All history is black history

Why Black History Month? If a people has a past worth learning about, they also must have a future worth caring about.

Frederick Douglass
February was chosen as Black History Month because of the births of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln [GALLO/GETTY]

Irvine, CA – When I was a child, Black History Month, which since 1976 has been celebrated in February each year in the United States, used to mean something.

Perhaps it was because I lived in the New York Metropolitan area in the still race-conscious 1970s and 1980s, but during February it was hard not to get at least a hint of an education about African American history and its contribution to the larger American mosaic, whether it was school activities or public service spots on television, or surrounding the growing chorus of voices to make Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday a national holiday.

True, February is the shortest month of the year; but contrary to urban legend that’s not why it was chosen as Black History Month. Instead, it was because the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, perhaps the two most important figures before Martin Luther King in the quest for black freedom in the United States, both occurred in mid-February.

Read more Al Jazeera opinion editorials on Black History Month:

There were plenty of reasons to criticise the “ghettoising” of black American history into one short month. But the idea at least had the virtue of getting kids to think about the fact that there was such a thing as a specifically African American narrative within the larger, and largely white, version of American history we were being taught in school. And if you grew up in an urban, significantly black cultural milieu, the focus on history – that is, on black people having a past worth learning about – added a bit of extra gravitas to the increasing dominance of African American artistic production within American culture as a whole.

Futures worth caring about

If a people has a past worth learning about, then they also must have a future worth caring about. This is true whether one is talking about black Americans or Native Americans, Palestinians or Kurds, Roma or Tibetans, or any of the other dozens of peoples whose pasts, presents, and futures have been systematically deprived of them by more powerful peoples and governments.

At least that was the lesson I learned from Black History Month as a child. It might seem trite or even clichéd, until you imagine what impact a “Palestinian History Month” would have in Israel, or Shi’i or Coptic History months in Saudi Arabia or Egypt, or a Jewish history month in Iraq or Lebanon, never mind the impossibility of imagining them in the present climate. The first rule to denying people the right to live freely on their land is to deny them their historical narrative.

So in fact, it would seem that Black History Month, which began in 1926 as the more modest Negro History Week, constituted an important milestone in the growing realisation that black people had a history – and thus a permanent place and inalienable right to be citizens – in the United States. It is certainly true, as historians Leigh Raiford and Michael Cohen write in their Al Jazeera column on Black History Month and the Uses of the Past, that the present corporatised version of Black History Month is but the latest example of how radical black voices, and the ultimately radical vision of black – and through it, American – liberation of figures like Martin Luther King, have been suppressed from the mainstream narrative associated with the month.

But if we consider how much effort conservatives continue to expend to deny President Obama his identity as a natural-born American citizen (never mind a Christian; that is, a bona fide member of the dominant cultural community), it’s clear that, if the focus and even substance of the activities surrounding the month can be debated, the need for continued emphasis on the legitimacy of black history in American society, cannot be denied.

And if we consider that Euro-American historiography has for centuries defined sub-Saharan Africans and Africa as literally having no history (as epitomised by the view of that ur-modern philosopher of modernity, G W F Hegel), the long road before us until black history, and through it black power, is as acceptable as its white counterpart, comes more clearly into view.

Black history as relational and world history

A decade before he established Negro History Month, the historian Carter G Woodson created the Journal of Negro History, which in recent years changed its name to the Journal of African American History to reflect the changing politics of black American identity. Reading through the first issues of the journal, I was struck by the the particular vision of “negro history” it heralded. In its pages we do not see negro or black history merely as one slice of a larger mosaic of American history, in which each narrative is placed next to each other to create the “great American melting pot” without actually helping to form the basic identity of other groups.

Instead, it’s clear from the first issue of the Journal that negro history shaped the identities of Americans from the inside, while at the same time remained at its heart a world history. Reading through articles on subjects as diverse as the first black inhabitants of Cincinnati and the passing of tradition among African cultures, I understood that one of the main contributions of my own field, the historiography of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is less groundbreaking than I have long imagined.

Specifically, historians of Israel/Palestine have long struggled against the tendency of both national narratives, albeit for opposite reasons, to describe the two movements as essentially separate and autonomously developing entitites who have had little substantive impact on the culture or identity of the other outside of their conflict. Against this innaccurate but common understanding, scholars have developed “implicate” or “relational” histories of the two peoples, which challenge the dominant narrative of exclusivist nationalism by demonstrating how each community’s identities and histories have been profoundly shaped through its interactions and evolution with the other.

Without using terms like relational or implicate, early 20th-century negro historians were clearly thinking along similar lines. Take, for example, this minor character described in an article on the (still today) neglected historiography of 18th- and 19th-century African American women, from the Journal‘s first issue. According to the historian W B Hartgrove’s narrative, one Adolphe Richards was

“a native of the Island of Guadaloupe. He was a Latin of some Negro blood, had noble ancestry, and had led an honourable career. Educated in London and resident in Guadaloupe, he spoke both English and French fluently. Because of poor health in later years he was directed by his friends to the salubrious climate of Virginia. He settled at Fredericksburg [Virginia], where he soon became captivated by the charms of the talented Maria Louise Moore. On learning of his marriage, his people and friends marveled that a man of his standing had married a coloured woman or a Southern woman at all.

