Rethinking Black History Month

Rethinking Black History Month

By N Oji Mzilikazi

Originally published in the Montreal Community Contact Volume 23, Number 02 January 24, 2013

Even though Black History Month is geared to instil pride in People of African Descent and sensitize non-Blacks to the accomplishments of Blacks, and in the early 90s I did the lecture thing on Black History at a couple high schools for its celebration, I’ve always found Black History Month problematic.

Black History Month was introduced in the United States by Harvard scholar and historian Dr. Carter Woodsen, in 1926, to honour Frederick Douglas who was born in February. Hence, the designation of February as Black History Month.

Even so, Abraham Lincoln who was a slave owner, and George Washington, two iconic American presidents, and giants of men were born February 12 and 22 respectively. Up until 1971, their birthdays were federal holidays.

In 1971 President Richard Nixon combined both holidays into a single federal holiday – President’s Day, and proclaimed that the holiday would also honour all past presidents of the United States of America. President’s Day is observed on the third Monday of February.

President’s Day and Black History Month sharing the same month allow for African Americans and white Americans to independently celebrate different aspects of their history. Plus, the pull, power, marketing and commercialization of President’s Day overshadow Black History Month.

As such, the celebration of Black History Month in February doesn’t do much in the American marketplace to better race relations.

Community celebrations and functions are powerful and exploitable mediums to retain and transfer traditions, stir passion and dreams, motivate the young, as well as impress upon them shouldering the responsibilities of being the next generation of torch bearers.

Never mind February is the shortest month of the year, and people do joke that its designation as Black History Month is to keep the observation as short as possible, but February falls in winter, and can be brutally cold.

The coldness of February negates people of African descent being able to parade in the robes of our ancestors, have the wind and sun caress our bodies, and have outdoor commemorative activities and celebrations.

Black History Month in February limits participation and attendance of the very community it was designed to serve.

Black people are people of the sun. A summer month is thus best suited for the observance of Black History. The celebration of Black History Month in summer allows for greater and wider participation from both People of African Descent and outsiders of the race.

It would facilitate indoor and outdoor lectures and discourse, not to mention open air showing of relevant films and concerts. Make for members of the race, their friends and family as well as friends and supports of the race to picnic, socialize, congregate in parks, recount, rejoice, reaffirm, inspire one another in the ongoing task of pursuing racial elevation, enacting strategies for empowerment, and counteracting self-defeating behaviours and internecine distrust.

The celebration of Black History Month in summer allows People of African Descent to go to the river banks, streams, lakes and ocean. Throw flowers into the water in remembrance of the passage that brought us here, our ancestors who never made it to shore, and our preparedness and commitment to advance Black Freedom.

Such an act powerfully projects to the wider community that People of African Descent are not going to shy away from acknowledgement of the Black Holocaust, the atrocities of the East African and Trans-Atlantic Slave Trades and slavery, and their legacies, because of the prick they pose to society’s conscience.

Such an act will bring politicians out in force. It will force elected officials into participation, to show solidarity – that they eschew the country’s historical record. That immeasurable wealth was generated from Black enslavement and Black disenfranchisement, and set in motion racist and discriminatory practices that People of African Descent still grapple with today.

Such an act will do more to advance tolerance, reconcile the perceptions of otherness and unworthiness many have towards Blacks, and dismantle racism than current Black History Month celebrations which have become political correctness, show, and lip-service for “elite” whites and the white political establishment.

When I was a child and my elders recounted family stories, my ancestors came alive before my very eyes. The same thing occurred with fairy tales. When West Indian scary stories about “douens,” “la jablesse,” “soucouyant,” “duppies,” voodoo, “obeah” and necromancy were told, I’d be afraid to sleep lest those demons of the night afflicted me.

If fairly tales and horror stories could be so captivating that they kept us enthralled, shouldn’t a greater story, the narratives concerning our race imbue us with a sense of pride, make us stand erect, be motivation to say never again, foment desires to rectify the ills and damage, and to be heroes and sheroes?

As if we ourselves don’t believe Our Story, the long hard-fought struggle for Civil Rights and the accomplishments of our ancestors aren’t getting through to inspire, overshadowed by the allure of the street life, Black youth are in crisis, disengaged, feel displaced and alienated, and it is worsening.

To save them – us, necessitates rethinking strategies.

Furthermore, years of government or municipal administrations funding or sponsoring events relating to Black History Month has not resulted or contributed towards the breakdown of racism or racial barriers in the society. Blacks face not just more of the same hurdles, but additional racism from other ethnics, many who are latter day immigrants.

As a sidebar, Black History Month here in Montreal does not speak my language philosophically and linguistically.

