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Black history month

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I had in the past been a bit ambiguous about our celebration of Black History Month, arguing that as a country with a predominantly black and coloured population black history should not be relegated to one month per year but should be a part of our educational and social landscape. This however, is to be idealistic and has no relationship to the reality on the ground. It is along these lines better to focus on it for one month in a year rather than not at all. Caribbean history is the history of the peoples of the Caribbean and their relations and interrelations and about the different factors that have impacted on the evolution of our societies and peoples. With Black History the emphasis is on the word ‘Black’ that is on the African aspect of our past.{{more}}

The origin of Black History is associated with the American Dr. Carter Woodson, a gentleman who was the son of former slaves and who was only able to enrol in High School at the age of 20 but who went off to Harvard and earned a Ph.D. Black History Month came out of the earlier celebration of Black History Week and February, we are told, was chosen because of the birthdays of Frederick Douglas the Black Abolitionist and President Abraham Lincoln who issued the proclamation of emancipation. One of the realities we face is that because we sit in what some call the American basin we are for better or for worse under the influence of the tiger of the north. America has been an influence in the region since the end of the 19th century and in our particular area of the woods since the 2nd World War. The American influences have followed in just about every area of life. The Civil Rights movement in the United States of America impacted strongly on the Caribbean and led to the growth of black consciousness. Even without the powerful tentacles of our northern neighbour the migration of our people there and the growth of the diaspora would have made all of this inevitable.

Until recently Black History or even African American history was considered a marginal part of American history. We might remember the struggles in the 1960s and 1970s to establish Black Studies and African history programmes. In our part of the world despite the dominance of peoples of African descent our history for quite a long time was really about Europeans in the Caribbean. We were at one time considered property and at other times seen simply as objects of history not as subjects. We were part of the colonial project and history like everything else was used to rationalise and justify our colonial status. People of African descent living in the Caribbean were regarded as having come from an area of darkness, barbaric and primitive. In that line of argument we were being told that slavery saved us from that fate by bringing us face to face with Christianity and civilisation. When they were forced to abolish the slave trade and to accept emancipation we were to be beholden to a group of humanitarians in England who moved by a humanitarian spirit decided to put an end to slavery.

A lot of this has changed, historians from the Caribbean, Africa and the Americas along with historians of European descent have challenged and largely overturned the traditional picture. Three historians from the Caribbean played outstanding roles in challenging what was an Eurocentric history and have revised and put people of Africa and African people in the Caribbean and America as subjects of their history. C.L.R James in the Black Jacobins has emphasized the role of slaves in the revolution in Haiti which profoundly influenced the situation in the English speaking Caribbean. The slaves were not mere objects. They acted to emancipate themselves. Eric Williams in his masterpiece Capitalism and Slavery showed that despite the fact that the humanitarians played a leading role in slave abolition and emancipation there were other factors, particularly economic, that influenced the direction they took. Coming out of this and developed by Richard Hart was the role of slaves in bringing about their own emancipation. In fact, Richard Hart in two volumes wrote about ‘Slaves Who Abolished Slavery’. Walter Rodney added to this revision and focused on Africa trying to put slavery and the slave trade in perspective. His ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ linked African and Imperial history with issues of underdevelopment today.

The history of any people cannot be seen in isolation, especially the history of African peoples in the Americas who were brought from Africa as slaves through the infamous Middle Passage. Caribbean people have played enormous roles in influencing developments of black people in Europe and in North America. C.L.R James worked along with some of the early pioneers of African independence. Stokley Carmaichael, Kwame Ture, was a major figure in the Civil Rights Movement. Sylvester Williams from Trinidad was behind the convening of the first pan-African Conference in 1900. But even before this one of our own people, a Vincentian, William Alexander Browne who is recognised as the father of Black Theatre wrote and produced ‘The Drama of King Shotaway’ in New York in 1823. Unfortunately the text of the play is not in existence. This is to be regretted because it is believed that Browne was a Black Carib who had fought in the 1795-1797 war and wrote about it in that production. It would have been truly remarkable to have had a side of the story as told by the Black Caribs and particularly, as it appears a participant in the war. The connections are wide. Hugh Mulzac from the Mulzac family of Union Island was the first person of African descent to have commanded an American Merchant Ship in America, the ship named ‘The Booker T. Washington’ after that outstanding African American who founded the Tuskegee Institute. Mulzac suffered discrimination, for a long time denied top positions even though he held diploma and masters papers. He also commanded one of the ships in Garvey’s Black Star Line. He was involved in the pan-African movement and sought political office but was black listed during the McCarthy era.

Black history will serve to link all of the parts of the triangular trade. We still have not come to grips with the African part of our history and by extension our blackness. There are still some residues that lie in us that relate to inferiority and our African past. Slavery has to a large extent been seen as primarily negative but there are a lot of positives that we need to uncover. As Caribbean people we had a late start in that our culture, a mix of African, indigenous and creole was stifled and submerged. Education came late. We have however been able to make an impact on the world. This region, a tiny part of the world, has produced three nobel laureates – Sir Arthur Lewis, Derrick Walcott and Sir Vida Naipaul Our cricketers once ruled the world, taking a colonial product and turning it into a liberating one. We now have the fastest man in the world. These are only some of the examples. Our children, born and living in the diaspora also need to make that link with the history of the Caribbean to better understand themselves and the context in which they find themselves.

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