Originally, a group of scholars in the U.S. who had studied Afrikan history on their own for a year, came together in FEB 1926 to have a public forum so that they could detail to others what they had discovered. The driving force behind this gathering was American Afrikan historian, author, and journalist, Carter G. Woodson. It started as Negro History Week, the second week in February.
Two beliefs fuelled his idea of having this annual event:
1) It was crucial for Black people to be aware of their true history, he said, “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history” and 2) It was also crucial that white people and other non-Afrikans learn of the contributions which Black people had made to human civilization. He believed that anti-Black racism amongst white people could be dissolved if they knew the truth, as he believed the basis of white supremacy—and its flip side black inferiority—was founded upon the belief that Negro/Black people had no great history. In fact, he saw real danger in not getting the information spread far and wide, saying, “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”
Negro History Week was held within the Black communities in the U.S., eventually coming to Canada during the 1950’s, to also be observed in our Black communities. The rise of Black Study groups and book clubs propelled the expansion of Negro History Week to become a month-long observance in 1970; again beginning in the U.S. and migrating to Canada.
It was during the 1970’s that non-Afrikan communities became aware of BHM. In Canada, a great deal of credit for spreading that awareness must be attributed to the advocacy of the Ontario Black History Society which, starting in the 1970’s, worked all three levels of government—municipal, provincial, and federal—for the formal official declarations which raised the level of respect, acknowledgement, and importance of the observance of BHM.
In addition to the OBHS, there was constant advocacy from our community activists, scholars, and teachers to school boards, performance spaces, and associations and organizations, to encourage them to get in on the act of spreading often astounding information about Afrikan contributions to global history, learned as a result of BHM events.
I have no illusions, however. Despite what looks like much evidence of the acceptance of the monthly events, I know there are plenty people who see no point to Black History Month. In fact, I know there are people who resent it, interpreting the focus on Afrikan Heritage as being unfair to other races and/or ethnic groups. As an artist-educator who has been performing Africentric musical documentary storytelling performances since the late 1980’s, in concert settings, schools, cabarets and nightclubs, city halls, museums, art galleries...you name it...I am keenly aware of just how hostile people can be about recognizing February in this manner.
I previously mentioned two reasons why the scholar Carter G. Woodson believed that studying Afrikan history was important. There is, however, an overarching reason that is the underpinning for his two reasons; it is the fundamental reason, the core reason why this celebration is necessary.
All histories of all people-groups are important, and I wish as a society we could develop the deep desire and tools for all of us to learn, even just generally, about all our histories. Canadians are not taught a general global history that is inclusive to any depth about people-groups who are non-Caucasian; we really don’t learn much about the civilizations and nations of
First Nations peoples right here from this land, never mind peoples of colour from other continents and islands. But, what we do know is that the peoples of India, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Cambodia, the Philippines etc.—we know they have a history. It may not be taught here, but it is available in their homelands, and to a degree it is with them wherever they travel, as their history is infused through their language; their names; their religions and spirituality; their diets and food culture; their arts and their beauty aesthetics, and so on and so forth—it is carried with them. Their history may not be known in detail by all of us, but the idea that they have a history is fully accepted.
What happened to Afrikans is that in order to justify enslavement, in order to cement the ideology of white supremacy/black inferiority into millions of minds, Afrikan achievements were deliberately wiped out of the annals of much of European academia and its written history. (I should also mention that the same kinds of erasures occurred in those areas which came under Arab Muslim control.) In Europe, for example, prior to the opening decades of the 1800’s, European scholars fully acknowledged that the Ancient Egyptians, the ones who designed and built the pyramids and had the leading educational institutes of the day, were Afrikans—black-skinned, flat-nosed, with full lips and woolly hair.
This knowledge, that the Ancient Ones of Egypt were in fact Afrikans, created later emotional problems for Europeans and their descendants. A primary justification for the enslavement of Afrikans was that as a race, we were not quite human, and consequently, we were supposed to be uncivilized and therefore inferior to all other races. But how can you promote that belief while at the same time acknowledge that they produced a civilization the likes of Ancient Egypt?
That friction in thought, between knowing the truth yet knowingly telling lies for the sake of greed and power, creates what is called cognitive dissonance. You cannot continue sandwiched and rubbed between oppositional mind tugs. It tears at you; it shreds you. Something had to give, and unfortunately, it was not to be racism, that evil, distorting ideology, but rather the history of the targeted people.
Suddenly, the creators of Ancient Egypt became slightly darker-skinned Caucasians in reference books and lectures and classes. Any evidence of high-culture civilizations throughout the Afrikan continent—and there was plenty—was written out of the European historical record, if possible; and when not possible because the proof was too large to be destroyed (like the stone walls of Great Zimbabwe), then the evidence was credited to others—anyone other than Afrikans.
It must be noted that the form of enslavement practiced by Europeans, called chattel enslavement, also demanded that the enslaved Afrikan children, women, and men themselves be denied any sense of having any sort of human history prior to enslavement. By using terror and torture as tactics during the centuries of that Enslavement Industry-controlled economy, varying degrees of mass amnesia were successfully imposed on The Afrikan Taken and the multiple generations of Children of The Taken.
The spread of western colonialism and its cultural viewpoints throughout the world further entrenched this anti-Afrikan attitude in both the dominating populations of people of pallor (white people), as well as the people of colour who came under their colonial control. Consequently, the belief that Afrikan people have no history prior to enslavement; the belief that we have made no meaningful contribution to human civilization; (in other words that we are a worthless people) was spread far and wide around the globe.
So, BHM isn’t about promoting Afrikan history over the history of others for the sake of pride or pity. It is about restoring to the global historical record that which had been unjustly removed, unjustly taken. It is about healing mindsets which have been twisted and poisoned against the people-group known as Black and Afrikan; it is about smoothing out the twists; cleaning out the poisonous attitudes which otherwise make clarity of thought impossible.
This can be a frightening process for some people. Hearing things which conflict with deeply-held beliefs can be difficult to handle; it can shake you to your core. But again, in the words of Woodson, “Let us banish fear.”
So, the origin was Negro History Week. With community psychological healing and growth it expanded in time to a month-long event, and the name changed from Negro to Black. Again, as the community continued to reclaim its rightful source for its mind, many referred to this month as Afrikan Heritage Month. And it most certainly is about that globally spread heritage.
But though I’ve just explained the reason, the necessity of this focussed celebration, one can still ask, “What is the end goal for us?” Are we to be overjoyed when a beer company produces a series of posters of Afrikan kings and queens for February, and interpret their smart promotional move as a community triumph? Should we consider the inclusion of a few Black faces on television news political panels, for this month only, as a sign that we’ve finally arrived? Would or should that be a community goal?
In truth, the question must be asked, where are we striving to go? What’s the destination? At what point do we reach satisfaction? Just as we’ve done in the past, those of us who have “banished fear” are talking and walking another name change. After all that is culturally a very Afrikan thing to do. We’re creative, we improvise, and we will name-change to ensure relevancy. And the change answers the questions. We seek to restore our independence; our health; our worldview; our economies; our control of our cultural products; our minds; our spirituality; our diets and food culture; our values in education; our perspectives of the past and in the present and on the future; and our rightful place in the company of People-Groups of this Planet Earth.
In short, we stride toward Liberation. Complete and Utter, Funkified and Determined, Kujichagulian Liberation. And thus, we now call February, Afrikan Liberation Month.