In the US during the month of February, initially chosen to coincide with the anniversaries of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, father figures of black emancipation in America, colleges, universities and schools celebrate the contributions and achievements of African American figures under what was originally called in 1926 ‘Negro History Week’ and has since 1976 become popular under the name of ‘Black history Month’ (BHM).
The Negro History Week was coined by Dr Carter G. Woodson, American journalist and historian, in order to educate people of colour on a history forgotten by curriculums. The celebration was given a momentum under the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s-60’s, and during the growing rise of Black Power with non-violent revolution led by Dr Martin Luther King Junior whose endorsement eventually led to the federal recognition of the month by the US Congress. Today, the meaning of BHM in the American context is to allow people of colour into the designing of the republican project, by inviting all to acknowledge and celebrate their legacy, and ultimately reconcile a nation with a hurtful past.
“We know about Plymouth Rock, but we should also know about Jamestown. We know about the Mayflower, but we should also know about the Middle Passage”. DR James B. EWERS JR.
When history becomes political
One of the underpinning reasons for the celebration of black figures’ glorious past is that for too long this past has been if not whitewashed, completely erased from the collective memories in American history. Prior to World War II many African-Americans were encouraged to believe that their ancestors didn’t bring any meaningful legacy to the history of the American nation, and therefore serving in the military was one way to make up for their civilisational lacking and inexistence. A worldview reinforced by a system of education that would consciously whitewash the great Negro figures of America and, even when dealing with topics such as slavery, would still portray the ‘great white heroes’ as the ultimate referents, a phenomenon called “psychosis of whiteness” that will be developed further on. The American and French statesman Abraham Lincoln and Victor Schœlcher taking credits for the abolition of slavery in the US and France are both pinnacle illustration of the whitewashing of history.
‘Blackstory’ : the American way out of Black oppression
At the heart of Dr Carter G. Woodson’s thought was the hope that by rewriting history through new lenses, that of the eternal nonexistent figures in ‘whitestory’, both black and white people would better understand their past, adopt a different worldview of their present and imagine a brighter future forged in togetherness as opposed to white cultural hegemony. Woodson proposed education sites -schools, colleges and universities- as premises for teaching ‘blackstory’ , fully aware of the tremendous power of education as a means of addressing social and political questions. Woodson wasn’t oblivious to the fact that no tantrum revolutions would suffice to end black oppression so long as the status quo in itself wasn’t toppled.
To better understand the key concepts of status quo and cultural hegemony we must go back to marxist Italian intellectual Antonio Gramsci. In the Gramscian paradigm, a situation of cultural hegemony is the domination, in a culturally diverse society, of a ruling-class who has managed to establish its standards, morals, worldview and system of values as norm. The dominant culture therefore reinforces a (political, social, economic) status quo and eventually poses it as inevitable. In the case of African Americans, a legacy of centuries of institutionalised racism from the ruling WASP elite (White Anglo-saxon Protestants), and a status quo reinforced by a racist and biased worldview on economics, history, philosophy, art, and even science, explain how African-Americans were put at odds with their history and very selves for so long.
In order to overthrow a status quo meant to reinforce the self-negation of the black identity in white America, reconciling people of colour with their history and the glorious achievements of their ancestors seemed for Woodson to be the root solution….if not the only solution in ending black subordination and its root cause, white superiority. In Woodson’s mind history was not only a tool for political dissent, but a matter of existential survival as a race ought to record its history and achievements in order not to be forgotten in the thought of humanity and avoid extermination.
“ To handicap a student by teaching him that his black face is a curse and that his struggle to change his condition is hopeless (…) is the worst sort of lynching”. The Miseducation of the negro, Woodson, 1933.
However if the original intent of BHM was noble, it seems as though its point has been deviated; while some would even question its relevance at all.
“You are going to relegate my history to a month ? Which month is White History Month ? I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history”. American actor Morgan Freeman
Freeman makes a point when stating that Black history, from the first enslaved African on American soil to the first African-American president couldn’t possibly be contained in a month celebration, let alone the shortest month of the year !
Black History Month : a mere trend ?
Needless to say that the educational and therefore political intent of this celebration has been hijacked by corporations for mercantilist purposes to target African-American consumers. The famous shoe-making company for example, Nike, has a tradition of launching every year a BHM sneakers collection inspired from influencers such as basketball player LeBron James, their cost ranging from $150 to $200. The all the more grotesque Nike ‘EQUALITY initiative’, also designed to allegedly support inclusion and equality for everyone, adds up to the long tradition of the brand’s habit of capitalising on political issues through the merchandising of products having ‘BHM’ or ‘Equality’ written all over them; while the systemic poverty many African-Americans are undergoing won’t allow them to even afford the so called ‘Equality’ products.
This is pretty much the same for many other brands such as McDonalds or Coca-Cola, surfing once a year on the trend that the celebration of African-Americans’ legacy has become.
