February has now passed. It was marked by celebrations across the country of Black History Month. These activities were designed to stimulate, educate, elucidate and in many ways pay tribute to our African ethnicity and to those individuals who have contributed to the furtherance of the race and to mankind in general.
Black History Month has it origins in the United States of America and was originally the brainchild of African-American historian and author Dr. Carter Woodson. It was previously observed as Negro History Week from 1926 before being expanded to a full month in 1976 by the late President Gerald Ford. February was chosen since it was the birth month of both President Abraham Lincoln and social reformer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
In many ways the month has been celebrated in the United States along the lines of African American history, rather than African history and this has been a subject of some debate mostly outside American shores. While celebrations in the United States have often focused on slavery, its abolition, the Civil Rights Movement and the stories and personalities associated with those periods, it should not be believed that black history is confined to slavery. Black history has been one that has involved the development of great kingdoms, conquests, inventions, discoveries and general achievements.
The month is celebrated in Barbados and several nations across the globe where blacks, unlike the United States of America, are not the minority but the majority ethnic race. The question has therefore been often asked: Why celebrate a Black History Month in predominantly black nations? Should the appreciation for one’s ethnic origins not be demonstrated every day of every week of every month? Should such appreciation and education not be instilled in our children from Kindergarten through primary and secondary school? Should African history not be an integral part of the educational system of a majority black country?
There are some who argue that annually we settle for the external depictions of our origins, such as dress and dance, without truly appreciating our Africanity. And how do we prove this? The clothes that we wear in February, the drums that we beat, the dances that we undertake, the exhibitions that we display, are promptly scrapped on March 1, and put aside in a closet until February 1 of the following year where we start the ritual all over again. Our Africanity is seasonal and that is lamentable.
Are there any lessons to be gleaned from the fact that predominantly black nations have adopted and adapted a celebration that originated in a country where those of African extraction are the minority? Is there a socio-psychological question to be pursued there?
It is interesting to note that Black History Month, or its predecessor, came into being in the United States 61 years after slavery officially ‘ended’ there. The observance started in the United Kingdom in 1987 and in Canada in 1995. It started in Barbados about two decades ago.
But for all the question marks that can be placed on its observance in countries such as Barbados, it must be argued that we are better off with it, than without it. It is better for there to be a focus on our Africanity during the month of February than there to be none at all. The celebration has served to pique the interest of our children and that is a welcome occurrence.
If the lessons of our past, the triumphs, the failures, the joys, the tears, the trials, the tribulations, the greatness, the heroes and heroines, are brought or reintroduced into our consciousness for the month of February, then Black History Month would have served a most useful purpose.
The seriousness with which we take our history is perhaps best demonstrated by the manner in which entities such as the Commission for Pan African Affairs has been treated for almost a decade. That once vibrant organization is but a shadow of what it once was, and what it had the potential to be.
It is therefore still heartwarming the interest shown in our heritage by thousands of Barbadians during the month of February – if only just for 28 days.