The significance of Black History
As a child, I spent two years living in Nigeria when I was 7 and 8 years old. During that time, my father bought me history-themed comic books that taught me about African American history. I learned about Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman and the history of slavery in America and the fight for freedom from reading these comics on car drives, or sitting in the living room at home in Lagos. I have no idea where these comic books came from before they landed in the old bookstore at Ikoyi Club where my father bought them so many years ago. But I’ve never forgot those stories or the questions I had about what they meant for me or folks like me living in Africa with parents that also shared their stories of what it meant that we were Nigerian, from the southeastern part of the country.
Both narrative trajectories offered me a certain sense of identity and gave me a unique perspective that I took with me when we moved back to America, the country of my birth. One of the many things it taught me is that history is invaluable. It gives people a sense of communal identity and helps one understand one’s place in the world. It offers wisdom about the present and the future, revealing what ought not be repeated and what ought not be forgotten.
February is Black History Month, the official month in the United States to celebrate the contributions of African Americans to American history. Depending on whom you follow on social media, your Twitter, Facebook or Instagram feed might be full of pictures of famous African Americans whose words or actions have inspired change in America and the world. But not many people are aware of the origins of Black History month. It started because one man recognized and took pride in the fact that his people, Africans forcibly brought to the Americas during the Transatlantic slave trade, had, despite the horrors and unimaginable conditions of their lives, made invaluable contributions and achievements to the building of a nation, America, (and I would argue to global development).
This same man understood that without knowledge of one’s history, a people are disadvantaged to a full understanding of who they are and of what they are capable. This man was writer and scholar Dr. Carter G. Woodson, born in Virginia in 1875 to a former slave. As a boy he worked as a sharecropper and miner to help support his family. But later he went on to get an education, graduating first from the University of Chicago with both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, and then becoming the second black man to receive a doctorate degree from Harvard in 1912.
As a scholar, he observed that there were no records about his people and their achievements. Just three years after receiving his doctorate he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life. Then in 1916, he started publishing the Journal of Negro History, a magazine highlighting achievements by men and women of colour, that went on to become ‘The Journal of African American History.’ As part of his ongoing efforts to get schools to study African American history, Dr. Woodson organized the first Negro History Week during the second week of February in 1926. He selected this month to honour the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and leader Frederick Douglass. In the Journal of Negro History, Vol. 11, no. 2 dated April of 1926, Dr. Woodson wrote,
“If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization.”
As a Nigerian and as an American, I deeply appreciate learning about people like Dr. Carter G. Woodson because they remind us of the importance of knowing our histories, writing them down, acknowledging them, celebrating them, and when necessary, learning from them. What if every African country took it upon itself to celebrate the achievements and contributions of its people? But not just celebrate them, also write them down, teach them to children and find ways of sharing these histories with the world.
The history of African people traded, sold and forced into slavery and their descendants is a necessary and vital one for people of colour worldwide. The dedication, sacrifices and commitment of black people in America paved the way in many respects for people of colour in the diaspora all over the world. But it is also important because as Africans on the continent, and as African Americans and people of colour in the diaspora, our histories are undeniably connected and there is so much to be gained from initiating open and public dialogue between and about our cultures, our traditions, our histories and our people.
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