Black History Month is coming to a close this week, and it’s had me thinking about how African immigrants like me fit in to that history.
I asked a few of my East African friends who I thought would have a lot to say on the topic, and after a surprising amount of resistance to talk about it at all, I got an interesting response: Black History Month is about African Americans and is predominantly the history of slavery and the struggle to overcome it.
It didn’t strike me as terribly well thought-out response. But it captures the perspective of many black immigrants.
So is it true?
From an American perspective, it’s very difficult to talk about black history without thinking about slavery. It’s hard for East Africans to accept BHM as representative of their heritage because we just don’t feel much association with that legacy. Sure, there was slavery in Africa, but it wasn’t necessarily color-based — in older East African empires, many kings could have had darker skins than their slaves.
There is, of course, some connection between the civil rights movement in the U.S. and the struggle against colonialism. Coincidence or not, the Battle of Adwa, where Ethiopian forces defeated an Italian army with colonialist ambitions, happened in the Ethiopian month of February, in 1896. I’ve heard the Battle of Adwa mentioned in association with Black History Month, but not other similar victories against colonialism in Africa.
The indifference of black immigrants to BHM is related to the fact that it tends to ignore African history in favor of emphasis on African American history, especially in recent years. Black immigrants don’t see themselves represented in this history.
Here is what the historian and founder of BHM, Carter G. Woodson had to say the importance of history and race back in 1926:
“If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization.”
Temporal context notwithstanding, I read Mr. Woodson as saying a “race” needs a continuous record of history to be valued.
In the same manner, a question springs to mind: how would the black race have a continuously recorded history that is comparable to the history of Jewish people if the long African history is ignored?
Here is a quote about BHM attributed to Howard University professor, Daryl Michael Scott.
“When Carter G. Woodson established Negro History week in 1926, he
realized the importance of providing a theme to focus the attention of
the public. The intention has never been to dictate or limit the
exploration of the Black experience, but to bring to the public’s
attention important developments that merit emphasis.”
I would argue that bringing the public’s attention to “important developments” does indirectly dictate or put a limit by way of promoting certain developments but not others.
If you look at the list of past themes of Black History Month you will find the theme for 1933 was “Ethiopia Meets Error in Truth” and in 1935, “The Negro Achievements in Africa.”
Between 1960s and early 1970s, the name change to Black History Month (formerly Negro History Month) was completed as black students became more aware of the link between black history and Africa.
You’ll be hard pressed to find any such emphasis on Africa or African immigrants in more recent Black History Month themes.
Even the president took an exclusive version in his Presidential Proclamation of BHM this year (and last year’s was not much different). As he remarked the celebration of “giants of the civil rights movement” this year, he used the phrase “National African American History Month” instead of the more common Black History Month.
This is especially ironic considering that Obama is of very recently African descent — his own personal “black history” mostly took place in East Africa where his father was born and died, not in the United States.
It’s also ironic that, at a time of globalized connection where one expects to see more bridges between different black histories, they’re actually more obscured than ever.
In so far as we’ve accepted the pernicious bait that “blackness” or “whiteness” as essential characteristics of identity can stereotypically predict personality, ability and many aspects of otherwise diverse communities, it makes sense that Black History vis-à-vis “black identity” be as inclusive as possible to diffuse the singular narrative of “blackness.”
There is a lot of opportunity to learn and be inspired by the history of those people who happened to be blacks long before the “Black Race” was invented a few centuries ago.
In doing so, we could also avoid alienating generations of African Blacks who, like my friends, might otherwise come to think BHM “is all about slavery,” and perhaps give them the opportunity to embrace it, and thus be inspired by the rest of African American history as well.