By Prisca Duru
To commemorate the 2019 Black History Month, the United States Consulate General in Lagos has been engaging the public in a number of activities that unravel the story behind the Black History Month as well as giant strides made so far by blacks globally.
The annual global observance of the History Month originating from the U.S features cultural dance, film screenings, art exhibitions, panel discussions and a secondary school debate competition on the topic: Can Racism ever be Eliminated? in Lagos.
The American Center, Lagos, has already screened seven movies including the blockbuster, 12 Years a Slave, featuring Chiwetalu Agu; Boycott, Freedom Riders, I Am Not Your Negro, Race, Selma, and The march.
Earlier, during the opening of the celebration organised by the United States Consulate General in Lagos in collaboration with the Institute of African and Diaspora Studies, IADS of the University of Lagos, UNILAG and the University of the West Indies, UWI, US Public Affairs Officer, Russell Brooks described the event marking the Black History Month as an important event rich in meaning and symbolism.
Brooks, who was the keynote speaker alongside other speakers, expressed his displeasure over the inhumanity and injustice witnessed in some parts of the world. Explaining his choice of title, he said: “When the leaders of the Institute approached me, they suggested that I speak on the topic: Black Excellence. I said to myself, ‘wow, that is a broad area.’ I am thankful that I was given some discretion about how to interpret this charge. I decided that I would like to reference Black Excellence by explaining why there is, and possibly always will be, the need to celebrate Black History. I am entitling my remarks: From 1619 to 2019: Why We Must Continue to Highlight Black Excellence.
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According to Brooks, “Black History Month actually began as Negro History Week in 1926. It was founded by a noted black historian, Carter G. Woodson, and the Association for the Study of Negro Life. The week was chosen to coincide with the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14).
It is not surprising that his idea to recognise the achievements of black Americans and black people throughout history would eventually be deemed worthy of an entire month rather than a week and by 1969, black educators began advocating for a Black History Month. The first celebration of Black History Month took place at Kent State University in 1970 and six years later, President Gerald Ford officially recognised Black History Month during the celebration of the United States Bicentennial.
In the U.S., we have been celebrating Black History Month for so many years. For some, it has become routine; it appears to be institutionalised.
We have an annual Presidential Proclamation marking the occasion and schools, churches, and community organisations generally organise activities to remind us of great African-American historical figures from Crispus Attucks, who died in the Boston Massacre that helped stoke the American Revolution; to Harriett Tubman, the courageous escaped slave who returned to the South numerous times to help free approximately 70 others; to more recent heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr. and former President Barack Obama.
“At U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, we mark Black History Month by conducting programs to remind both local audiences and our fellow Americans of the significant contributions of black people in building the United States into the great country that it has become today.
Why do I use the year 1619 in the title of today’s remarks? Please recall that the first African slaves to arrive in the English colonies of North America arrived in that year, 1619, to Jamestown, Virginia. Dutch traders who had seized them from a Spanish slave ship brought them there. For that reason, this year is being marked as the 400th anniversary of that momentous event.
“I actually don’t believe most people are by nature mean, cruel, brutal, or unjust. Therefore, I have noted that throughout the history of blacks in the New World, whether it is in the United States, in Jamaica, Cuba, or Brazil, there has always been a desire, perhaps a need, to justify race-based inhumanity to one’s fellow man.
Among the consistent justifications have been the claims that blacks are not equal to other races, especially intellectually, and that blacks have contributed very little of value to the world anyway, besides their manual labour.
For the young people among us, this may seem shocking but I encourage you to read about the intellectual arguments used to justify slavery and colonialism.
There has been an erroneous notion that blacks have no history but doing justice to correcting that wrong notion, Brooks pointed out that “a central tenet of white supremacy in America and Europe has always been that blacks had no real history; that they left behind nothing of value in Africa; that they had no real culture; that the black race had contributed nothing of value to the advancement of the world; and slaves should be thankful for what their slave masters had done for them. Perhaps needless to say, this made those who benefited from slavery feel much better about that cruel, inhumane system and the same could be said for those who advocated race-based discrimination, colonialism and imperialism.
“I doubt that those who advanced these theories of racial superiority were aware of the Kingdom of Mali, the Songhai Empire and the greatness of ancient Timbuktu, Abyssinia, the Kingdom of Benin or the Oyo Empire. Nevertheless, for many, many years, not only were white Americans ignorant of the true history of Africans and African-Americans but many black Americans were just as oblivious of their history.”
Going further with unraveling the history behind the Black history Month, Brooks explained that, “Carter G. Woodson created Black History Week because he saw the cruelty that can be justified when one group of people lack respect and empathy for another group of people. He also understood the effect that absorbing misinformation about the history of Africa and African-Americans had on the sense of pride and self-worth of black Americans. It should come as no surprise that the creation of Negro History Week coincided with the period of black American self-awareness known as the Harlem Renaissance and similarly the quest for a Black History Month began during the Black Pride or Soul Power movement of the 1960s and 70s.”
Sadly, according to Brooks, the misguided notions that were used to defend slavery or racial discrimination also warped the minds of some black Americans, who actually accepted these notions out of their own ignorance.
“If black Americans were to be able to throw off the psychological shackles that imprisoned them, they would have to know much more about their actual history.
I know that the actual history of African-Americans is a wonderful story full of heroes and heroines who have contributed immensely to the world. Permit me to mention just a few:
Are you familiar with George Washington Carver, the agricultural scientist and inventor who developed hundreds of products using peanuts? Have you heard of Dr. Charles Drew, the surgeon who pioneered methods of storing blood plasma for transfusion and organised the first large scale blood bank in the U.S.? How about Dr. Ralph Bunche, the political scientist and diplomat who won the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War? Did you know that Benjamin Banneker, a black surveyor and mathematician reproduced the design for Washington DC from memory after the Frenchman hired for the project quit and stormed off with the original plans?
“When we discuss black history, we also do not restrict the discussion to African-Americans. I would encourage the students in the room to take note of the fact that the author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas, was a black man. Alexander Pushkin, known as the quintessential Russian writer, supposedly took his inspiration from his African great-grandfather, Abraham Petrovitch Gannibal, who was kidnapped from Africa as a young man but rose to become a general and a member of the royal court of Tsar Peter the Great.
On the African continent, I am sure you take great pride in the accomplishments of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Fela, Kofi Annan, Angelique Kidjo, Miriam Makeba, and many, many others.
Wrapping up his address, Brooks quoted from one of his personal heroes which he said, came from the famous African-American female journalist and civil rights activist, Ida B. Wells, who risked her life numerous times to investigate and report on the lynching of African-Americans during some of the worst periods of race relations in American history.
It reads: “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
To correct the historical wrong of neglecting or diminishing the contributions of the black race to humanity, I believe we will always need to turn the light of truth on falsehoods and ignorance by passing down the stories of our excellence, Black Excellence. I do so with pride and I hope you will too.”