Friday, February 11, 2011

Does Black History Month Serve the Diaspora?

Historian Carter G. Woodson initiated Negro History Week in 1926 in order to integrate the history of African-Americans into American history as a whole. From the beginning, Woodson intended for this week to raise the status of the contributions made in the creation of America by the descendants of Africa and gain full acceptance as part of the fabric of history as taught to all students. Instead, it has become a specialized celebration of events in the history of the African Diaspora that remains outside the general history all students learn.

During what is now Black History Month, African American history is taught to students across the country in elementary, middle school and high school classes. College students can study about the African Diaspora in elective courses. But what do black and white students think about this history in other months? Do they take seriously the history of the descendants of Africa otherwise?

Critics of Black History Month point out that February is the shortest month of the year and that this month also is American Heart Month, International Boost Self-Esteem Month, International Embroidery Month, Library Lovers Month, National Cherry Month, National Children’s Dental Health Month, National Snack Food Month and even Return Shopping Carts to Supermarkets Month.

If you watch cable television, you already know that black American films (and sometimes African films) are segregated into this month. To be sure, some black films make it out of this celluloid ghetto, but your best chance of seeing films, documentaries and other programming featuring Diaspora people is during February. This is also the best time to find Diaspora products in places they don’t normally appear or where don’t appear with prominence or regularity.

I would submit to you that this specialized treatment sets aside the history of the African Diaspora as something apart from “real” history. If human beings originated in Africa, how can history be taught properly while ignoring this vital fact? Every so often, some scientist or researcher tries to show that human beings originated in parallel places, only to be subsequently refuted. Perhaps the reason it’s so hard for some people to accept the common African origin of mankind is that it still has not fully become part of everyone’s history curriculum.

I recall going to a forum at which scholar Mary Lefkowitz denied the Egyptian influence on the Greeks, even though the Greeks themselves acknowledged where they gained some of their learning. She said Cleopatra was not Egyptian, but what she failed to acknowledge was that the Cleopatra with whom are familiar, while part Greek indeed, was not completely so. Despite all the African features on statues of Pharaoh Akhenaton and even the Sphinx, many people still want to deny the African presence in Egypt. This seemed foolish to me standing in Giza looking at the pyramids built so long ago by Pharaoh Menes and other early Egyptian rulers, who were from the south of Egypt.

The great Carthaginian general Hannibal has been played by white men in the movies, so his African origin is often bypassed. So many other famous Africans from history are not well-known to be African, such as St. Augustine of Hippo in what is now Algeria. But what is truly sad is that the great African kings and queens of antiquity have faded into anonymity because they are only taught to those who look for them. They are a part of our common history. We know of the European explorers of Africa, but not so much of the rulers they encountered, such as Queen Nzinga of what is now Angola.

Closer to home, we have developed a celebrity orientation to black American history. We are so fixated on the most popular figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., that comedian Chris Rock once quipped that when asked for the name of an equally notable black woman, a child might likely suggest “Martina Luther King.”

As silly as that sounds, without a solid basis for understanding the roles played by Africa’s descendants throughout history, non-Diasporans will always be inclined to believe we have contributed little of value to the world. An ancient Roman reportedly once asked: “What good can come from Africa?” If you know little of African history such an opinion is to be expected.

So many of the inventors who are of the Diaspora are not identified as being black. Therefore, the mass of Diaspora contribution to science is not well known. Perhaps more Diaspora children would consider science as a career if they knew more about their ancestors’ role in the development of science throughout the ages.

Some progress has been made in developing curricula to teach Diaspora history, but so long as it is considered apart from “real” history, it will always be seen by some as a gimmick to enhance the self-esteem of black people and not knowledge that completes the picture of our common history. For this, we all suffer a deficiency in our education.


  1. In the UK, black history month is October.

    I find the whole idea a bit patronising - Much like patting a grieving person on the shoulder and asking him/her to 'cheer up'

    I believe that anything about black history should be embedded in existing sytems - school curriculum, TV programming etc

    As a mum of sons, I actively searched out literature about Black inventors - so my sons are aware that their dreams should not be limited to sports or entertainment only.

    Learning should begin from the home. If parents are ignorant about Black history, why should we expect Caucasian teachers - and a margely white media - to be responsible for enlightening our children about black history?

  2. P.S: Typing error:
    'margely' is supposed to be 'largely'
    My apologies

  3. I agree with Naijamum. I lived in Britain for sixteen years, during wich time I taught in three British schools. These were Aylestone High School in London, The John Loughborough School in London, and Halyard High School in Luton. During that period I witnessed the celebration of Black History Week and even participated in its celebration. However, I believe that Black culture should be permanently on the curriculum and not be introduced in touch and go fashion.

    Tikum Mbah Azonga
    Lecturer in Mass Communication and French
    The University of Buea
    Republic of Cameroon


  4. You don’t build a house by tearing down its foundation. Negro History Week is the foundation on which the demand for Black Studies in the university was made in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was obviously the foundation on which Negro History Week became Black History Month. And it was the foundation on which the demand for the inclusion of Afrikan and Afrikan American Studies in the secondary curricula was made. Indeed without Negro History Week, African American Studies would not be an elective in the high school curricula in several states across America. These courses are a survey of Black History from the Afrikan origin of civilization to the election of Barack Obama. In these schools Black History Month becomes a time for specialized focuses which accentuate the course of study. Based on what I’m reading here, people are not connecting the dots of this evolutionary process. We didn’t simply arrive at our awareness of Ancient KMT, Songhai, Elmina, La Amistad, Boukman Dutty in Haiti, Denmark Vesey and Gullah Jack Pritchard in Charleston, Black Seminoles, Martin R. Delany, Ida Wells-Barnett, Constance Baker-Motley, etc. without Negro History Week being first established.

  5. I agree with Makheru, except for the odd use of Ks instead of Cs.