Oui, j’habite au Quebec, il faut parle Français, mais le meme temps, it is Black Montrealers, Black English speaking West Indians that pushed for the establishment of Black History Month. Yet, English has been abandoned by the Black History Month Board – no disrespect intended.

That being said, Black History Month has to be made relevant to the Canadian market place. That means lessening the study of African American historical figures, concentrating on Black Canadian history, Black Canadian literature, and focussing on the living and past history of the West Indian, Caribbean and African diasporic community in Canada.

I believe the time has come for us to dispense with Black History Month celebrations and put Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Marcus Garvey alongside those great kings of Africa to bed. It’s time to for a new politic.

Though history, culture and tradition are the foundation in the continued survival of any race, our children need to have the tools to successfully navigate and skilfully play in this game of life.

We need to fill our children’s heads with capitalism, science, mathematics, economics, the goal of excellence, and personal and moral responsibility.

The race stands no chance of advancing in today’s world without being educated, having graduates in mathematics, sciences, technology, having doctors, lawyers and an educated elite.

Black parents need to commit, recommit towards having a university graduate in every household.

We cannot allow our children to fail nor for us to fail. Our failure as well as their failure dooms the race. The thrust of Black History Month must be about achieving, the pursuit of achievement, not regaling in past achievement while the race collectively languish in the throes of indifference among other things.

What we need is a Black Empowerment and Goal Assessing Month. A month marked with seminars and workshops in which goals and objectives are set. Then, the next year a progress report would be tabled, discussed and analysed, and new tasks set.

For that month, we must attract the brightest minds regardless of race to come into our communities to explain, teach, show, and discuss options and strategies for our empowerment, including economic empowerment, being business-oriented.

To that end we replace February as Black History Month. Rename it Black Empowerment and Goal Assessing Month.

When it comes to Black History, there are only three things our children need to know. Knowing them cannot but instil pride, and set our children on paths to create their own personal history.

(1) Creationists believe that God created man from the dust of the earth. Evolutionists claim man evolved from the apes. Let us ignore the physical evidence, the fossils that attest to the fact that civilization started in Africa. There are no apes in Europe or anything such as white dirt. So from any perspective; creationist or evolutionist, the first man was/is still Black.

Interestingly enough, American anthropologist Charles Repenning, in a 1982 study, claimed that our prehistoric human ancestor lived in Israel five hundred thousand years before appearing in Africa.

In the Bible, the Book of Genesis stated that the second river to water the Garden of Eden “compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia.” Since Ethiopia is in Africa, and is included as part of the Garden of Eden, scripturally, Africa is part of the cradle of civilization.

(2) Charles Murray’s “The Bell Curve” says that Blacks are genetically less intelligent than Whites. The truth is, Blacks hold the destruction of every other race within their genes, and that’s a fact that no one can whitewash.

The offspring between Blacks and any other race reproduces Black; dilute the gene pool of others.

Lest we forget, the U.S. Racial Integrity act of 1924 advanced the One-Drop Theory, defining Black. Namely, “Every person in whom there is ascertainable any negro blood shall be deemed and taken to be a coloured person.”

Blacks have the genetic power to assimilate every other race, and to me, that is the root cause as to why Blacks are so hated.

(3) We, the people who are darker than blue are coloured that way because of the melanin in our skin. Melanin protects us from the ultra violet rays of the sun; the same sun white folks are always trying to get a tan from; the same sun that puts them at risk with skin cancer.

Inasmuch as there is continual damage to the ozone layer, skin cancers are going to increase. All the more reasons for Blacks to embrace their skin color as a joy, and not a burden.

Up, you mighty race, you can!

Language Matters

Language Matters

By N Oji Mzilikazi

Originally published in the Montreal Community Contact Volume 23, Number 01

January 10, 2013

Language facilitates communication.

Language gives meaning to words. If words do not mean what they say, if circumlocution, obfuscation, misnaming, mislabelling, re-engineering the meanings of words, and language confusion are allowed to stand, the lack of clarity would not only lead to miscommunication, misunderstanding, increased coarseness and offense, but place society on a downhill trajectory. Language matters.

Language embraces beliefs, values, and empowers positive affirmations of self, race, ethnicity, culture, gastronomy, and by extension, identity, concepts of beauty and attitudes.

Italians have a pasta and pizza culture that they love, never tire of. In the classic Italian romantic ballad, “That’s Amore (Love),” there is a line that goes, “When the moon hits your eyes like a giant pizza pie, that’s amore.”

Although Al Qu’ran is Islam’s holy book, there is also the Hadiths, or the sayings of Prophet Muhammad that are often quoted or invoked by Muslims. One such Hadith says, “Love the Arabs for three things…” One of which is that “The language spoken in Heaven is Arabic.”

