It should not escape notice that Barbadians have lately embraced an American celebration of the contributions of African and African-descended peoples with what is commonly referred to as Black History Month.
More cynical African-Americans have often remarked that tolerance by the majority culture of the contributions of black people to the American civilization has been so strained and begrudging that only the shortest month of the year would do for the observance.
Those contributions are as old as the white man’s to the founding of the American colonies, later the United States, ever since Africans first arrived at the English settlement of Point Comfort, in what became Virginia exactly 400 years ago. But they came to Jamestown, America, in chains.
In 1619, “20 and odd Negroes” arrived off the coast of Virginia, where they were “bought for victualle” (food) by weary English colonists, hungry for free labour.
From that fateful date, when America’s “original sin” was committed, African contributions have been significant not just in the sacrifice of body and soul for tilling, planting, harvesting and building, but also in the struggle for American Independence from the realm of King George III. It was a contribution writ in blood, with Crispus Attucks, a black Boston dock worker, becoming the first American killed in the American War of Revolution.
Through the next four centuries of endurance, survival, invention and innovation, the whip and the chain, the separation of families through sale of human beings as property, a founding document that declared them only three-fifths human, and unspeakable barbarity, could not limit black fashioning of the American experience.
The apogee of the election of a black man and his family to the leadership of the most powerful nation on Earth in 2008, is a mere coda to an extraordinary odyssey of struggle, suffering and ultimate triumph of a people who yearned to breathe free – as Americans.
That struggle has included institutionalized, codified and structural racism. At the heart of this was the deliberate ‘miseducation of the Negro’, as historian Carter G. Woodson described so painstakingly in the 1933 tome that bears the title of the injustice itself.
Woodson, whose efforts would lead to the creation of Black History Month, put in text a clarion call by such notable black figures as George Washington Carver, W.E.B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey and Ida B. Wells for a downtrodden people to rise from the crushing weight of national apartheid to accomplish what they will.
Woodson’s critique called for an education system that was neither inherently “black” or “white” but effective and meaningful for the oppressed. He considered the educational system as it had so far developed in both Europe and America “an antiquated process which does not hit the mark even in the case of the needs of the white man himself.
“If the white man wants to hold on to it, let him do so; but the Negro, so far as he is able, should develop and carry out a program of his own.”
This indictment of modern education brings a poignant message to this black nation in the 21st Century, which has by and large spared itself the inequities and pernicious assaults on the psyche of black people as has occurred further north. Barbadians, like other Caribbean people, have long received jolts of culture shock when they are forced to be considered as “The Other” on arrival in the US. Despite our own tortured racial past, black Barbadians do not, and should not think themselves as a minority clamouring for long-lost recognition.
It brings into sharp relief the knee-jerk adoption by a nation that is ruled by a majority population of African-descended people of an American minority contrivance that Black History Month.
In Barbados, every month is Black History Month.
Yet, the souls of black folk who landed at Jamestown, Barbados, a mere eight years after the first black Virginians, also came in chains. The descendants of white enslavers and indentured servants are now Barbadians, too. That was a magnanimous gift of freedom on November 30, 1966 in the Constitution of Barbados. We are not merely a majority black nation but a fully free one which this very month of February annually observes its founding in 1627.
Our history, like all histories, is complex. Witness, for example, Lord Nelson, who yet stands watch over a square dedicated to heroes. Exactly 200 years ago, the people of Barbados, free black and white alike, subscribed to the erection of a monument to their liberator of the Napoleonic Wars. The story isn’t quite black and white.
We propose that the month of February should not be a mere copycat of an American festival but a National Heritage Month – not just a Holetown Festival – where all Barbadians of all races embrace the moment of our creation. Even when the majority of the population were in chains until 1834, and lived in penury for another hundred years after that, the victory of right over might, of freedom over oppression, of the embrace and promotion of democratic ideals for all, is worth celebrating.
By all means, organize, intensify and systematize the teaching of African Civilization and Diaspora altogether in our nation’s schools – all year round, not for a token month. It is a proud history of a Mother Continent and its own ancients that has survived deliberate attempts at destruction.
But let’s also celebrated our goodly heritage, bought and paid for in blood, tears, toil and sweat by countless black bodies – a free nation where all people, no matter their origin or creed, live inspired, exulted, free