Thursday, May 29, 2008


Black History Month - lest we forget!

October 2007 marked the 20th anniversary of `Black History Month’ (BHM) in Britain since it was brought by the GLC from the US. It originated from The Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History in 1976, and the month-long celebration was an extension of `Negro History Week’, which was established in 1926 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, director of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Woodson selected the week in February that embraced the birthdays of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

In addition, BHM is also related to the 1966-inspired KWANZA or `the first fruit celebration’, created by founder and chairman of the Black Nationalist Organisation, Dr. Maulana Karenga. This festival was introduced to `distinguish the Afro-American from the African’. Black History Month observances in the UK have been welcomed by many, but the national debate is still limited to symbolic fringe discussions rather than annual debates on issues affecting Black communities. The initial purpose of this month was to support `manifestations of the monumental contributions of Africa and Africans to the economic and political life of London and Britain’.

As part of the African Jubilee Year in 1987, there were a series of conferences in London though local authorities outside London took some time to adopt the Declaration, which formally instituted the month of October as BHM in the UK. So could this month be commemorated in March for example, the time in which the first African country (Ghana) secured independence from Britain in 1957. Or July, since this was the period in which the abolition of slavery took place, July 1833. Although having it monthly may not strictly matter, the timing is important for British-based African and Caribbean peoples whose forbears were exploited by the events that triggered physical enslavement and indentureship, the latter of which is often forgotten, but which contributed to today’s (continued) `divide-and-rule’ ploy.

The recent observances to commemorate the legal termination of the horrendous Slave Trade are indeed a pause for reflection. On balance, public institutions and private companies that benefited from the trade, offered gestures of goodwill in terms of sponsoring various events and other token forms of appreciation. And whilst the Church made relevant soundings on the issue, one wonders whether the Bicentenary of the Abolition of Slavery meant much to many in the UK. In a Parliamentary statement, the British Government said:

"The Government regrets and strongly condemns the evils of the transatlantic slave trade, the 1807 Act marked an important point in this country’s development towards the nation it is today – a critical step in the modern world and into a new, and more just, moral universe. Its bicentenary offers a unique chance for people of Britain to reflect on the wider story of transatlantic slavery and its abolition, and on the roles of ordinary people and politicians, alongside other Britons, Africans and West Indians, in helping to bring an end to slavery.”

Its seems natural therefore, that as Black History Month continues to gain recognition and a momentum of its own, there is need to redefine this occasion in the context of modern civilisation. History should not only be a representation or reflection of the past, but also celebrating and honouring present and future humanity. And since history is traditionally described as a series of discourses of the past leading to the past, the point about redefinition is valid.

The redefinition is important also, from the point of view of the controversies that BHM has raised since its inception in the US. In February 2005 for instance, columnists in the Cincinnati Enquirer cast doubts on whether this annual celebration can help to `necessarily solve problems’ affecting Black people in general. Another observer made a rather telling point, `The Civil War was fought over states’ rights, not slavery,’ and that there are more Black men in prison than in college. Actor Morgan Freeman also remarked, “I’ve never been a big fan of Black History Month.”

It seems therefore, that there is an urgent need to redefine BHM in the context of past and present events and circumstances. The celebration of pioneers from Africa and the US should be complemented with stalwarts in the diaspora particularly those in the 20th century that gave impetus to the struggle for adult suffrage or voting rights and eventual independence. Few acknowledge that apart from his Pan-Africanist ideals, Marcus Garvey (Jamaica) also struggled for Black Economic Liberation. If allowed to flourish, the `Black Starline’ project would have united the African Continent and the Caribbean Region through a transhipment of goods, services and people. This vital enterprise of Garvey’s is yet to be analysed since there is greater emphasis on his Pan-Africanist ideology; that is, his belief in collectivist thought and action (or group power). Clearly, his economic radicalism was misunderstood by followers and detractors alike.

In addition, the writings of, and relentless campaigns by C L R James and George Padmore (both from Trinidad and Tobago), helped usher in Political Independence in the West African state of Ghana in the mid-1950s. Their contribution to eventual self-government in the Caribbean is also forgotten in Black History Month observances. Other stalwarts that bore the Pan-African stamp were trade unionists; Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow (Guyana), T. A. Marryshow and Uriah Butler (Grenada), George Weekes (Barbados) and Alexander Bustamante (Jamaica).

Later, described as `Founding Fathers’ of their respective nations, Dr. Eric Williams (Trinidad), Forbes Burnham (Guyana), Errol Barrow (Barbados), Eric Gairy (Grenada), Vere Bird Snr (Antigua and Barbuda) and others like them, pioneered political and economic reforms in an attempt to bring their respective territories and the Caribbean Region into respectable global-nation states. Yet there are other African and Caribbean `firsts’ for the Nobel Prize; namely, Nelson Mandela (for peace), Professor Sir Arthur Lewis (economics) and Derek Walcott (Literature) – both from St. Lucia.

Today there is an African renaissance with emerging democracies in parts of East Africa (Uganda and Tanzania) West Africa (Ghana and Nigeria) and South Africa (Botswana). These countries are among the leading `lamps’ of the `Motherland’s’ quest to achieve genuine economic freedom, political democracy and social unification. The election of Liberian (Africa’s first female) President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and the appointments of other females; Nigerian, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as Managing Director of the World Bank, as well as Tanzanian, Dr. Asha-Rose Migiro as Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, all represent unprecedented developments in the modern history of gender politics in Africa.

Whilst we continue to recognise the value of annual Black History Month observances, we must also reflect on those among us, who equally, are making a definitive contribution to the realisation of global political thought, economic freedom, enterprise, social development and cultural integration. Lest we (really) forget!

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