The language of every ethnic group is without speech that disparages itself. Its discriminatory words are reserved for outsiders. Thus an attack on another person’s language is an assault on its speakers’ culture, identity, and sense of self.

Accordingly, it is easy to understand why after decades, centuries of English rule over the French majority in Quebec, their subsequent demotion to second class citizens and being discriminated against, the Parti Québécois has a French only dictum, and is adamant about French language protection and French language supremacy. Language matters.

Language is not inconsequential. Therefore it is imperative that people of African descent pay attention to language, speech – the language we use, and the language that is used towards us.

If you think being poor is bad, the expression of not having a “black cent” encapsulates the severity of one’s poverty, how worse is one’s condition, given that “a black cent” is oft worthless.

In 1919, eight players of the Chicago White Sox team were suspended. One Edward Cicotte was accused of accepting a bribe to influence the outcome of the World Series. Although only white folks were involved in the brouhaha, the incident was dubbed the “Black Sox Scandal” of 1919.

Concepts of white superiority, the imbuing of white with only positive qualities, and white being the antithesis of everything that’s black, accounted for the unwillingness to call the occurrence the “White Sox Scandal.”

White is only employed in the negative as in a “white elephant,” a completed project that failed to attract the traffic envisioned. Still, a “white elephant” speaks to grandiosity of vision, which is a good and noble thing.

A white paper is an authoritative report. Anything spoken of as being in black and white leaves no ambiguity, and points to the implied division built by racism.

It’s not by chance the American President resides in the White House, and not in a Presidential Palace or something along those lines. The White House is the symbol of white American power. Thus, the enduring vitriolic hatred towards Barack Obama, ever since he announced his candidacy to be the president of the United States, to run for the White House.

While the association of black with evil and misfortune had nothing to do with race, the enslavement of Africans, subsequent anti-Black racism and the politics of racial superiority and racial inferiority resulted in the complexities of race and culture turned on its head.

No race is a unified biological population. No individual is ever the standard to judge his or her race. Nonetheless, racism saw to it the complexity of individuality that marked the slave population was swept under the rug.

Blacks were considered, spoken of, and written about as a unified biological population with a monolithic culture. The long-held negativity associated with black was interpreted as character traits of the race.

Blacks were without positive qualities, positive attributes and were everything wicked, sinful or evil one could think about, and animals.

In November 2012, Kevin Hughes and David Hair, two British Police Officers went on trial for their racist comments about Blacks. One of the things alleged is Hughes saying that Black people “were more closely related to Neanderthals and chimpanzees.”

New words were created to maintain the degradation and subjugation of people of African descent and perceptions about the race. Black became a prefix to make words negative, highlight the “otherness.” Thus the black Fridays, blacklist, blackball, et al.

The codification, entrenchment of racist, racially offensive and racially abusive words, terms and expressions, and discriminatory language, has the English language (and others) replete with speech and language that discriminates against people of African descent.

Language that is bias, racist, and has no place in today’s lexicon and marketplace. Language matters.

The Bible states that God made man in his own image. As such, people of African descent must see God and Beauty as reflective in them. That empowerment, our God being Black, necessitates we attack the usages of black that denote, perpetuate, and reinforce the racist ideology of its equation with negatives and evil, and we rewire the negatives affixed to Black.

The June 22, 2007, Montreal Gazette contained a letter by Eleanor Arless. In it she asked the Gazette for journalistic sensitivity in regards to their usage of black, “in a negative way, thereby implicitly belittling a significant segment of our population.”

Succinctly, she stated, “In our rich multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society it behooves us to be conscious of the impact of our use of language.”

Though letters of disagreement to hers were subsequently published, one month later, July 29, to be exact, the Gazette Editorial read, “Another black mark against the Mounties.” The message from Montreal’s only English daily newspaper to the city’s Black citizenry, and Arless plea for sensitivity: Up Yours!

Racists and the recalcitrant are wont to cite the long tradition, usage of bias terms and racist language, and/or their existence in dictionaries and encyclopaedias as validation, in defence of use.

Nonetheless, people of African descent ought not to, and cannot afford to accept words, expressions, speech, and language that discriminate against us.

We ourselves must be vigilant so as not to engage in, or use them as well. For Afro-West Indians and Indo-West Indians, that means moving away from the racist and attack words of “nigger” and “coolie.” Language matters. Names matter.

It is the responsibility of every inhabitant in the castle of a Black skin, as well as non-racists to not let people get away with racist language. It is their duty to pull up, inform users of racist terminologies of the offence.

Issue a “cease and desist” notice if you will. How else can racism and its legacy be dismantled? Language matters. Names matter. Truth matters.