In this paper I argue that the creation of Black History Month was a response to the racialised approach to history in the US and the rest of the western world, particularly since the 17th Century. That narrative insisted that Africans had no history worth writing about. Black History Month and other Black-led initiatives sought to reclaim and restore that supposedly non-existent history that had been denied and distorted, the victim of the idea of ‘race’ in the west. I further argue that Black people need now to take responsibility for the future of Black History, ensuring propagation of African people’s past. In the end, the question is less about the future of ‘Black History Month’ and more about the future and destiny ‘Black History’ itself.
The idea of Black History Month
According to Professor Daryl Michael Scott, of Howard University, Black History Month which began in the US February 1976 was preceded by the formation, by Dr Carter G Woodson and others, of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) in 1915 in Chicago, followed in 1916 by the publication of the Journal of Negro History. It is significant that around the same time Marcus Garvey started the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914, and launched the weekly Negro World Newspaper in 1918 in New York City (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negro_World).Negro). In 1924 Woodson’s intellectual friends launched Negro History and Literature Week, soon renaming it Negro Achievement Week, and in February 1926 Negro History Week was launched. Woodson then established the Negro History Bulletin in 1937. From the 1940s until the mid-to the late 1960s, celebrations began to be month-long, and it officially became Black History Month in 1976, with US presidential endorsements.
What though inspired what Professor Scott calls, a ‘Negro History Movement’? In the words of Dr Woodson, ‘We are going back to that beautiful history and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements.’ Somehow, in the US and other western countries, including those countries that had been colonised by the west, the history of Black people had fallen victim to falsehoods and ignorance. As Afua Hirsh argues, such has been the intellectual brainwashing perpetrated upon and about Africans that the belief was that they were a people who had no history, had achieved nothing, and contributed nothing to humanity. Such falsehoods about a people needed to be contended with not only in the US but everywhere, and it should come as no surprise that the Black History Movement found its way to the UK.
Black History Month in the UK was first celebrated in London in October 1987. Three people are most linked with its origination in Britain: Ansell Wong, former head of the Greater London Council’s (GLC) Ethnic Minority Unit; Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, former GLC Special Projects coordinator, and Linda Bellos, former Leader of Lambeth Council. The purpose of Black History Month in Britain was stated as, ‘to celebrate the contributions that black people made in the United Kingdom’. BHM in Britain has gained in popularity since its inception, but has also attracted controversy concerning its existence, aims, extent, and who should lead and fund it. In some areas, local councils have sought to rebrand BHM as a multi-ethnic and multicultural event. To be true to its DNA, BHM in Britain and elsewhere may need to be a feature within a wider Black History Movement.
Why is Black History missing or distorted?
Historian John Henrik Clarke says, African people have been programmed out of respectable history, deliberately since the 19th Century. Two apposite questions are why and how?
First, the ‘why
Three factors may explain why Black History ended in the place it has; an Arab invasion, the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and the need to justify chattel slavery. Africa has historically been a diverse, dynamic and prosperous continent with its share of cycles of invasion, civil wars, famine, disease, exploitation, subjugation and destabilisation, according to Bishop Doye Agama. And John Henric Clarke says a key destabilising factor that contributed to a deterioration in Africa’s fortunes, was the Arab invasion circa 647-709AD, and like all invaders the Arabs have done Africa little to no good. In general, invasions bring about a weakening of culture, government, religion, philosophy and identity, and this invasion of Africa left it weakened as a result.
Another key moment in Africa’s weakening, was the onset of what became the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Europeans did not invent slavery, it was a major institution of antiquity, and there cannot have been a country in the world where forms of servitude was unknown. However, from the mid-fifteenth century the capture and enslavement of Africans by Europeans became a catalyst for treating the black person as inherently inferior, in fact as chattel. The Portuguese began what has been called ‘forced importation’ of humans as cargo, through raids, kidnapping, bribes and gun fire they. Other Europeans soon followed and together found ways to undermine and conquer their African victims. Historian Hugh Thomas says the first serious commercial venture to West Africa was by the Portuguese in 1444 when 235 Africans were captured, stolen and shipped to Portugal. Conservative estimates say 10-12 million Africans became victims of this pernicious trade in humans.
Then as African bodies were put to work in cane and cotton fields to satisfy the demands of European tastes and economic ambitions, in an inhumane production line, the need arose to justify treating fellow humans as though they were beasts of burden. Ivan Hannaford, calling the ideology of race ‘an idea in the west’, describes how as the slave trade progressed the practice found an ally in philosophical, theological and scientific developments in Europe that sought to justify the right of the ‘enlightened’ European to conquer and rule over the undeveloped and inferior ‘other’, including Jews, Moors and Negroes.
