By Dr. John Aden
There is a common narrative that accompanies this month. In it, we typically speak of the amazing and central contributions African Americans have made to American life, and a long list of accomplishments is presented to highlight this important value added to Republic. The narrative typically begins in the transatlantic slave trade era, and culminates in the Civil Rights Movement’s accomplishments.
From the days of Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s original idea to celebrate Negro history, Black History Month has become a fixture not only in the United States but worldwide. There are a unique set of circumstances that have made this so, and I write to you about them now. In a year where we have experienced the death of Nelson Mandela and Chinua Achebe, It is all too fitting that Black History Month, once focused very tightly on a few unique American experiences is now globally appreciated.
At this point early in the 21st-century it bears putting into writing: across every surface of the African, Afro-Caribbean and African-American historical experiences, we know far more today than at any other point in the past. There is no reason or justification for the senseless violence that grips our communities in the face of so rich, and powerful, and deserving a history and cultural heritage. It is a history that dwarfs the important Civil Rights movement in the U.S. alone, but extends it worldwide, and backward, to the dawn of human writing (if not before it!). This history calls us, as busy as we all are, to master it, not only for pride but also to empower the youth to surpass the feats of our ancestors.
But, this is not strictly a man’s history. Gone are the days when historians solely value individuals. In the Great Man Theory of history, men alone were viewed as the prime movers behind history. But since then, all groups of people have come to be recognized as contributing to the past: men, women, children are valued today for making efforts to change their own circumstances, their communities, and the world around them, with all its systems. In this new telling of the Warmth of Other Suns, the Fannie Lou Hamers, Sister Betty Shabazzes, Shirley Chisholms and Mariama Bas of the world, the Wangari Maathais of the world, and the millions of nameless and faceless yet potent women of the African diaspora have left a rich trail for those enterprising enough to find and track it. Here we will recount but a fraction of this past, of people who changed their societies and the world and continue to.
In the 1920s, around the same time Dr. Woodson created Negro History Week, the Harlem Renaissance took shape as a cultural movement. African Americans who had lived through the First World War as combatants introduced new cultural modes of understanding. Simultaneously, the Negritude movement emerged as a way for colonized African peoples to assert their independence and express their solidarity with each other, in the face of incredible violence visited upon them by Europeans. This was no ordinary violence, but a violence where African laborers in the Belgian Congo, for instance, faced amputation of hands and feet if they failed to meet their daily quota of sugar production, a violence where European pleasure steamboats sailed up and down a stretch of the Congo River, picking up African women against their wills to forcibly perform sexual favors. Negritudists, as poets, playwrights, university students and politicians, extolled the virtuous beauty of their dark complexions, recognizing that “a leopard cannot, and does not, try to change its spots. Theirs was no request for freedom, but a demanding of it that sparked and drew on existing resistance movements. Though directly unconnected, the Anti-Lynching Campaigns of Ida B. Wells-Barnett proved similar assertions of our common humanity.
The Negritude Movement’s key players in the 1930s, Leopold Senghor, Aime Cesaire, and Leon Damas were reacting against the violence of European colonialism and harbored a rejection of education just for the sake of becoming better dominated Africans and Afro-Caribbeans. Throughout the world wide Great Depression, Negritude thinkers and Harlem Renaissance players and actors interacted across the Atlantic, sending letters to reading groups, discovering and sharing each other’s work—sometimes translated from European colonial languages into English—in the US by African Americans who had served in France by emigrating to Canada first, where military service was possible. The First World War primed the pump for this collaboration across the Atlantic, where 1.6 million Africans were forced to serve in the conflict of the Great War. The key take-aways that people of African descent took from the conflict were the realization that people of European descent could be defeated on the fields of battle, but also that Africans too could work in the service of peace for others, even when their own liberty was nonexistent. Moreover, African men in particular and in some places women as well on the African continent leveraged the skills learned in Word War I to begin remastering the tools of death and liberation: the gun.
It wasn’t the first time; the Dutch had imported gun technology into Benin in the 1600s and African ironworkers quickly reverse engineered those technologies for their own purposes, manufacturing their own gunpowder and making muskets for hunting and military affairs. But in the trenches of France, where, to match European falsehoods about African culture, African soldiers were forced to wear belts of ears and noses to “prove “their whole savage Nature,” Africans watched Europeans die in the millions for inches of grass that sometimes changed hands. Or not.
By 1935, when the Italians invaded Ethiopia, Emperor Haile Selassie I gave a powerful speech to the League of Nations, setting forth a defiant chord of independent right to self-determination. And, it reverberated across the world. Forty years later, Bob Marley would use it to create the masterful battle cry of the Black Republic, the anthem “War:”
Until the philosophy which hold one race superior
Everywhere is war—
Me say war.
That until there no longer
First class and second class citizens of any nation
Until the colour of a man’s skin
Is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes—
Me say war.
That until the basic human rights
Are equally guaranteed to all,
Without regard to race—
Dis a war.
That until that day
The dream of lasting peace,
Rule of international morality
Will remain in but a fleeting illusion to be pursued,
But never attained—
Now everywhere is war—war.
And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes that hold our brothers in Angola,
Have been toppled,
Well, everywhere is war—
Me say war.
War in the east,
War in the west,
War up north,
War down south—
Rumours of war.
And until that day,
The African continent
Will not know peace,
We Africans will fight—we find it necessary—
And we know we shall win
As we are confident
In the victory
Of good over evil—
Good over evil, yeah!
Good over evil—
Good over evil, yeah!
Good over evil—
Good over evil, yeah! [fadeout]
The Italians would eventually leave, international pressure proving significant enough to force their retreat, and Ethiopia remained free. Written decades before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and Madiba Nelson Mandela called for a fundamental human capacity for rights, Emperor Haile Selassie I’s words rang down through the ages in resistance and celebration of what we’ve always known: we are fully human beings, deserving of all the bounty and richness we can amass in the short season we all have here.
Consider this a first installment, a down payment on an exploration of our collective pasts. There is not room to do it all justice in one article.
If you desire more, then consider a visit to the African African-American Historical Society Museum in downtown Fort Wayne. Though we are repairing a burst pipe, we will be open by the middle of February, and we look forward to seeing you.
In an effort to make much more of this history compelling and broadly available, the Museum will be publishing its program guide for 2014. In it you will find rich opportunities for you and your family to learn more about these histories and to celebrate our common heritage.
Dr. John Aden is executive director of the African / African American Historical Society & Museum of Allen County