Black History Month is over and perhaps this is an appropriate time to take a moment to reflect. This year we have attended a number of celebrations, found out about some “Black firsts” or in some cases “Black lasts”. Now that it is all said and done, the only remaining question is: what is Black History Month supposed to be about?
When I was a teenager in 450’s otd (1970s), I attended Black History Month events. I will not call them celebrations because they were not. They were educational events organized especially for the young people. It was at one of those events that I first heard the name Marcus Garvey and Walter Rodney. I recalled an extended discussion about Walter Rodney’s book. No, not: How Europe Underdeveloped Africa but the other one, "Groundings with My Brothers”. There was an underlying theme to those events in the 450s otd. There was a sense that they were preparing the next generation of Garveys and Rodneys. Those types of Black History events gave us the opportunity to ground with each other and to gain the confidence that comes with knowing who we are. Those events were preparing us to assert our humanity like Walter Rodney asked us to do, especially since we lived in a white supremacy colony. People at those events would boldly proclaimed what Rodney had said: “so long as there are people who deny our humanity as Blacks then for so long must we proclaim and assert our humanity as Blacks”. I have to admit that those were heady times. Every head at those events sported an afro. Those events were not about Black first. We were not celebrating because someone did something in the other man’s world for the first time, while at the same time signally the death of that same thing in our world. Black firsts are not birthing ceremonies; they are often funeral announcements. That is not what these events were about. They were about who we were, who we are and who we can be. They were about education. The kind of education Carter G. Woodson referred to as “an effort to make us think and do for ourselves”.
Those events were not just folks quoting Garvey, even though, it was Garvey who gave us the anthem of the 450s (1970s): “Black is Beautiful”. The events included presentations about the UNIA. The questions and debates were about why it failed. Did we underestimate the enemies? What were Garvey’s shortcomings that led to the failure of the Black Cross or the Black Star Liner? Could those be re-built? Could the challenges be overcome? The conversation was meaningful to everyone in the room. It was about us. It was about the courage and confidence of the ancestors and how to build on it. It was about finding the strength to stand with them on our foundation. There were no spectators in the room. There was no one there to enjoy the Black History Month “celebration”. As a teenager, I would leave these events knowing that if we did that, I can do this or as Molefi Asante might put it because they were, I am. There was a sense back then that we were almost there. Garvey will rise again, and we would put our lives back on its foundation.
In the 460 otd (1980s), I worked in a public library. I worked there for seven years. In those years, there was never a February when Black History Month was “celebrated”. Today, you would be hard press to find a public library anywhere in North America which would let February go by without having some kind of display for “Black History Month”. Before you start celebrating, that is not an indication of progress; it may, in fact, be a confirmation of our continued oppression. It’s an indication that we are not in control. We are not in control of shaping the world in our image. The popularization of Black History month did not occur because we asserted our humanity. We were not in control of where it went, who defined it and what meaning was attached to it. The popularization of Black History allowed our enemies to minimize us, categorized us and box us in. If you take my experience as a gauge it would say that up until the 470 otd (1990s) our enemies, our oppressors did not know that we had something going on. They did not know that we were educating ourselves so we can do what Boukman, Yanga, Toussaint, Turner or Garvey had done. They did not we were educating our children so they could have the confidence that come from knowing that they are connected to the names Kush and Meroe. That a book titled “Egypt the Light of the World” is about them and their heritage. What went wrong? How did our enemies co-opted Black History Month and once again win the peace?
As we have learnt from uprisings or rebellions, there are always traitors among us. People whose mental culture make them think that doing for ourselves is wrong. We don’t know who the traitor was who invited an enemy to a Black History Month event. There must have been a “non-black first” and unlike the “Black first” where there are no “Black seconds” or “Black thirds” to follow. This “non-black first” not only showed up with seconds and thirds, but he eventually turned it from an education for our people to a celebration for his people. Celebrating instead of educating is how our enemies get us to focus on them and this has led to another “Black first”. Our children do not know who they are; they do not know that their lives matter. We are the first generation to let the children grow up not knowing that without them there is no future. We have put them in a situation where they are wondering because they do not know if their lives matter? It is not too late; we can still take control, but to do that Black History Month and the whole approach to our troubles need a new narrative. Is it time for us to have a real conversation?