Celebrations of the history of Black people, particularly those in the Diaspora, are about to commence across North America, in the Caribbean and the United Kingdom. Beginning with the initiative by African-American historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926, then called Negro History Week, Black History Month is now marked most notably in regions that had for some 400 years held Africans and their descendants in chattel slavery.
In 2015, another of Woodson’s initiatives, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now called the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, will mark its centenary.
It is important to note that until such forward thinking actions by people like Woodson, the presence and contributions of Black people in this part of the world received barely any mention in the history books. This allowed not only achievements and contributions, but also the larger chronicle of African peoples and their descendants to be overlooked, co-opted or otherwise distorted within the great flow of history.
Given the range of antagonisms currently confronting the African Diaspora, from underemployment, to over-policing, and the many other ways that anti-Black racism is evident, it may become lost on many of us that regardless of our challenges we are survivors.
So while many of the celebrations around Black History Month feature singing, dancing, drumming and other events that proclaim joy in our heritage, a thoughtful focus on Black life down through the centuries – including that significant period in our history when many of our ancestors were enslaved – must not be ignored.
We often look to the massive period of slavery in recalling Black history because it has left a tremendous legacy of trauma. Yet, the struggles of Black folks to make it through those times in spite of the odds are why we are still here.
We therefore celebrate that tenacity, but we owe it to ourselves to make time also for reflection.
One vehicle for such reflection is the timely film, 12 Years a Slave, directed by award-winning, British-born Steven McQueen, who is of Grenadian parentage. It is one that more Black people should see. The film provides a graphic representation of the realities far too many or our fore-parents endured. So terrible was it that in the retelling through this film many viewers will wince in reaction to the evocation of brutality that was once commonplace. But, we should not look away from this dramatization.
The film is adapted from the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, a disturbing tale of a free man from New York State who was tricked into slavery, sold and resold, beaten and bloodied, before legal channels finally allowed him to reclaim his freedom. (A free audio version of Northup’s book is available for download at https://librivox.org/twelve-years-a-slave-by-solomon-northup/).
Historical accountings such as Northup’s remind us that it is up to us to ensure that our history is documented and recognized, for it is clear that left to others to do so it is studiously neglected.
All the more reason during this coming month that we encourage individuals within our community to see it as a personal mission to chart a plan for informing themselves of this remarkable past.
For those who still think of Canada as someone else’s country, the history of the presence of Black people here is well worth becoming informed about. Books such as Daniel G. Hill’s The Freedom Seekers and Adrienne Shadd’s The Journey from Tollgate to Parkway are but two examples of the wealth of information that is evidence of how seriously many historians from this community take the documentation of a previously ignored past.
When other communities join in our celebrations, there may be a desire to only take in the cultural highlights, but the chapter detailing with our traumas should not be put off to the side just so others can feel comfortable. Let us not forget that while others are welcome to be enlightened as well, Black History Month is meant first for our enlightenment.