It was recently mentioned by a well-known columnist and activist in the Black Lives Matter movement that Black History Month should not begin and end with lessons of American slavery.
This idea is correct, but for reasons somewhat different from the ones that he puts forth.
School children, as well as adults, should understand the breadth of black heritage. When we study any other group, we recognize the fullness of their humanity. Just as we should never forget the pain of the Holocaust when we talk about Jewish history, we do not often begin discussions with that horrific event. When you recognize a group’s humanity, you understand that these historical moments were preceded by their own sociohistorical contexts.
Well before the rise of European imperialism, the peoples of Africa had their own empires and political systems. In West Africa, the fall of the Songhai Empire and ensuing civil wars left its people vulnerable to colonial exploitation and enslavement. These points in history also relate to events that occur years later and influence current perceptions and policies. Current stereotypes that label African-American men as strong but not smart, and women as hypersexual, can be traced to the common perceptions of enslaved Africans.
I am not suggesting that people should know the vast history of Africans just for knowledge’s sake or for a sense of cultural pride, although each is important. People should learn this history because everyone should know that my black ancestors were humans, not slaves. These Africans were people who were kidnapped and later enslaved.
Enslaved Africans carried over their cultural norms and heritage, which impacted their language, diet and spirituality. When enslaved Africans are described as “slaves” instead of as “humans,” the pain and harm they suffered are diminished. Take, for example, Scholastic’s unfortunate decision to publish a children’s book called “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” just in time for Black History Month. It shows the pervasive misunderstanding of the African-American experience.
This modern-day slave book, which was recently rescinded by the publisher, portrays the life of Hercules, Washington’s enslaved master chef. I don’t know whether it is ironic or blatant indifference to write a book about Hercules having so much pride in baking a grand birthday cake for Washington while omitting the fact that he escaped bondage on a subsequent birthday. It should be understood that people can have pride in their work, or even a privileged position within the hierarchy of slavery, yet still know they are oppressed and still seek their freedom. If Hercules’ humanity were accepted, then the authors and publishers would understand that a skewed depiction of happy slaves is neither refreshing nor new.
I vividly remember my elementary history book, which included depictions of grinning enslaved Africans playing the fiddle, couples dancing and babies toddling about in its two-page section on slavery. I remember being uncomfortable then, and it disturbs me that these or similar images continue to be the introduction to black history for so many people.
Which leads to this point: The ways in which we teach black history need improvement.
Incessantly reciting lists of black inventions and firsts without discussing the contexts of the accomplishments provides only a shell of what Carter G. Woodson intended when he initiated our annual celebration of black people. For example, Benjamin Banneker, who was a freeman and prolific scientist, is most often recognized for being a key surveyor of Washington, D.C. What is not typically discussed is that he gained much of his scientific knowledge from his formerly enslaved father, who was from a learned Wolof family. The Wolof people (in present day Senegal) are an ethnic group that was once part of the Songhai Empire — known for its cultural and intellectual hubs. This context provides insight about how Banneker, with little formal education, would become a scientist and surveyor, among other accomplishments.
When the telling or teaching of African-Americans’ history begins with slavery, it ignores their humanity now, just as their humanity was denied in the past. When the profound contributions of African-Americans before, during and after their enslavement are recognized, then their humanity — and therefore my humanity — is undeniable, and black lives would, in fact, matter.
*Top image: Children ride their bicycles during the opening ceremonies before the march. Photo by Scott Ball.