“Those who have no record of what their
forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes
from the teaching of biography and history.” - Carter
“A people without the knowledge of their
past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”
- Marcus Garvey
The need to once and for all embrace a reasonable
and comprehensive interpretation of African history that inspires
and uplifts Black people is evident when examining how Black
History Month is celebrated in US culture. Like most other historic
reflections, Black History Month is sanitized with stagnate
and idealistic interpretations, aimed at removing the vital
elements of historical struggle and revelation. Today it is
customary during the month of February for media to make superficial
sound bites about "African-American" pioneers in technology,
sports, scholarship and anti-slavery activism.
schools highlight leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet
Tubman, Fredrick Douglas and several others, rarely is the celebration
used to thoroughly reflect on the ethics, political vision,
and philosophical insights of these leaders. Rarely does the
celebration clarify the socio-political milieu in which they
struggled and glean relevant lessons from historical context.
Further, connections to Africa are generally severed at the
Middle Passage, instead of recognizing the subsequent interconnections
between the economic circumstances, cultural expressions, and
political movements of African people. This is expected since
it isn't difficult to see how knowledge of these connections
conflict with a corporate capitalist culture that has effectively
commercialized Black History Month as a means to advertise commodities.
Nationwide Insurance airs a touching radio commercial that doesn't
even offer history, but simply appeals to insure “personal
Black history” by buying life insurance.
However, a proper examination of Black History
Month must also take into account the laws of change and historical
development to which everything is subject. In 1926, Dr. Carter
Godwin Woodson, an African historian, writer, and educator,
established Negro History Week to honor the contributions of
African people in North America. For "historical clarity"
African is being used by this author to refer to all people
of African descent, whether they are born in North or South
America, the Caribbean, Europe or any other part of the world.
Born in 1875 to former slaves in New Canton, Virginia, the extent
and scope to which the Harvard educated Dr. Woodson identified
did not extend beyond North America. Woodson even chose the
month of February for the observance of Negro History Week because
the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and US President
Abraham Lincoln fall in this month. Regardless, Dr. Woodson
contributed profoundly to our understanding that a better knowledge
of history is critical for African people, at least in North
America, to achieve greater pride, self-determination and collective
progress. As go the laws of change, Negro History Week itself
transformed. About fifty years later, near the close of the
Black Power era (early 1970s), the celebration was renamed Black
History Week and even later expanded to Black History Month
in 1976. These changes reflected a progression in how African
people throughout the world had come to identify.
Dr. Woodson insisted that history was not the
mere gathering of facts or a chronology of events, but that
the object of historical study is to arrive at a reasonable
interpretation of the social conditions of the period being
studied. Applying this objective to the social conditions in
which Dr. Woodson lived reveals coexistence with the 1914 Garvey
movement in the formation of the Universal Negro Improvement
Association (UNIA) and the Black Star Line. The UNIA's movement,
led by the Honorable Marcus Garvey, broadened the ideological
scope for African people beyond the confines of birth-country
and into the extensions of the Diaspora.
Marcus Garvey offered a more inclusive philosophy
of how African people could identify, reflect and engage. Before
the UNIA, the Pan-African movement found an earlier expression
in 1900 at the first Pan-African Conference convened in London
by Sylvester Williams. Since that first conference there have
been seven subsequent Pan-African Congresses, the seventh taking
place in Uganda in 1994. Consistent with the teachings of Dr.
Woodson, the inspiration that comes from biography and history
must necessarily include the context that connects the "American
negro" to a broader African people scattered and struggling
in 135 countries worldwide.
Since the founding of Negro History Week, a host
of positive and negative personalities, events and historical
developments have transpired, affording African history instructive
and dynamic lessons for humanity. More has also been learned
about philosophies and methods of history. Nevertheless, the
most instructive lessons are largely neglected. Black History
Month must do more than emphasize the inspiring achievements
of great individuals. It must also help in refining a historical
philosophy and method of study that helps us understand the
prevailing conditions of our time. Historical study should explain
such phenomena as how young Africans from the Congo to Haiti,
from urban neighborhoods in the USA to other parts of the world
are armed and wreaking havoc on their own communities. It should
be able to explain how a people from a continent that has spawned
some of the greatest contributions to world civilization are,
today, persistently plagued by apathy, disease, poverty and
political disempowerment in communities around the world. Neglecting
the history that connects Black experiences and struggles beyond
the confines of a particular country renders Black History Month
deficient and leaves room for the notion of African inferiority.
context presupposes more than outstanding achievements and personalities
or else is it sterilized into something incapable of explaining
present global challenges and illuminating future direction.
For example, it is clearly significant that in March 1978, the
US National Security Council issued secret memorandum 46 in
response to directives from the president that "a comprehensive
review be made of current developments in Black Africa from
the point of view of their possible impacts on the black movement
in the United States". This memo demonstrates the attitude
and multiplicity of political and economic interests influencing
US policy toward Africa and African people:
"…. adverse to U.S. strategic interests,
the nationalist liberation movement in black Africa can act
as a catalyst with far reaching effects on the American black
community by stimulating its organizational consolidation
and by inducing radical actions."
Surely it is a positive thing for any African
community to achieve greater organizational consolidation and
radical change from adversity. Instead, the memo recommends:
1. Specific steps should be taken with the
help of appropriate government agencies to inhibit coordinated
activity of the Black Movement in the United States.
2. Special clandestine operations should be
launched by the CIA to generate mistrust and hostility in
American and world opinion against joint activity of the two
3. US embassies to Black African countries
specially interested in southern Africa must be highly circumspect
in view of the activity … opposing the objectives and
methods of U.S. policy toward South Africa…
4. The FBI should mount surveillance operations
against Black African representatives and collect sensitive
information on those…include facts on their links with
the leaders of the Black movement in the United States, thus
making possible at least partial neutralization of the adverse
effects of their activity.
This history demonstrates that African people
need to develop institutions for coordinating our political
activities internationally; to generate faith and unconditional
support for these activities; and to take control of information
about our history and current geo-political events.
It’s common knowledge that the continent
of Africa is the most naturally rich continent on earth. It
is also painfully clear that African people everywhere are among
the poorest and most oppressed. A proper reflection of Black
history can combat this by educating people about the forces
in conflict with African progress and providing lessons from
past successes and failures. To combat inferiority complexes,
African people need to know that profound forms of organized
resistance have been and are being waged against slavery, colonialism,
neo-colonialism and imperialism.
It is inspiring to know that the Civil Rights
and Black Power Movements in the US were taking place simultaneously
with similar struggles for independence and self-determination
in Africa and the Diaspora. Leaders like Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah,
Shirley Dubois, Sekou Ture and others were meeting with one
another, making plans and concretizing the Pan-African agenda.
Knowledge of such things has proven to resolve notions of inferiority
and to imbue African people with a greater sense of social obligation.
The social movements in African history intersect across geographical
boundaries and are energized by class struggle. The context
in which we consider ourselves must be commensurate with the
exigencies before us, which exist within an increasingly globalized
yet more polarized world. Just as Negro History Week has evolved
into Black or African-American History Month, to continue having
value, it must evolve into a Pan-African Historical Context.
Netfa Freeman is director of the Social
Action & Leadership School for Activists (SALSA),
a program of the Washington DC based Institute for Policy Studies
here to contact Mr. Freeman.