By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
We are in the second week of March and February, as Black History Month/African Heritage Month/African Liberation Month, is a dim memory for some people.
During February there is usually a rush by some entities to “hire a Black person” who can dance or sing. Or in some cases, hire any person who can dance or sing “Black”.
At one “Black History Month” event I was surprised to see a person who was singing calypso and speaking about calypso. The person did not seem to realize that some of what was said was offensive. I listened and shook my head in disbelief wondering why the organizers could not have found an African-Caribbean calypsonian somewhere in Toronto or Ontario. After all, calypso is an African-Caribbean art form and there are many people in the community who are versed in the history and performance of calypso. Even I can sing calypso if I put my mind to it!
In some cases, there were efforts to educate about African culture and history and “edutain” beyond dancing, singing and eating.
Africans from the continent and in the Diaspora have a rich and varied history. The same tired stories and images from the U.S. is what mostly pass for “Black History” during February. Every Canadian seems to know the names Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. They may not know much about them but they know their names. Ask them about Viola Desmond, who suffered a similar fate to Rosa Parks on November 8, 1946 (nine years before Parks) in Nova Scotia and they have never heard her name. They may recognize the name Harriet Tubman but never heard about Chloe Cooley, Marie-Joseph Angélique or Peggy Pompadour. They may have heard of the Underground Railroad but know nothing beyond those words. They may know that enslaved Africans fled to Canada from the U.S. but have no clue that slavery was a thriving institution across Canada and was abolished a mere 31 years (August 1, 1834) before the U.S. (December 6, 1865).
Many people do not seem to realize that our (African) history did not begin with slavery. Whenever I see or hear of African history which includes only history from slavery onward, I think of African-Jamaican dub poet, Mutabaruka, who has famously said: “Slavery is not African history. Slavery interrupted African history.”
Mutabaruka is a Pan-Africanist and Rastafari who has given much thought and expression to the state of Africans and our history (www.youtube.com/watch?v=WiAgA_xjVcU).
Thinking of African history beyond February and before slavery is important because as the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey said: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
When African history was interrupted during the 400-year enslavement, the Arabs and Europeans did not take “slaves” out of Africa. The Arabs and Europeans took African craftspeople, goldsmiths, farmers, teachers, carpenters, doctors, healers, mathematicians, musicians, chefs and other skilled people and enslaved them in far-flung places. The Arabs and Europeans scattered Africans far and wide, separating them from their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, husbands, wives, lovers, children, communities and enslaved those captured Africans. Our ancestors were not taken out of Africa as slaves; that was not their status or natural state; they were Africans who were enslaved by Arabs and Europeans. The Arabs and Europeans entered the African continent and destroyed several African civilizations from Ashanti to Zulu. Some of these civilizations existed when no European civilization existed.
Much of our history has been distorted and it takes effort to “dig up” our history pre-slavery, as Carter Godwin Woodson, considered the father of “Black History Month”, urged. Some examples of the distortion of African history are incidents where Africans who achieved anything that is considered “civilized” or “advanced” are disguised as not being African. Generations of White people have tried to take Egypt out of Africa or claimed that Egyptians were White. The movies that were made portraying Egyptians as White with American or British accents have convinced many people that Egyptians did not look like Congolese, Sudanese, Nigerians, Ghanaians etc.
In North African countries, especially which were invaded by Arabs and where Arab culture, language and belief systems dominate, there has been a concerted effort to erase the indigenous people of those lands. In countries like Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia, the culture is Arabian, the language is Arabic and the indigenous Africans have mostly “disappeared”. That is not to say they no longer exist – they are just not visible. This is similar to the Americas and Australia, where the First Nations people are mostly invisible, even though they are indigenous to those lands.
In North Africa, the story of Hannibal’s bravery in crossing the Alps with members of his army on a herd of elephants has been a source of argument about the race of Hannibal and his army. There are coins with the head of Hannibal with tightly curled hair that only one group of people have, so of course Hannibal was African.
In his 1934 book, 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: With Complete Proof A Short Cut to The World History of The Negro, African-Jamaican historian, Joel Augustus Rogers, wrote: “Hannibal is usually depicted as a White man, but his coins in the British Museum and the Museo Kercheriano, Rome, show him to have been an African of the purist type with rings in his ears. These coins were struck by Hannibal while he was in Italy. In the absence of other information the most logical argument is that they bore his own effigy, the more so, as the several kinds of them bear the same likeness. Above all, let us remember that he was an African.”
Over the years there have been several stories published about the mistreatment of Africans in North African countries, which includes denials that Africans belong in those countries (http://atlantablackstar.com/2014/07/27/6-african-countries-hostile-towards-black-people/).
It is time that we educate ourselves about our history before the enslavement of Africans to know who we really are. We need to know who we were before we were forced to bear Arab and European names. We need to familiarize ourselves with the African cultures from which our ancestors were stolen.
The descendants of enslaved Africans are the only group of people who cannot identify their origins by their names. We need to learn about Ashanti, Aksum, Ethiopia, Egypt, Kanem-Bornu, Kush, Mali, Nubia, Songhay, Timbuktu, Zimbabwe, Zulu and many more of the ancient African civilizations.