The work and words of European thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Emmanuel Kant, David Hume, President Abraham Lincoln and many others became the raw material from which a racist ideology was built insisting that a Negro is not a human. Historian Peter Fryer describes how these pseudo-scientific theories were linked to the African’s dark skin, muscular body, prominent upper jaw, swelling lips, flat nose, very black curly hair, and other features. It was said that slavery was justified on economic (sugar/cotton), moral (pity) and natural (Negro inferiority) grounds, and it was hard to be believed that God, who is a wise being, should place a soul, especially a good soul, in such a black ugly body. Hannaford argues that it was the discipline of anthropology that during the 18th and 19th centuries entrenched this inferiorization of the Negro in the European psyche by locating Africans at the bottom of a human hierarchy, of which the Caucasian was at the top.
How has Black History ended up in the place it has?
History, it has been said, is written by the victors; and an African proverb says, until the story of the hunt is told by the lion (or until the lion writes) the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. David Olusoga, says British history has been whitewashed, with black people’s history expunged from the mainstream narrative, leaving us with a distorted and diminished vision of our national past. This was accomplished in various ways. For example by making ‘Black’ synonymous with what is degrading and low and sinister, and making ‘White’ synonymous with what is pure, high and clean, according to Dr Martin Luther King. Prior to the Reformation and the European Enlightenment, Ivan Hannaford argues that human division was more about the civic and the barbarian, families, clans, and tribes; not about a hierarchy of biologically superior and inferior human categories. He points out that even the concept of the ‘Caucasian’ emerged in the eighteenth century; as the west successfully and by slight of hand whitewashed history and demonised the black person.
A Black African Past
Although the west has successfully distorted, suppressed and denied Black History, there is much to read and to write about. Agama says originally Africa referred to a people not a place. The Afri people were a group indigenous across the north coast of the continent, related to the Berbers who still live there today. Over time, ‘Afri’ morphed into ‘African’ as people and ‘Africa’ as place. From this cradle of civilisation Africans taking advantage of lower sea levels and crossings moved in and out of Africa populating many parts of the world including Europe, China, and the Americas. DNA findings in 2005 showed that a common ancestry of 65 branches of the Chinese people emerged from East Africa; and the BBC’s The Incredible human journey documentary series shows that the earliest European settlers were not white Caucasians but dark skinned Africans. Remember Cheddar Man and the recent scientific report that the earliest Britons had dark to black skin?
The great Cheikh Anta Diop, the Senegalese Physicist and Egyptologist’s book ‘The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality (1974) makes the case that both mankind and civilization started with black people, and that Ancient Egypt was largely Black African in race and culture during the first 2,000 years of its human existence.
In ‘Nile Valley Contribution to Civilisation’ Browder, presents a story of African civilisations fed by the 4,000-mile River Nile, the development of Kemet or Egypt, and the people and kingdoms of Nubia dating from 3800 BCE till 652 ACE, the ancient kingdom of Kush (Sudan), and the Merotic civilisation of the people of Meroe (200 BCE – 300 ACE). Archaeologists and researchers have uncovered hieroglyphics, pyramid tombs, temples and more that show complex overlapping of succeeding cultures, people, kingdoms and dynasties that date back millennia.
For Anthony Browder, much of modern life have their roots in Africa whether art, science, architecture, medicine, religion especially monotheism, mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy. However, according to Browder, Western civilisation beginning with the Greeks have systematically over time stolen and plagiarised the very soul from Africa and inserted themselves as the patent holders of the expertise originating in Africa, and have dehumanised Africa to legitimise their theft; what Browder: ‘The stolen legacy’. Browder charges western historians with ‘vagrancy’.
Another excellent book on black history is Robin Walker’s When we ruled – the ancient and mediaeval history of Black civilisations, published in 2006. Walker informs us of a 195,000 years existence based on palaeontologists’ discoveries of human skeletons. Of African fishing expeditions 90,000 years ago, of mining 43,000 years ago, basic arithmetic 25,000 years ago, animal husbandry 15,000 years ago, crop cultivation 12,000 years ago, mummifying the dead 9,000 years ago, of colossal sculpturing 7,000 years ago. He tells us that the lands of the pharaohs of Sudan and Egypt were the oldest states on earth. That African kings and queens ruled from 5,900 BC to 350AD. That as late as 670 BCE one of the pharaohs justifiably described himself as ‘Emperor of the World’. Indeed, Walker’s is a tour de force of the history of Africa and shows beyond reasonable doubt that for a very long time Africa ruled itself and much else, and that things weren’t always the way we see them today. To understand the history of Africa, or black history, we need to start before the theft of the Greeks, before the conquer of the Arabs, before the enslavement and colonialization by Europeans, indeed before the black man who invented the traffic lights, to a time when we ruled.
In both old and new testaments African is replete in the bible as Cush, Ethiopia, and Egypt for example. We read of the Nubian/Cushite King Taharqa (Tirhakah) (11 Kings 19, Isaiah 37) who reign from 690 BC to 664 BC, Moses’ Cushite wife that aroused the bitter jealousy of his sister Miriam. The queen of Sheba who enchanted Solomon. Queen Candace’s Ethiopian treasurer who took the Gospel to Ethiopia that was imparted to him by Phillip. As the excellent African Heritage Bible says, the sweet little Jesus boy of the negro spirituals was in fact quite black.
