It’s African History Month again, and across the city and across the continent, folk are gearing up for education and celebration. But not everyone is celebrating. Some folks are fighting over the name. Others are saying the month shouldn’t even exist.
“All other peoples take up the other eleven months well,” says Winston Hawthorne, an engineer and community activist with the National Black Coalition of Canada, a major force behind the Month in E-Town. “We just need a little space for ourselves so we have time to talk with ourselves, see ourselves and do for ourselves. We’re behind in self-representation.”
Reminds me of Berke Breathed’s popular Bloom County comic strip, years ago, when one lad asked the sole Black character, Oliver Wendell Jones, why Ebony magazine should exist. If Ebony is okay, shouldn’t Ivory be all right? What Breathed and his boy didn’t get is that all the other mags on the stand are already ivory, by default. Nothing wrong with that, of course--a majority White population should be reflected culturally in its own media. But representation—and who’s doing the representing—are issues of justice in societies rife with racial discrimination from employment to housing to medicine.
African History Month, called also African Heritage Month and Black History Month, began in the 1926 US with the efforts of Carter G. Woodson (The Miseducation of the Negro) who established Negro History Week. Originally an American-only observance, the concept spread across North America. And according to Hawthorne, it hasn’t been easy. “It’s reaching the consciousness of people more than it has in the past,” he says. “But the progress has been slow. We hope to have seen more collaboration and activism for the entire year coming out of it. Several years ago the only organisation would have been [NBCC]. Now there are several, and individuals.”
This year in Edmonton, highlights of AHM include two art exhibitions, the Afro-Quiz (a Jeopardy-like contest for children and youth on global African cultures, history, science and more), a fashion showcase, a tribute to Marvin Gaye, Taste of Africa and the Caribbean, two film festivals, banquets, awards, and a Jubilee gospel concert featuring multiple Grammy-winner Yolanda Adams.
An ongoing controversy exists among people of African descent that finds few parallels among other peoples. Whereas East Asians rarely call themselves “yellow” and people from Europe tend to cite their individual national heritage (Irish, Italian, Polish) rather than the self-description “White,” many New World Africans continue to reject the term “African” in favour of the word “Black.”
Hawthorne, whose Jamaican roots wind their way through England, employs both terms, and routinely wears beautiful shirts from West Africa as visible embrace of the Motherland. He laments the rejection of Africa he’s witnessed among New Worlders. “The Caribbean [African], much like the North American African, does not know the ground he stands on,” he says, “because his education comes from the mainstream. Along with that education comes the perception of Africa that is still negative. Among a lot of Black people, we want to be seen as a winner, and the winner appears to be someone else, sadly. Which is why we need African History Month.”
Hawthorne underplays the “anti-winner” story of Africa that is the rule in the “his-tory” of the West. From movies to schoolbooks, from newspapers to documentaries, “Africa” used to mean grass skirts, “ooga-booga,” and cannibals. Now the stereotypes are more likely now those of endless wars, bloated bellies, misogyny, and filth. No less than French Neanderthal-in-Chief Nicolas Sarkozy declared that Africans have no history while--wait for it--he was at the University of Dakar in Senegal addressing Senegalese. Yet just across the border in Mali was fabled Timbuktu. A name known in North American as an almost Dr. Seussian non-sense term, the real Timbuktu was an ancient university city, home to thousands of manuscripts which even now are being translated for their treatises on medicine, astronomy, mathematics, literature, history, and more.
Sarkozy was close to Nigeria, home to the Yoruba religion, a wellspring of divine inspiration which birthed the New World religions of Voudou (Haiti), Candomblé (Brazil), Santeria (Cuba) and more, with somewhere around 50 million adherents worldwide (far more than Judaism, the Baha’i faith and Mormonism combined). And what about the Horn? Ethiopia with its castles and rock-hewn churches; Sudan with its hundreds of pyramids and a written text only recently decoded; and Egypt itself, child of Sudan and, according to Cheikh Anta Diop (The African Origin of Civilisation: Myth or Reality?), Martin Bernal (Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation) and Richard Poe (Black Spark, White Fire: Did African Explorers Civilise Ancient Europe?), a robustly African population and civilisation whose arts and sciences were the foundation for the Greek “miracle.” Writing itself may have begun among those ancient Africans.
“We will need African History Month so long as we fail to get over the legacy of history, until the Black peoples are standing on equal footing,” says Hawthorne. “It’s mainly up to us. We will need one until we’ve achieved equality.”