“Adjusting himself to this new environment, Mr Richards opened a shop for wood-turning, painting and glazing. It is highly probable that he learned these trades in the West Indies, but having adequate means to maintain himself, he had not depended on his mechanical skill. In Fredericksburg he had the respect and support of the best white people, passing as one of such well-to-do free Negroes as the Lees, the Cooks, the De Baptistes, who were contractors, and the Williamses, who were contractors and brickmakers. His success was in a large measure due to the good standing of the family of Mrs Richards and to the wisdom with which she directed this West Indian in his new environment.”

It’s hard to overstate just how many threads of American history unknown to most Americans – black or white – are woven into Richard’s brief biography. But the central theme is one of the inherent globality of African identity and culture in mid-19th-century United States. The triangular circuit between the United States, the Caribbean, and England; usage of the French and English languages, bourgeois and working class positioning, continual and routine interactions between various races; all these belie the simplistic narrative of slavery-to-freedom most of us learn when we study negro, or today African history (Or should it be African-Caribbean-British-American history?).

Another fascinating article from the first issue of the Journal of Negro History, “What the Negro Was Thinking During the Eighteenth Century”, seemingly by Woodson himself, offers powerful and eloquent negro voices against slavery, whose claims both to universal and (through the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence) at that point still uniquely American rights and freedoms call out for a hearing today as much as they did well over two centuries ago.

“Violence that is at the core of our shared history.”

As one writer excerpted by Woodson declared in a 1788 article, “Upon no better principle do we plunder the coasts of Africa, and bring away its wretched inhabitants as slaves than that, by which the greater fish swallows up the lesser. Superior power seems only to produce superior brutality; and that weakness and imbecility, which ought to engage our protection, and interest the feelings of social benevolence in behalf of the defenceless, seems only to provoke us to acts of illiberal outrage and unmanly violence.”

The language might be politically incorrect by today’s standards, but we would be hard-pressed to find a more succinct description of the predatory mercantilist capitalism, which first joined Europe to the Americas on one side and Asia on the other, through millions of stolen Africans. They became the incubator and even engine of a European-dominated capitalist modernity, grounded not so much in any Protestant ethic as in the blood and oppression of unfettered colonialism and racial slavery without which modernity, and the European (or American) “mircales” would never have occurred.

Relational or implicate histories, it is clear from the articles in the Journal of Negro History, do not merely teach us that we have common cultural DNA. They also force us to confront the violence that is at the core of our shared history. Without having to focus on it explicitly, reading the Journal reminds us that black people were not just indigenous to another continent; their passage to the Americas constituted the foundation – and along with the genocide of indigenous Americans, the original sin – of modernity, from which the world, and particularly Africa, have yet to recover.

It is in this sense that I argue that all history is ultimately black history. We might be tempted to qualify this by saying that all modern history is ultimately black history, given Africa’s and Africans’ central if still subaltern role in the history of the modern world. But as another article in the Journal‘s first issue, “The Passing Tradition and the African Civilisation”, argues, in fact the history of civilisation from its start can only be understood as beginning in Africa. 

Ethnic studies’ country twang

Most Europeans, never mind white Americans, still have a lot of trouble understanding that they owe so much of what they consider to be their unique cultures and achievements to African minds and bodies. Black History Month tried to correct this by pointing out the achievements of individual black American scientists or inventors (the approach celebrated by Stevie Wonder in his seminal song “Black Man”). I prefer to point out to fans of country music that the famous country twang, not to mention the banjo, that define the quintessentially white American “country music”, in fact derive directly from black Muslim African melodies and instruments that came to the United States with the black slaves whose cultures and identities were so ruthlessly, if incompletely, stamped out upon arrival.

Sadly, while corporations use Black History Month to erase their continued combination of marginalisation and exploitation of black American communities, the study of black history, and ethnic studies more broadly, is coming under intense attacks from conservative politicians who are desperate to preserve white cultural-political dominance against all forces that might challenge it (Latinos, gays, blacks, the working class) and from budget-conscious university administrators who see ethnic studies – ironically, along with other smaller fields such as the once-dominant European languages and literatures – as easy fodder for drastic reductions in course offerings, if not elimination. Is it a coincidence that these attacks have risen at the same time that a prison-industrial complex arose in the United States, which has so disproportionately criminalised and incarcerated young black men?

Our common history, whether 100,000 or 100 years ago, is rooted in or passes through the experiences of Africa.”

Even at the grade school level, Black History Month seems to have lost much of its heuristic power. As I began to write this column, I asked my children and several of their friends, ranging from the first to sixth grades, what they’d learned from Black History Month this year. “Nothing,” they each replied in turn, explaining that none of their teachers had even mentioned it and only one had ever heard of it before I mentioned it to them.

As I tried to ponder the implications of how marginalised Black History Month has become to my children and their friends, the words of Franz Fanon, the seminal Martiniquo philosopher and revolutionary, came to mind. In his Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon argued that “to speak a language is to take on a world, a culture”. The problem, however, is that “sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted… And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalise, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief”.

Whatever its faults, Black History Month – and indeed, the far more powerful realities of negro/black/African-American history – offered a generation of Americans an entree into a language, a culture, and a world that few would otherwise have the chance to engage, but without which it remains impossible to be fully American. Or indeed, to be fully human, since our common history, whether 100,000 or 100 years ago, is rooted in or passes through the experiences of Africa and its peoples as much as – if not more than – any other of the world’s major cultures.

This is a lesson that will take a lot more than one month a year to teach. But February is as good a month as any to start.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming