#Going beyond October, Slavery, School, Icons, Heroes, Inventors, Civil Rights, Race……….!!!!!
A person who does not have a clue to his or her history stands a very poor chance of mapping out a future. Dr Maya Angelou
Kilonshele my people
This week’s post is the 2nd in the Quest for Identity Series which will henceforth be referred to Q4IS. I trust you have all had a wonderful October which as some may be aware was Black History Month (BHM) in UK. Honestly, I had no idea. I have not really been one to “celebrate” this event for reasons which I am still trying to decipher. The subject of “history” and “black history” has been marinating in my mind for a few months now, it coincides with my own personal quest for meaning. The catalyst for this particular post is a viral video called “#what I wasn’t taught at school” made by a young man named Samuel King. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNfH41-LI4w) Kudos to Samuel and his team for this courageous undertaking. I have had similar views for quite a while now and I agree with a number of points he highlighted. Unfortunately I will not be able to provide a full debrief of the video message but I will attempt to go allude to some of the points made.
He made a number of valid arguments, the most critical of which being that “We” are taught the same thing every year during BHM e.g. Aparthied, Slavery and the Civil Rights movement. Nothing new is ever taught. Based on this, he feels that he is not able to take BHM seriously and I am sure many people feel that way too, especially the young. One of the core issues highlighted is that there is so much that “We” are not told. He poetically goes on to name a number black Icons/Heroes I had never heard of, for example the black men who invented the light switch and the traffic light, the richest man to ever live was King Musa of Mali and the first Black Roman emperor was Septimius Severus. For me, the most poignant point he made was “there is so much to learn in one month”. I say therein is where the problem lays. I will attempt to take philosophical approach the question I have posed above. I must confess, my knowledge of BHM is limited at best and I am not exactly a Rhode Scholar when it comes to African History. A number of questions should be asked before assessing the relevance of BHM but I will focus on two.
I write this post with the utmost humility and unintended ignorance. I am thinking from the perspective of the brand “Black History Month”. I understand that the original objectives of this concept was to create a “facility” for black people in the West (America and UK) to learn and celebrate their history. The first question I would like to ask is “what is Black History”? Personally, I find this term restrictive. I suggest that it puts every black person into one category without acknowledging individuals or group’s country, tradition, culture, tribe, language, religion etc. When I was in secondary school (1992-1996), during BHM, I learnt about the Civil Rights Movement, Aparthied, Marcus Garvey, and Martin Luther King amongst others. Thinking back now, as a young Nigerian-British boy, and without diminishing their significance or contributions, I am forced to ask myself; what the hell did the civil rights movement in America have to do me as a young Nigerian in diaspora? Ironically, I didn’t know I was black until I arrived on these shores. Learning about Olaudah Equiano would probably have made a greater impact on me and many others. Now in 2014 Nigerian-British man in his early thirties, what impact will knowing about Septimius Severus or King Musa have on my quest for identity or fit into my personal history. Looking at it from a different perspective, how pertinent are these men to my 14 year old nephew? Born in England, his father is from the Benin tribe and mother is from the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria. This is not to say that learning about Olaudah Equiano would be more beneficial to him. Like others, he has to find his own “starting point”. But on the flipside, learning about King Musa and Septimius Severus could serve as an inspiration to an individual or groups in a society where perception matters a great deal. Learning about these individuals may not only inform about the past but could also serve to empower and liberate the present generation. For too many years, there has been a negative perception of Africa and the origins of the black race. So if just one person is inspired by the Civil Rights Movement or King Musa, who am I or anyone else to determine its significance. In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king!
