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Africa and the observation of Black History Month

•Prof Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, Dr Wale Okediran comment

By Chris Onuoha

Black History Month or ‘Black Achievement Month’ is an annual event that started in America in 1929 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson. It is celebrated annually in the United States and their embassies across the globe including Canada in the month of February; United Kingdom and the Netherlands in October, and other parts of the world as a way of remembering prominent black people and events in the history of Africans in the diaspora.

Carter Woodson, born to slave parents in America was a Harvard history scholar. In the course of his studies at Harvard, he was disturbed at the discovery that history books largely ignored the black American population which, according to him, generally reflected the inferior social position they were assigned at the time. At the time of Negro History Week’s launch in the second week of February to coincide with Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas’ birthdays, Woodson contended that the teaching of black history was essential to ensuring the physical and intellectual survival of the race within broader society.

Although the celebration was met with enthusiasm and grew in popularity throughout the following decades, with endorsement as a holiday from President Gerald Rudolf Ford, the 38th US President during the celebration of the United States Bicentennial, it has attracted criticisms in some quarters querying the continued usefulness and fairness of a month dedicated to the history of one race when other races do not have such singular month anniversary. It was hence branded as pure racism.

Similarly, Morgan Freeman, an African American actor and actress Stacey Dash had criticized Black History Month, with Freeman saying, “I don’t want a Black history month. Black history is American history.” Freeman has argued that there was no White History Month, because white people did not want their history relegated to just one month. It’s pure racism.”

Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, former Dean, English Department, University of Lagos is of the opinion that such celebration is only observed by Americans as a holiday. She faulted the name ‘Black History’ saying it should have been African-American history celebration because the blacks in America wanted an identity. “In Nigeria, we have so many ways in which we celebrate similar events by way of African cultural festivals. We don’t call it black history celebration but African festivals. That can possibly represent the making of African history. If we call it black history, it limits its significance, judging from the fact that other races such as Asians, red Indians, etc., do not have such designated celebrations. There’s nothing wrong if a holiday would be declared continental-wise to have a proper African history day. We are Africans and we represent African race everywhere. Celebrating black history is somehow racist to me because in America, Afro-Americans want identity to hold on to.”

For Dr. Wale Okediran, “It was originally meant to be an Afro-American month of History celebration and that’s why it is not widely celebrated in Africa. It’s only the scholars of Afro-American literature that celebrate it here. It will not be a bad idea to have it widely celebrated here as a way of identifying with the spirit of the whole concept. Nigerian teachers of Afro-American literature alongside other members wish to start something like that here in the country to create awareness.”

Talking about the concept, it is also argued that removal of history as a subject  from Nigeria’s  school curriculum has affected knowledge of African history among the youths, while cultural values and appreciation of our heritage seem to be waning.

In Africa, proponents of black consciousness, Negritude movement and great nationalists such as, Olaudah Equiano, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, Herbert Macaulay, Kwame Nkrumah, Leopold Sédar Senghor,  Felix Houphouet Boigny, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Tafawa Balewa, Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere, Shaka Zulu, and Nelson Mandela, to mention but few, are not celebrated enough, though some public spaces have been named after them.

In the United States for instance, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, W E B Dubois, Booker T. Washington and others, are celebrated beyond recognition with public holidays and sociopolitical and cultural movements assigned to some of them.

In Africa, it is a different story except the Afro beat maestro, the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti, whose family has instituted an annual ceremony called Felabration, to immortalise him.

Meanwhile, the February 2018 ‘Black History Month’ was celebrated in American embassy in Nigeria and also at the Centre for American Studies, University of Nigeria Nsukka. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, said to be the first black African to teach Negro Studies at Lincoln University in the United States of America in the 1940s alongside Kwame Nkrumah before the struggle for Nigerian independence in 1960, was the focus in the lecture series delivered at the center during the commemoration. Zik was observed to be the pioneer of intellectual freedom who used his academic prowess together with Kwame Nkrumah to liberate Africa from the shackles of colonial imperialism.

The core highlights of the lecture centered on repositioning the states of Africa through the review of the achievements of the pioneers of freedom and emancipation of black consciousness. With the theme: The United States Civil Rights and African Liberation Movement, speakers like Mr. Lawrence Sotha, Cultural Officer of United States Embassy in Nigeria; Prof. Daryl Zizwe Poe of Lincoln University Pennsylvania and Prof. Jonah Onuoha, director of the center, stressed the need for Africa to say no to injustice and discrimination in the continent. They added that time has come when Africans should write their own history and present it to the world, a true story about Africa, and also that Africa should use education acquired to bring freedom to the oppressed in the society.

“People from different parts of the world may have written the history of Africa – how they feel and perceive the continent. Africa has produced people who have made many contributions to the world, so it is time for us to correct the wrong impressions about Africa by writing the correct history of Africa,” Sotha said.

Down the lane, lack of substantial developments has continued to remain an issue. Challenges such as unstable democracy, high poverty index, poor education and health system alongside low esteem syndrome have beclouded the states of African continent. It is not the wish of these great African men to see their efforts in emancipation of black consciousness become a waste or for Africa to remain underdeveloped for decades.

 


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