So – it’s Black History Month. The designated 31 days where we all immerse ourselves in the joys, wonders, greatness, pains & lessons of the journey of people of Afrikan Heritage throughout the ages – or not!
While I do tend to fully engage in it, I must admit that the profile of Black History Month seems pretty low this year. The launch of Dalian Adofo’s Ancestral Voices book and Asheber & the Afrikan Revolution’s 9 Day musical marathon in west London serve as highlights of the experience so far.

A few local authorities seem to have caught up, and considering that all their events are in the later part of the month it would seem that they stumbled across the inevitable 10th month of the year. But it’s noted that if I wasn’t planning for the launch of my new Spoken Word Monthly – Rise of the Griots, I’d be rather less busy than usual.

What hasn’t subsided though, is the discourse and narrative around Black History Month, its purpose and its relevance. So, for my first ShakaRa Speaks On It for a lickle while, I figured I’d go in on my top 5 favourite Conceptions & Misconception of Black History Month:

ONE

Dr. Carter G. Woodson

Dr. Carter G. Woodson

Why did we allow “THEM” to give us a month to celebrate our history?
This is the most popular misconception, perpetuated simply because the true BHM origin story hasn’t been made into a film yet. As a reason for not engaging in BHM it is particularly weak because those who say it, often have no problem engaging in Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and any number of annual events given to us by “THEM”.

However, the truth is that no one – not even “THEM” – gave us anything. The name Dr. Carter G. Woodson is worthy of mention here – founder of ‘Negro History Week’ in 1926 (which became BHM in the 60’s). Only the second Afrikan-American to achieve a PHD from Harvard University, Woodson distilled his Education philosophy in his book “The Mis-Education of the Negro”, challenging the prestige that his experience provided him in the context of whether he was as a result, a productive Black Man. The following quote may explain his motivations for making history his profession:

“The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worthwhile depresses and crushes at the same time the spark within the Negro, making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other peoples. The Negro thus educated is a hopeless liability.” [1]

TWO

I don’t do Black History Month because Black History shouldn’t just be a month!

I agree with the basic sentiment of this statement, but I have never been able to get my head around how Black History Month ever stopped anyone from doing anything relating to Black History at any other point in the year. Aside from being illogical, I wouldn’t mind the statement, except for the fact that the frequency with which it is repeated, compared to the proliferation of all-year-round Black History events, institutions, courses, programs and products – it would seem that most of the people who say it aren’t really acting upon it.

However, we may take comfort in the fact that Woodson and others founded theAssociation for the Study of Negro Life and History – who published the magazine ‘Journal of Negro Life and History’, both all year round institutions that ran for over a decade before the Black History Month precursor was launched. Point being, even the founder of the thing didn’t limit Black History to a designated time period, so what makes you think it was designed to?

THREE

Black History Month is for ‘Caribbean’s’ who don’t know their History!

Admittedly less repeated nowadays than some years ago. However, it does provide the opportunity to point out that BHM in the UK was started by a man born and bred in Ghana. His name – Akyaaba Addai Sebo. A teacher and educator, Baba Sebo became concerned by the confession of Marcus, his 6-year-old student who wanted to be white:

“…. I was very familiar with black history month in America, and thought that something like that had to be done here in the UK, because if this was the fountainhead of colonialism, imperialism and racism, and despite all the institutions of higher learning and research and also the cluster of African embassies, you could still find a six-year-old boy being confused about his identity” [2]

So BHM came to the UK in 1987 as a part of Afrikan Jubilee Year, which was designed to commemorate the anniversary of historical events on both sides of the Atlantic, namely; The 125th Anniversary of Emancipation from Slavery in the Caribbean, the 100th Birthday of Marcus Mosiah Garvey and the 120th Anniversary of the Organisation of African Unity – pioneered Kwame Nkrumah & HIM Haile Selassie I to consolidate Afrikan power bases in the continent during the independence era.
Furthermore, as well as October coinciding with a number of ancient and contemporary harvest celebrations of various nations around the continent, Addai-Sebo explains:

“The African Jubilee Year Declaration is therefore a testament of London’s solidarity with Africa and the international struggles against apartheid.  By the designation of October as Black History Month it is our expectation that “Africa’s ideals”, shall forever be manifested in the upliftment of the African Personality in our schools, institutions of higher learning, communities, borough councils and especially in the hearts, minds and deeds of politicians.” [3]

Clearly, he wasn’t just concerned with Afrika’s history, but its present and future also.

