Black History Month: A Missed Opportunity To Celebrate Africa’s Achievement

The commemoration should not just be an integral part of US history, but must embrace Africa too

Black History Month: A Missed Opportunity To Celebrate Africa’s Achievement
The civil rights leader Malcolm X talks to Nigerians in Harlem, New York, on the day Nigeria declared indepencence on Oct. 1, 1960. (Lloyd Yearwood/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Every year, the United States, Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom and a handful of other countries celebrate Black History Month with a variety of colorful events, ranging from film screenings and poetry readings to lectures at universities and special television programs. This year, the theme is Black Resistance, meant to capture the ongoing need for Black communities to resist oppression, subjugation, second-class citizenship and racial violence.

The origins of Black History Month can be traced back to 1926, when the U.S. historian Carter Godwin Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) dedicated the second week of February to “Negro History Week,” as it was then called, to promote the introduction of Black history into the educational curricula at various academic institutions throughout the country.

Even though other public schools — particularly in the South — attempted to repress “Negro History Week” over the decades, it steadily gained popularity in the 1970s, when Black students and lecturers at Kent State University proposed that the entire month of February be devoted to Black history. During the U.S. bicentennial, President Gerald Ford officially recognized the occasion, praising it as an opportunity for Americans to honor the too-often neglected “accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

On the African continent, however, it is a different story. Only a handful of events are held in commemoration of Black History Month, mainly at U.S. Embassies or study centers at higher learning institutions in countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya, all of which are predominantly English-speaking.

“I’ve found that most people are not aware of it,” says Ọbádélé Bakari Kambon, an associate professor and research coordinator in the Language, Literature and Drama Section at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, who initiated a Black History Month Film Festival in conjunction with the African World Documentary Film Festival in 2015, in an effort to raise awareness around the significance of Black History Month in Ghana.

“We have held this event at the University of Ghana and now at the National Film and Television Institute,” Kambon told New Lines, explaining that, in previous years, most events carried themes, such as “African People Solving African Problems,” examples of which included the Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai planting trees to campaign for women’s rights and the environment, and the Burkinabe farmer Yacouba Sawadogo reviving native methods to restore soils damaged by droughts and devastation. “Because many are unaware of Black History Month, it is not something that has government support in terms of programming.”

Kambon observes that his students know a lot of non-Black history but very little Black history. “They can tell you about Albert Einstein, but not Imhotep [who was worshiped as a god],” he explained. “They can tell you about Napoleon [Bonaparte], but not Jean Jacques Dessalines.” Few would know that, in 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. visited Ghana to celebrate the newly-formed country’s independence from colonial rule, or that, between 1959 and 1964, Malcom X made several trips to Nigeria, Sudan, Egypt and Ghana, where he spoke to students in Accra. In 1961, after falling out with the U.S. government over civil rights and Africa’s freedom, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was even invited by the Ghanaian nationalist leader, Kwame Nkrumah, to stay in Accra, where he died the same year, aged 95.

Others argue that Black history in the U.S. is more connected to Africa than many on the continent are led to believe. “The Black History Month is relevant to Africa for various interconnected reasons,” said Bob Wekesa, Deputy Director of the African Centre for the Study of the United States at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“First, the initiators of the ‘movement’ were descendants of enslaved Africans ripped from the continent during the devastating slave trade era,” said Wekesa. “Secondly, the progenitors of Black History Month sought to advance their identity as Africans by remembering their cultural heritage,” he added, explaining that the past and current conditions of Africans and African Americans are similar, even though the contexts and circumstances may differ. “This, in essence, meant trying to piece together aspects of their African heritage and history. This link to colonial and pre-colonial Africa is beneficial to Africans who are equally desirous of reconnecting with their past.” For him, celebrating Black History Month is a celebration of “Blackness,” globally — and continental Africans should be at the forefront.

As one of the few people leading Black History Month celebrations in Ghana, Kambon has come up with a platform where Black people come together to share information including, but not limited to, Black history, Black health, Black economics and various aspects of life that he sees as necessary for the pursuit of Black power. “For me, it is not enough to simply have information, that information should have a behavioral correlation,” he said, explaining that he sees logical beginnings as teaching Asante Twi, Yorùbá, Wolof and Kiswahili, as a means for Black people to educate and be educated in all areas of human activity. Teaching in local languages is key to African freedom, finding local names for scientific words and controlling their conceptualization of the world around them.

It is also a way to correct the imbalances brought on by centuries of systemic racism. “A political and economic system sustained and continues to sustain the dehumanization of Blacks in order to normalize and naturalize white racist dominance,” Nhamo Anthony Mhiripiri, deputy dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the Midlands State University in central Zimbabwe told New Lines, adding that Black History Month is crucial to unthinking and rethinking the entire history of humankind and repositioning Black people as real contributors to general human development in areas as diverse as language and culture, politics and economics, physics and mathematics, medicine, pharmacy, agriculture and mining.

“Historical trends and processes such as slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism have been used in producing harmful ideas and attitudes that view Black people’s contributions as inferior,” he continued, adding that spreading Black knowledge and celebrating Black history are important for cultivating a sense of dignity and pride in people who have suffered various forms of dehumanization, including genocide and the butchering of languages and cultures.