In the Early Church north Africa was prominent in such persons as Clement of Alexandria, Origen the director of a catechetical school at age 18. Tertullian, a pagan lawyer who converted to Christianity, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria and a major theologian; and a writer to whom opponents referred as the ‘black dwarf’ Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, and many more. According to John Henric Clarke, The three major western religions, Hebrewism, Christianity, and Islam were extracted from the spirituality created by the priests and wise men in the Nile Valley and invites us to recognise that the pyramids, the Sphinx and the great temples of Egypt were built with skill and exactness by Africans.
No amount of theft, suppression, and denial of Black history can destroy that heritage, but in view of the extensive sabotage of Black History especially since the 17th Century there needs to be an intentional programme that continues to research, publish and disseminate African history in all areas of life: science, architecture, art, religion, mathematics, cosmology, culture, politics, et al. As Marcus Garvey reminds us, ‘A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.’
Agenda for Black History Programme
What we learn from the pioneers of the Black History Programme that started in the US from the early 20th Century, is that Black people themselves can and must take responsibility to research, write and propagate Black History. Week-long followed by month-long celebrations was never the sum total of that programme but was surrounded by journals, books, committed individuals and groups. As the short bibliography that accompanies this talk shows, if Black History is missing it is only missing from those who are willingly ignorant, possibly blinded by racism, or those who don’t know where to look. As in the word of Scripture ‘… if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them’ (11Cor 4.3,4).
Many sources of Black History, though as yet not an overarching programme, exist in Universities, Schools, Community Groups, churches, books (including the Bible), journals, films and documentaries. We need to seek out sources and do our own research and bring these to light in our homes, churches, community groups, universities, colleges, and schools. History can be brought to life in many ways such as storytelling, poetry, writing and publishing, music and singing, art, and myriad other ways. Let it never be said again ‘black people don’t have any history’. Black History Month is good as a focal point but the task of supporting Black History goes way beyond it.
As Archbishop Doye Agama says, until the true story of Africa is told, the history of the world is only half told. From antiquity, Africa has been the source of vast riches of science, culture, minerals, agriculture, religion and of course, her people have enhanced every civilisation of the world. In this short piece I have tried to illustrate the nature of the introduction of Black History Month, the reason Black History became hidden or distorted in the West, clarified that African peoples have a past that is well documented, and emphasised that to ensure the viability of Black History requires a Black History Programme in which we all participate. Even in the absence of an overarching programme, each of us can do our bit wherever we are. As Marcus Garvey reminded us, ‘a people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots’. To reiterate in the words of an old African proverb, ‘until the until the lion writes, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’
Agama, Doye T., 2016, Africa, Christianity and the Bible: Our Global Destiny, Fast Print Publishing
Aldred, Joe, 2005, Respect: Understanding British Caribbean Christianity, Epworth
Ashimolowo, Matthew, 2007, What is wrong with being Black: Celebrating our Heritage Confronting our Challenges, Destiny Image Publishers
Bourne, Stephen, 2014, Black Poppies: Britain’s Black Community and the Great War, The History Press
Browder, Anthony T., 1992, Nile Valley Contributions to Civilisation: Exploding the Myths, The Institute of Karmic Guidance Publishers
Bute, E L and Harmer, H J P., 1997, The Black Handbook: The People, History and Politics of Africa and the African Diaspora, Cassell
Dabydeen, David; Gilmore, John; Jones, Cecily, 2007, The Oxford Companion to Black British History, Oxford University Press
Fryer, Peter, 1984, Staying Power: The history of Black People in Britain, Pluto Press
Fryer, Peter, 1988, Black People in the British Empire: An Introduction, Pluto Press
Hannaford, Ivan, 1996, Race: The History of an Idea in the West, The Woodrow Wilson Centre Press
Hildebrandt, Jonathan, 1990 3rd edition, History of the Church in Africa, Africa Christian Press
Isichei, Elizabeth, 1995, A History of Christianity in Africa, William B Eerdmans
Jacques-Garvey, ed., Amy, 1977, Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, Atheneum
Lynch, Hollis R., 1967, Edward Wilmot Blyden: Pan-Negro Patriot 1832-1912, Oxford University Press
Mbiti, John S., 1990, African Religions and Philosophy, Heinemann
Olofinjana, Israel Oluwole, 2017, African Voices: Towards African British Theologies, Langham Global Library
Olusoga, David, 2016, Black and British: A Forgotten History, Macmillan
Rashidi, Runoko, 2011, Black Star: The African Presence in Early Europe, Books of Africa Ltd
Scobie, Edward, 1994, Global African presence, A&B Books
Spencer, Nick, Christianity Magazine
Thomas, Hugh, 1997, The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1410-1870, Simon and Shuster
Van Sertima, Ivan, 1986, African Presence in Early Europe, Transaction Books
Walker, Robin, 2006, When We Ruled, Every Generation Media
Walvin, James, 1992, Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery, Fontana Press
Williams, Michael and Amalemba, Manyonyi, 2015, Black Scientists & Inventors, BIS Publication