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Black History and us

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I have always been ambivalent about Black History Month. First, we have merely followed the US and Canada in opting to dedicate a month to the history of black people. It simplifies our history and makes it a sort of hotchpotch affair, where we pull out things which we consider significant, but do so without providing a context. In such a case, we get information about a particular issue or subject, but with little to which to connect it.{{more}} If, for whatever reason, we feel that we have to dedicate a month to celebrate Black History, why February! I am not aware that it has any significance for us. Perhaps August would have been a more appropriate month, a month when our chains were being removed and a different kind of struggle began to emerge, one in which we fought to be our own masters.

One understands why it was necessary to do this in the US, for black people had been virtually relegated to footnotes in American history, even when one looks for instance at the American Civil War. To many, that war was couched as a struggle between Union and Confederacy, with only passing mention of the real basis of that struggle. We see this even recently when calls were made to remove the Confederate flag from public areas, where it continued to be prominently displayed. Those who fought to retain it argued that it had nothing to do with Black people or with slavery. For them it was simply a case of Southern Confederate states fighting for their independence, without examining the underlying causes.

In our case, even though our people were portrayed as objects rather than subjects of their history, it was not possible to write the country’s history without giving prominence to black people who built the country and constituted the majority of the population. One of the arguments advanced for our acceptance of a month dedicated to the history of our people is that there is very little of our history that is taught and known, so the singling out of a special month was better than nothing at all. My response is that our history is the history of black people and their relationships and interaction with the Caribs/Kalinago people who were here before us and the Indians who came at the same time that some ‘liberated’ Africans arrived. The Europeans are an important part of that story, since our story cannot be told without reference to them. But this will not be complete without examining from where we came and correcting a lot of the distortions and myths that were engrained not only in school, but at the cinemas, where people of my generation found glory in the exploits of Tarzan, a single white European who was dubbed King of the African Jungle.

So, we really don’t need a special month. Our history should be all year. It should be an essential part of our living, not confined to a month when we have a big hullabaloo and make great noises and then for the rest of the year forget that we have a history and a proud one indeed. But the argument goes beyond this. We treat history as though it is a pastime, something not essential to who we are. We can talk a lot and focus as much attention as we care to on strategies for the development of the country, but will get nowhere until we bring the people into the equation. It is our people who will eventually have to get things working, but we are rudderless, as we lack an understanding of who we are. We are a people with little knowledge of the country from which we were stolen and had been subjected to a period of slavery and colonization that shaped us into different beings not sure about ourselves and dependent on others for our very living.

The Church and the education system did a hatchet job on us, by serving as instruments of colonization. Marley’s call for emancipation from mental slavery is, of course, still relevant today. We cannot develop until we understand ourselves, have confidence in our abilities and are proud of whom we are. Even with matters about ourselves, we more readily accept what the foreigner says than what comes from our own people. The period of the sixties and seventies was a period when we were very positive about ourselves and were searching for a new way, informed by our realities. Something happened that still needs careful analysis, that has turned us into mendicants. It was that pride in ourselves and our abilities that gave rise to our celebrated West Indian cricket team that stormed and conquered the cricketing world. So, today, when we are trying to understand what is happening to our cricketers, we have neglected to look at the environment that nursed them. We are really lost. Caribbean societies are becoming deformed and there are problems everywhere. We see the problems as arising from outside forces and have accepted that we will continue to be victims unless those external players allow crumbs to fall our way.

I argue that history plays a role in our understanding of who we are. Despite the odds that confronted our fore parents, they fought and left us a legacy of struggle that we neglect at our own peril. We have to try to understand what made our Kalinago and Garifuna brethren, with their inferior weaponry, able to stand up to the might of Europe. It must have been something within themselves as a people that allowed them to survive and for a long time prevent the conquest of their beloved homeland.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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