“This makes it necessary to unthink and rethink the condition of human beings across the ages and right into our present state of existence,” he said, pointing out that supremacist narratives precipitate exploitation, oppression and repression of Black people around the world. In the U.S., racial inequalities and systematic brutality against Black people are rampant, with one of the most notable recent examples being the 2020 killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who was arrested on suspicion of using a counterfeit bill, and died after a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck while he was handcuffed and lying with his face down in a convenience store in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A teenager caught the entire incident on video, as Floyd was heard telling the officers, “I can’t breathe.” It ignited protests across the U.S. and around the world, calling out not only police brutality but also the system of white supremacy that enables it.

Even though Chauvin was eventually convicted of unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in April 2021, and was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison, these murders haven’t stopped. In January, another African American, 29-year-old Tyre Nichols, died three days after he was beaten by five Memphis Police Department officers in Tennessee, after he had been stopped during a traffic patrol. Even though four of the officers who beat Nichols were Black, the attack still shows how much white supremacist, anti-Black culture is embedded within U.S. police departments, where young Black men, in particular, are automatically objects of suspicion.

Meanwhile, there are parallels in South Africa, where the African National Congress has failed to stamp out racial injustice. The “Rainbow Nation” dreamed of by the late Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu is yet to be realized and Blacks are still segregated from whites in the country, where the legacy of white racism can be seen in racialized poverty and inequality even decades after independence.

This came to a head in December 2022, when a video of a white man denying two Black teenagers access to a resort swimming pool by violently attacking them went viral, leading many to believe the swimming pool was a white-only pool where Blacks were not allowed. The man has since been arrested and charged with attempted murder, but the incident is a striking reminder that, even though apartheid is over, there are still parts of Cape Town and Johannesburg that are de facto whites-only, “no-go” areas for Blacks.

“In South Africa, the political system is inclusive and non-racist but there are sections of South African society who are deeply racist, not only in subtle practice but in explicit practice,” said Gideon Chitanga, a Wits University Research Associate in Johannesburg. For Chitanga, these racial inequalities show that radical white supremacists and right-wing extremists are yet to come to terms with the fact that all human beings are born equal. “Black people should, however, never give up fighting for their rights,” he continued. “In any case, Blacks have no choice.”

For Mhiripiri, recognizing Black history should not be confined to just a month of activities, but a movement against inequality and all forms of injustice.

“Content in school curricula, church sermons, the mass media and public exhibitions must be closely analyzed, and the alarm raised when harmful material is publicly disseminated,” he said, adding that education is the best place to start correcting the toxicity that informed the violence of the past, as well as the present. “Alternative systems of knowledge production are important for fighting back [against] racism in its different forms as it manifests in both private and public spaces.”

U.S. President Joe Biden has made strides to appoint Black Americans to several prominent positions in both government and public institutions. They include Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; Dana Banks, special assistant to the president and National Security Council Senior Director for Africa; Akunna Cook, deputy assistant secretary for African Affairs; Travis Adkins, president and CEO of the U.S. African Development Foundation and Cynthia Griffin as minister counselor for U.S. commercial affairs in sub-Saharan Africa.

Experts like Wekesa believe if these prominent Black Americans were more connected to Africa, the African continent would rank higher on the U.S. agenda. Likewise, if Black History Month were taken seriously on the continent, it would be a good platform for promoting Pan-Africanism.

“One of the reasons why Black History Month is not celebrated much in Africa is that its roots are in the African American communities of the early 1920s, when the continent was cut off from the rest of the world during the colonial era,” Wekesa explained. “Increasingly, conscientious Africans have begun to realize the importance of a global movement to address the conditions under which Africans live, everywhere. Thus, progressively, Black History Months are coming into vogue on the continent.”

There is now a sizable population of Africans who migrated to the U.S. in the 20th and 21st centuries, many of whom now identify as Black Americans themselves. “This is the reason why Black History Month is not as distant to continental Africans as it may seem,” Wekesa continued, noting that many of the Africans who forged the Pan-African movement had strong connections with figures in the U.S., such as Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr.

Kambon believes that Black History Month could be an opportunity to revive Pan-Africanism, which he says has been hijacked by “continentalists,” meaning those who push for Pan-Africanism only for Africans living on the continent, regardless of whether they identify as Black, rather than extending it to Blacks around the world. In his words, the “continentalists … are against ‘Blackness’ as a concept and would rather lump the Indigenous Black people with our past, current and future colonizers like the Arabs, who have invaded North Africa, and the Dutch Boers, who have invaded South Afrika.” In his view, Pan-Africanism should be a project for all Black people, regardless of their location.

“It is not enough to celebrate Black History Month while forgetting to act in the interest of our Black present and future,” he continued. “Black people must work to … bring [their] thoughts into alignment with our actions when it comes to working to build Black Power in the pursuit of complete and total Black liberation from [the] white or Eurasian world.”

Chitanga says governments and civil society across Africa should be proactive in celebrating Black History Month. “During the liberation struggle, there was a strong ideological thread that brought together African nationalist leaders and leaders from the diaspora,” he explained. “The ideological ferment really extensively fuelled the common national ‘nationhood’ of Africa wherever they were in uniting and cooperating for independence, politically and economically.”

If Africans embrace Black History Month, they can use it as a platform to celebrate the continent’s most outstanding leaders who paved the way for the emancipation of Blacks from white supremacy. The month-long events can help raise consciousness around the way that white supremacy manifests in racial and economic inequality, and motivate Black solidarity around the world.

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