Why my African friends don’t celebrate Black History Month

Black History Month events and curricula are mostly oriented toward iconic figures of the American Civil Rights Movement like Martin Luther King, Jr., rather than African history. (Photo by Yoichi R. Okamoto, White House Press Office)
Black History Month events and curricula are mostly oriented toward iconic figures of the American Civil Rights Movement like Martin Luther King, Jr., rather than African history. (Photo by Yoichi R. Okamoto, White House Press Office)

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.

An Ethiopian painting depicting the battle of Adwa, when an Ethiopian army repelled Italian colonialist ambitions. (From the Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute)
An Ethiopian painting depicting the battle of Adwa, when an Ethiopian army repelled Italian colonialist ambitions. (From the Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute)

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.

Ethiopian Emperor Halie Selassie was named Time's Man of the Year in 1936. Only one other African (Anwar Sadat) has been given the title since.
Ethiopian Emperor Halie Selassie was named Time’s Man of the Year in 1936. Only one other African (Anwar Sadat) has been given the title since.

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.

4 Comments

  1. So let me get this straight, the African Americans immersed in a majority white culture whom we need to influence positively for our self interest should concern it self with history that has little to do with our precarious situation here. Meanwhile Africans at home who run countries, are majority populations often times had a hand in African enslavement aren’t the ones who should be running with this universal African history?

  2. 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:

  3. So you asked a few of “your” East African friends who “you” thought would have a lot to say… oppressed minds do have a lot to say ignorantly.

    It is easy to understand why your East African friends do not so quickly embrace “Black” History for a number of reasons. One reason is they have been taught not to embrace the Africans stolen and brought to America as being connected to him or her.

    I find it an interesting notion to ask another to understand what we have gone through and to give commentary on something which they are alien to. Why not ask a German what they think of “Black” History for that matter?

    If we seek to understand the purpose and spirit of the invention of “Negro History”, “Black History” and “African American History”, we can appreciate the meaning of these phrases. These terms are meant to connect a people to the true richness that sits inside themselves and to connect them to a people in Africa, by starting with people in America who they could see, touch and relate to.

    Let us not be short-sighted as to the truth of the history of the African people forcibly brought from African to America and how they and their descendants are overcomers in spite of the odds of being destroyed completely. Here is a saying you can rehearse in your own ears: “We win and they who seek our demise lose.” “We win; they lose!” We win our voices back. They lose control of keeping us silent. We determine the narrative of our story and connect with all of it, the pleasant and the unpleasant. We do not ask another who does not understand our situation for their input or seek them to embrace our story or determine our worth. We know who we are and whose we are. Many of us are the direct descendants of Africans who were mistreated by wicked people. We do not deny it; we embrace it as a fact. The shame is not ours to bear. The shame belongs to the wicked ones to bear.
    In our struggle, we are discovering who we are and the glorious power within us.

    May we speak truth to those who know it and to those who don’t. Our “history” does not start with our situation in American but goes all the way back to the beginning of time. Does our history include others mistreating us? Yes, it does.
    However, our beginnings do not begin there. The facts of history – not “Black History” – tell us our enemies passed laws to keep us from reading and writing so they could keep us in darkness (ignorance). This allowed them to deceive us about what was true and what knowledge was false. They could and did claim our accomplishments as their own to our face and we would and did not know it.
    Now we know who are the liars and disgraced ones. When we read their bibles, we can see ourselves and the African people all in their pages. If you visit Egypt and the pyramids, you will see the words of “GOD”, (I add a riddle for you. “And Yahweh wrote on tables of stone that they may last forever.) The word hieroglyphics refers to the Egyptian writings but is a Greek word. “Hiero” means “holy” and “glyphics” means “writings” What were the Greeks speaking about the Egyptians written words? Moreover, what does it mean when Yahweh says “I call My son out of Egypt?” Yes, I know they had to add a NEW Covenant to include themselves in these “hieroglyphics” I meant “holy writings” rather than declare Yahweh will RENEW the Covenant that He declared lasts forever, but I digress.

    Negro History, Black History, African American History, History of the world? Hell, I know who I am. Do you know who you are and who your people are? If not, find yourself quickly and in a hurry!

    There is an African proverb that means you are important to me: “I see you and how are the children.”

    May you have light (knowledge) to propel you and others from darkness (ignorance) and then your true power will arise. Hotep!

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