By Dr. AJAMU NANGWAYA
We are now in February and for Africans in North America it is a significant month. It is usually observed as Black History Month.
It is taken as an opportunity to acknowledge African people’s struggles, achievements and commemorate significant moments in the fight against White supremacy, capitalism, sexism and other forms of oppression.
Some of us use this month to reflect and rededicate ourselves to the revolutionary or radical African political tradition.
In the spirit of collective self-criticism, are we at the point where Black History Month is due for a name change and refocus?
Names are quite important to resistance. It was no accident that the enslaved Africans who were taken across the Sahara Desert ended up with Arab names and those who went by way of the Atlantic Ocean had European names imposed on them.
Denying a people their name is a classic method of colonization and cultural imperialism. It is used to weaken collective consciousness, which is critical to building a resistance culture.
Black History Month started out as Negro History and Literature Week in 1920 by the fraternity Omega Psi Phi. Carter G. Woodson was the guiding influence behind this development and he changed the name to Negro History Week in 1926. That year is generally acknowledged as the official start of this political commemorative observance.
In 1976, Negro History Week was transformed into a month-long celebration and reborn as Black History Month. The change in name was inspired by the resistance politics of the Black Power Movement and the affirmation “Black” as the collective name of Africans in the United States.
Black History Month has since become more about cultural puffery and celebration as opposed to engendering radical organizing and mobilizing of Afrikan people and an fostering a politics of emancipation.
Trade unions, school boards, corporations and even government agencies are, for the most part, comfortable with the current toothless, non-challenging thrust of this month. Once the political and economic elite has given a holiday or other elements of an oppressed people’s culture the stamp of approval and mainstream acceptance, there is a tendency for its transformative features to become muted.
Essentially, the ruling-class elements of society have been allowed to co-opt Black History Month and channel its potential for radical consciousness-raising, social movement activism and political involvement into celebrating “Black firsts” and “Black notables”.
What is the relevance of the late Lincoln Alexander being the first Afrikan to serve in a federal cabinet and in the capacity of labour minister when he did not used that office to remove racist and sexist employment barriers that prevent the fair representation of Afrikans in the federal civil service as well as in companies doing business with the federal government?
Black History Month serves as a platform to sell the virtues of integrating Afrikans into this racist, sexist, heteronormative and capitalist optical illusion that is the Canadian or American Dream.
One of the things that we have observed about the forces of exploitation is their wily manipulation and transformation of acts of resistance into harmless and empty symbols. The ruling-class had no problem transforming Black Power symbols such as wearing natural hair, musical genres and the Black fist into a marketing cash cow and lifestyle Blackness. This state of affairs is not possible without the participation and complicity of the oppressed.
In the last 10 years, I have noticed more activists and organizers of events during February using Afrikan Liberation Month.
The shift to the use of African Liberation Month would assert the name of the people whose struggle is being affirmed, while clearly communicating to the people that the mission of this celebration is the cultivation of a culture of resistance and liberation.
Let’s make the commitment to consistently use African Liberation Month and not the other outdated name. Black History Month has passed its best-before date so we ought to send it to the “Museum of Outdated Social Contraptions.”
Of equal importance is doing the work to make Afrikan liberation and social transformation central issues on our activism agenda in Canada and beyond. There are too many “talkivists” within the Afrikan community when it comes to the work of advancing social and economic justice.
We need more activists or organizers and an end to the outsourcing of the work of emancipation to the committed and courageous few. Let’s end our career as accomplished talkivists and embrace the role of activist for life.
Afrikan Liberation Month is an idea whose time has come. Comrades, get off your unmentionables and end your seductive and unhealthy spectator sports relationship with Afrikan liberation.
Dr. Ajamu Nangwaya is a trade union and community activist and an academic worker in the post-secondary education sector. He is the Membership Development Coordinator with the Network for Pan-Afrikan Solidarity.