinking about how easy it is to distort history.
The film industry has been notorious in distorting history. From films like the Moses the Lawgiver to Braveheart to The Alamo there have been some serious distortions around history. As much as I like Saving Private Ryan any serious historian could detect the Americanisation of such a film that clearly missed out the dominant role of British troops in that event. As we are talking about black history I should note that there are many who have taken issue with the historical facts of Alex Haley’s Roots as well as whether the Egyptian dynasty were black Africans or not.
The filmed entertainment industry should not be the first place we should go to for history. If anything it should pique curiosity about what really happened and get people digging deeper into how history is shaped. Something some commentators are already stating about Lincoln. And it’s not just Hollywood. Just because Shakespeare believed Richard III murdered his nephews doesn’t mean we should not go discover for ourselves.
Why History is Important
We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice. ~Carter Woodson, 1926
Now back to those who complain that history should not be defined by race, I do agree. There is no black history or white history or brown history. It is all history. Unfortunately we live in a world where the contribution of diverse communities to world history has been suppressed by the dominants in power. In the case of the UK it will be shaped through a white middle class lens. Case in point, Michael Gove doesn’t get why so many people objected to having Mary Seacole removed from the curriculum.
It is also important to have balance in shaping the diverse histories too. We may debate that Martin Luther King was assassinated because he stood up for civil rights for black people, where it could also be debated that it was moreso for his outspokenness against the Vietnam War. Given that standpoint it is rather ironic that Obama and his use of drones and restrictions on civil liberties would chose to swear and oath on MLK’s Bible. Most people consider Rosa Parks to be this calm woman who would not give up her seat on the bus, but how many know that her political standing was closer to that of Malcolm X than Martin Luther King and she was part of the Black Power movement. It is important that such iconic contributions aren’t just reduced to sanitised tropes.
In post colonial Africa history does not always smile favourably on revolutionary thinkers like Kwame Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba. Not many Americans realise that Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist for his fight against apartheid long after he became leader. What about Thomas Sankara. Sankara was undoubtedly an authoritarian who supressed the middle class press and vestiges of French colonialism he was one of the strongest voices for women’s rights in Africa ever. Amongst other things he was the first African leader to give women places on a ruling Cabinet, roles in the military, equal rights in work and to ban female genital mutilation, polygamy and forced marriages. He resisted dependence on foreign aid, redistributed land from feudal landlords, increased wheat production, was the first leader to acknowledge the threat of HIV and Aids to the continent and promoted self sufficiency. No surprise he was assassinated and Burkina Faso is now dependent again on Western Aid. Is it any wonder why the same tropes about African poverty are rolled out when those in history who challenged it are vilified, justifiable in the case of Mugabe, or bumped off.
As I said before I find black history a rather ominous term. It lumps together so many different cultures and traditions across the sub Saharan diaspora. Yet at the same time it’s a start. Black history matters to me in that it’s an opportunity to see the contribution of my ancestors to the wider culture. Do I think it should be called black history? Not really, but if it is the easiest term to get the point across and open up the wider debate on inclusive history then let’s do this.
I love reading about history. It’s amazing. I love hearing Black history. White history. Brown history. Yellow history. I could care less if there was a history month for every single culture or colour (?) until there is a fair representation understanding of all cultures in a host country. It is by learning more about each other and where we come from that makes it so we become so much more understanding of each other.
Your thoughts are always welcome.
Courtesy of David McQueen at Tall. Black. One Sugar