Why Black History Month is Still Important to the Global African Experience

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October 31, 2012 By Sitinga Kachipande

As Black History Month wraps up in England, I thought I’d take some time to reflect on a topic that is central to the Black experience, colonization.  I am always taken aback when I hear anyone have a debate on weather colonization was good for Africa or not. It is particularly disheartening when this discussion takes place between Africans in the Diaspora.  The very nature of this debate signifies a failure in the educational systems in non-African countries to adequately teach African history as an integral part of world history to Diaspora Africans and to the general populace. Black History Month provides a space where the histories of Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora can be included in mainstream education in the Global North. The fact that both Africans and non-Africans are still grappling with this seemingly ‘burning’ colonial question in 2012, indicates that Black History Month is still needed outside of Africa.

Much like foreign domination in any part of the world, colonization in Africa had largely negative consequences. Slavery on continent ushered in an era of suppression, instability and chaos. During the slavery era, Africans suffered kidnappings and village

Slave transport in Africa, depicted in a 19th-century engraving (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

raiding that led to their being trafficked en mass  overseas.  Although some have argues that Africans were complicit in their own oppression by selling each other in to slavery, such arguments expose the poor teaching about the Africa n experience. They are based on assumption that Africans were one monolithic ethnic group and not a mélange of ethnicities. The typical occurrence of “Africans selling Africans” was with ethnic groups selling members of other groups (i.e. the Irish selling the English). The other occurrence was Africans enslaving whom they deemed undesirable in their society. Usually, this was POWs, criminals and the like. There were isolated incidents where people enslaved those close to them. Slavery meant that for 400 years (4-5 generations), Africa’s viable workforce was being transported out of Africa and in to Asia, America, and Europe. Left behind were the feeble and old. Left behind was also the history and progress that was occurring on the continent that many still do not know about.

When Africans were enslaved overseas, the majority were not taught to read or write (by law in some states in America). The educational system for Black people in the U.S. centered on teaching Christianity and domestic work (sewing, cooking etc…). The enslaved and their descendants were given selective education that did not include Africa. Main stream education did not focus on Africa either, so there was no space to learn about Africa or its history. This was true for many of the countries where African slaves were taken to. In Africa, Africans were also being taught domestic work or Bible knowledge as well. The few that were given an education outside of these subjects were taught about the glories of the colonizers. African systems of writing, trading, science etc… were ignored because they were foreign to the Europeans, and were looked down upon. This Eurocentric education system erased the memories of African achievement in Africa and in the institutions of the Global North. There were few that were retaining or producing new knowledge about the continent. Even in subsequent years, education about Africa remains sparse both on the continent and outside of it. European institutions have done an injustice to highlighting education about Africa. African history often starts at European contact, is taught from a single perspective or is simply skipped over. Many college graduates in Europe and America still don’t know that Africa is not a country!

African educational institutions have not transformed much and don’t teach about Africa adequately either. Many educational systems in Africa were carried over from colonialism. Much of the focus still favors the histories of former colonizers in educational curriculum throughout Africa over that of neighboring countries. Many Francophone students can recite the history of the French Revolution but not that of the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. Many of the Malawians I went to school with can recite verses of Shakespeare but not a single phrase from Chinua Achebe or Franz Fanon.  This focus on ‘western’ education is typically because of the political economy that affects African institutions. In order for students to gain access to the Global North’s institutions they are grounded in western focused education. In some cases it is simply because Africans are being taught that nothing was happening in Africa prior to slavery and colonization. Therefore their is little incentive to learn about Africa (beyond the basics) on the continent. African history in Africa often ends up being marginalized, ignored or distorted by Africans as well.  Knowledge about Africa is not being transferred on an equal playing field both inside and outside of the continent.

Education about Africa has been inconsistent in Europe and Africa due to the political environments that affect education. Africans and Europeans alike continue to grapple on questions surrounding the benefits of colonization to Africa in part because of historical distortion or omission about the severity of colonization. Colonial history is not taught accurately – the fate of Africans and African Diaspora is often downplayed. The recent lawsuit against the British government from Kenyan survivors of the concentration camps case is evidence of measures that were taken to hide colonial atrocities. Like in many foreign occupations, there were human rights abuses during the colonial era: Families were separated; Africans in Congo were maimed; Kenyan concentration camps were built were mass killings occurred; Herero women were being used for medical experimentation or were forced in to prostitution; and many other atrocities that occurred. Yet, many Europeans, Americans or Africans are unaware that the colonial experience was a time of terror for many on the continent.

The African experience is comparable to the plight of the Jewish people and how they suffered during Nazi Germany. The Jewish people have made efforts at keeping the memory of their experiences alive in educational and cultural institutions worldwide. There are Jewish Cultural Centers, holocaust museums, documentaries, books, films and other avenues where the Jewish experience is chronicled.  The holocaust is taught in many educational curricula in Europe and Africa. It serves as a reminder to the world about Jewish history and world history. For the Jewish community, this history is passed on to their kids. It would be absurd to hear of young Jewish children debating weather the holocaust was somehow ‘good’ for the Jews because it gave them an opportunity to repatriate to Israel. It is typically equally absurd to hear many Non-Jewish people make the same arguments. Since Africans went through similar experiences, then it should be equally absurd that we should still debate on the merits of colonialism for Africa. In order for the world to be on the same page with regards to African history it means having similar archives and collective memories about the African experience. The grand narratives of world history remind us why Black History Month is needed. Its is simply because the institutions and educational systems in the host countries fail to integrate Africa in world history accurately.

European and African institutions need to invest in building a collective memory of Africa and in properly locating its place and contributions to world history. Black History Month is one way in which African history can be brought to the center of the curriculum in non-African countries. Black History Month is equally needed in African nations as well. Black History Month is needed until such a day when adequate attention is given to black history and the African experience.

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