It would be impossible to learn about “black history” in one month or in one lifetime. The wealth & diversity of black history, and the differences within the black community (another term I have a problem with) in the UK should to seriously acknowledged. I noticed that Stephen used the pronouns “WE” and “OUR” with all good intentions, (I cannot testify of his meaning) I suggest that it may be counterproductive to his argument. These are unifying words but may also mask the issues which I personally don’t feel has been acknowledged or fully discussed. For example, I have seen many fights break out when a black person has been called an “African”. On the other side, many black “Africans” who arrive on these shores straight from (and on) the continent do not consider black Americans’ or West Indians Africans. I suggest that the transatlantic slave trade is not a subject most “Africans” are aware of or can connect with. Although all black people share the same source, each one of us has a different starting point and will take different paths when it comes to charting his or her history. The starting point and paths for the British, Jamaican or American’s history will be very different from that of Nigerian or Senegalese. For example, the starting point for every Nigerian would be the amalgamation in 1914. But the path to learning about my own history would be based on the tribal history of the Yoruba’s.
The second question I would I like us to consider is: who is responsible to teaching “black history”? A few months ago, I received an e-mail from a friend asking me to sign a petition calling for more black history to be taught in his child’s school. After much pondering, I opted not to sign the petition. The reason being, I am an advocate of the philosophy of developing a pluralistic society. I remember when I arrived in 1992; one of the most fascinating things about my primary school was the array of different races and cultures which I came into contact with. What would happen if every race or ethnic minority requested/demanded more was taught regarding their relevant history? Even more significantly where would the school begin? Going back to the point of vast differences and richness in diversity! Ladies and gentlemen I put it to you, KNOWLEDGE IS INFINITE; TIME IS LIMITED (KKB ©). It could be unproductive to rely on one or few sources to gain knowledge. Ultimately I believe that the quest for understanding one’s history should start within oneself but the foundations for this journey should begin at home. BHM, schools, parents, etc should not be taken as a holistic source of information, there are limits to the type and level of information they can provide. They can be the “starting points” but then it up to the individual to determine the paths taken.
We also have to take into account the impact of Globalisation vs Tradition. In the globalisation age, the easy access to information has probably diminished the desire or ability to take an interest in history. There is a general consensus that traditionally, African history was passed down orally. I may be wrong but I believe this art is in decline or has been lost as a result of globalisation. (Google is god post) In another twist of irony, in comparison to the young Africans on the African Continent and West Indies, young Africans in the diaspora like my nephew and Stephen are at a far more advantageous position if they want to learn about their history.
In conclusion, I would say that BHM as an entity is still relevant but I would suggest that it may need a change of strategy to acknowledge changes in society. The gradient must constantly be on upwards trajectory, if you are standing still you are regressing. I would suggest going beyond History, and begin to encompass topics such Philosophy, Art, Sociology, Politics, Language, and Science. I propose that BHM can be used as a “starting point” for individuals and groups to learn about their own history and that of others. I strongly advocate that individuals take responsibility for learning their own history with the objective of sharing their knowledge to gain an understanding of the other’s history. I am in favour of the ethos QUID PRO QOU: “I learn about mine, you tell me about yours”. The desire to understand one’s history should be relevant to each individual’s quest for identity. (I acknowledge that not everybody has a desire to learn about their history). Before embarking on the journey, I would urge you to reflect on the quote below by Confucius “Learning about history can easily produce nothing but a list of details and facts. One needs a comprehensive framework that gives coherence to everything one has learned”. My take on this is: “one who embarks on a journey into history will probably have a more productive experience if they define the purpose. Catalysts, reasons and desires will be different for each individual but ultimately it should have meaning. The objective of learning history is to get an understanding about past traditions and cultures that could change individuals and society for the better. What is learnt about the past can be applied today with the objective of creating a better tomorrow for future generations”.
Ultimately ladies and gentlemen, Black History is part of World History.
Where is your starting point and what path will you take?
Thank you for your time, I hope you found the post illuminating. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments box below or challenge any of my arguments.
Till next week…….
*A small addendum I would like to make is that “WE” should not romanticise “Black History”, “WE” don’t all come from Kings and Queens. But that’s a discussion for another day.