Posted on

Does Black History Month have meaning for us?


In the recent past, a lot of attention was paid to Black History Month, with many secondary schools organizing activities to commemorate it. There appears to be little done these days and I am not sure why. I had always, however,had an ambivalence about that month. It was copied from the United States, where it is celebrated in February.  The idea of a month dedicated to Black History grew out of a Black History Week that originated in 1926, through the instrumentality of Dr Carter Woodson, the son of former slaves, who went to school only at age 20 and eventually received a PhD from Harvard. In the United States, they focus on the contributions made by outstanding African Americans. In fact, it is sometimes called African-American History Month. For us, Black History is about us, a majority black population and how we relate to the other groups that inhabit this space and make their contribution to this nation.

But that is one side of the story. People of African descent in all the Americas faced similar circumstances, although other factors intervened to influence their historical development and present circumstances. When the American colonies started their revolt against Britain, the Caribbean colonies faced the same set of circumstances. Slaves and free blacks were a minority in what later became the independent nation of the USA. In the Caribbean, especially the English colonies, a small white population was settled among and attempting to control a much larger African enslaved population. The Caribbean planters and elites needed then the protection of Britain, so any thought of independence could hardly be entertained.

Despite the significant contribution made by the African peoples to just about every aspect of American society, they remained for long a mere appendix of American history. Even African Americans, by and large, still do not appreciate that contribution. Like us, slavery and education fostered an inferiority complex, despite the efforts by many to fight against that and to assert their humanity. Black History’s focus is on overturning the biases and highlighting the efforts of those African people who had fought against slavery, for black and African liberation and against the prejudices in society.

Caribbean people have occupied front seats and we need to know about them and to celebrate them. One of the first names that comes to mind is Marcus Garvey, who led the largest black organization anywhere. But even before Garvey got his Universal Negro Improvement Association started, Trinidadian Henry Sylvester Williams was in the forefront of organizing the first Pan-African Conference in London in 1900. Another Trinidadian stood out. He was George Padmore, who became very much involved in Pan-Africanism and African Independence. Closely associated with him was another Trinidadian, CLR James, who gave Kwame Nkrumah an introductory letter to Padmore.  He became Nkrumah’s close friend and adviser and was very much involved in Nkrumah’s struggle for Ghanian independence. He joined Nkrumah in Ghana after its independence.

Like CLR James, Eric Williams and Walter Rodney challenged intellectually Eurocentric ideas about our history. Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery overturned traditional views about abolition and emancipation.  Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa in the same way drew a vigorous defence from Eurocentric and American scholars seeking to preserve views that had for long influenced the way we looked at Africa and underplayed the role Europe played in its underdevelopment. Then, of course, there were others involved in the Civil Rights Movement, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure) being foremost. Many outstanding Afro-Americans who made significant contributions in all aspects of American life trace their roots to the Caribbean and no doubt would have been influenced by that early Caribbean upbringing. Black History Month is in this way, very relevant to us.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.