FOUR

BHM focuses too much on Black Americans and not enough on Black History in the UK!

I have a lot of empathy with this one. There is much Black UK history that is woefully under-appreciated. The little known name Obi Egbuna (Godfather of Black Power in the UK) may be considered a casualty of this reality. Luckily, institutions like the Black Cultural Archives and the British Blacklist are making great strides towards solving that problem on different levels.

However, the truth is that Black History in Afrika and the Caribbean is also under appreciated. In my humble opinion, given the fact that we are still mostly 2nd & 3rd generations born in the UK, having a historical connection and understanding of ‘back home’ is extremely important. Not just in terms of ancient history either – the contemporary history is just as and in some ways even more important.
For example, during the Brexit frenzy of a few months ago, I was struck by the extent to which the arguments on both sides were based upon solving the problems and not repeating the mistakes of Mass European War II (World War II if ya nasty).

bca_black_history_2016

Even the immigration elements that relate to many our Grandparents are a direct result of this history. But as well as migrating to what they were taught was the ‘Mother Country’, many more were also engaged in a Liberation/Independence era. In that context, this month sees the anniversaries of the assassinations of two men; Maurice Bishop, Prime-Minster of Grenada (19th October 1983) and Thomas Sankara President of Burkina Fasso (15th October 1987) – Both of whom are considered by many to be the last hope of a generation of independence freedom fighters, totally free from the ‘corruption’ narrative that had largely engulfed Afrikan & Caribbean governments. They both achieved great things in relatively short spaces of times.

Now… despite the fact that these stalwarts lived well within most of our lifetimes, are their names sufficiently notable among Afri-Caribs in the UK? Furthermore – while Mass European War II still informs the politics and economics of Britain and Europe, to what extent are Afrikan-Caribbean politics informed by an independent perspective on this era.

FIVE

Why is it all we learn about it slavery?

chains_black_history_month_2016This one seems easily remedied by adding variety to what we choose to learn and teach. Like, for real – Who are we waiting on to solve this problem? That said, I do question the extent to which knowledge of slavery actually exists. A general appreciation for what the experience entailed might well be abundant. But from an actual historical point of view, I question whether a proper appreciation for slavery has been achieved, especially in terms of the many rebellions and uprisings that took place and the lasting economic impact of that period. When the general narrative around slavery still seems to revolve around ‘Afrikans selling ‘West Indians’ into slavery, it appears much work is left to be done.

So there’s my top five Conceptions and Misconceptions around Black History Month. I am sure you have your own and it’s important that we do. How a people respond and relate to the institutions that are supposed to represent them says a lot about the role that their Identity and Culture plays in the society in which they live. In illuminating the importance of history in this process, the great historian John Henrik Clarke says:

“History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day.  It is also a compass that people use to find themselves on the map of human geography.  History tells a people where they have been and what they have been, where they are and what they are.  Most important, history tells a people where they still must go, what they still must be.” [4]
References:

[1] Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933)
[2] Akyaaba Addai Sebo interview New African Magazine – http://everygeneration.co.uk/index.php/black-british-history/bhm-black-history-month/24-akyaaba-addai-sebo
[3] Akyaaba Addai-Sebo and Ansel Wong (1988) Our Story: A Handbook of African History and Contemporary IssuesLondon Strategic Policy Unit
[4] A Great & Mighty Walk (1996), Documentary, Film