BHM has also become a marketing weapon to advertise a ‘certain type’ of writers and artists in general, enabling book publishers to boost their sales during a month which allows for it, corrupting the very essence of Woodson’s dream for the African-Americans.
However the denaturalisation of BHM is far from being an all American problem, and remains an issue across countries where it is celebrated, whether Canada, the UK or even Germany.
BHM : 28 days to be black and proud again…and that’s it !
Another point of contention regarding the present day significance of BHM is that throughout a month, we celebrate the history of people of African descent mainly across the diaspora, to make them reconnect with their heritage. But one might find absurd that up to our present days “Black studies” in both anglo-saxon and European countries are marginalised from western curriculums and presented as alternative histories and memories, still. And even if there are, by any chance, modules on Black studies, they shall be concerned with post slavery and postcolonial politics and literature because black history boils down to this infamous pair, slavery and colonialism,…right ?
Furthermore, while it is to be reckoned with that BHM is right to be concerned with the rewriting of the past, does it somehow, in any sort of way, address present days social and political issues embedded in a systemic level that people of colour are undergoing ? One might say it simply doesn’t. It is as though on this one month, whether February (in the US) or October (in the UK), blackness should be celebrated and allowed; but in the very end, the white masks should be worn again as Fanon would say.Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 1952.
At the very best, in places where the political culture allows for it, mostly in countries of anglo-saxon heritage, BHM has become a form of tokenism failing to address meaningfully issues the black diasporas are facing : economic inequality, medical care inaccessibility, lack of political representativeness, police brutality amongst other issues.
At the very worst, in places where a certain form of republicanism won’t even allow what would be considered as communautarism such as France, race shall not and can not constitute the basis for sociability or community.
Although certain figures of the French intellectual and political life such as Rokhaya Diallo or Maboula Soumahoro strive for a national BHM, it is practically impossible for the French Left to embrace such celebration of a particular group for it would corrupt the very DNA of the French ideal of republicanism.
Another difficulty, besides politics, for France to celebrate the history of French citizens of African descent is, as Soumahoro emphasises, that there is no singular history of black people in that country :
“There isn’t one history of Black people in France but many histories. A Black consciousness is on the rise today, but there are many divergences still”.Maboula Soumahoro
This reality was made even more strident to me when doing the out of this world ‘Black Paris Walk’ Tour, a brilliant and sensible diving into the political and artistic foundations of France’s BlackS. The plural is not highlighted in vain here, as the history of people of colour in France sources its richness from the multiple connections of the Hexagon with motherland Africa and the French Caribbeans.
With different, sometimes divergent black memories, celebrating a history that is not only too controversial, but sacrificed on the altar of French Republicanism is rendered almost impossible for France’s Blacks in their attempt at reconnecting with their identities. However if the celebration of BHM in other countries has proven incapable of meaningfully addressing modern sociopolitical issues, would it be realistic to believe a BHM in France could possibly make the French Republic less in denial of its systemic racism anyway ?
How BHM has come to amount to passive revolution
We owe the notion of passive revolution to the same marxist Italian thinker aforementioned, Gramsci, who defines it as follow : a situation in which the ruling class or elite makes little strategic sacrifice or allows for the dominated class to express frustration or discontent once in a while, in order to better preserve the status quo. For me, it is hard not to see Black History Month as symptomatic of the passive revolution minorities are leading, and not only because it is a once in a year celebration of blackness, but mostly because it gathers support from the ruling class.
“I am glad to hear that Negro History Week again will be celebrated. The achievements of the Negro have been remarkable. It is very essential that we have knowledge of the past of a people in order to understand their aims and aspirations for the future.” US President Harry Truman under whom ‘Negro History Week’ became institutionalised.
Black Lives Matter ! …right ?
BHM does not shaken the status quo, if anything it preserves it by reinforcing the idea that minorities’ histories are not fully part of the history taught in curriculums, and therefore shall be reminded of once a while. As if this gentle once a year reminder and boost of black pride should suffice to dust under the carpet the alienation of Black people the other 11 months.
As mentioned before, the hijacking of this month by commercial brands for mercantilist purposes achieves capturing the agency of the black diasporas in their socio-political struggles. In that sense the ‘Black Lives Matter’ Movement has become the closest thing to an ‘active’ revolution in modern America.
However ‘Black Lives Matter’ and such won’t suffice to topple the very foundation of systemic racism in America and the Western hemisphere. They remain episodic tantrums directed at specific issues (in this case place brutality), which are just symptoms of the violence against minorities on the systemic level.
In the British context, the 2018 Windrush Scandal has actualised the debate on what it means to be a British citizen, the Theresa May government assuming being of European descent…put another way being white essentially. But an even deeper question would be what does being white entail ? In “The psychosis of whiteness”, a documentary narrated by Jamaican activist and intellectual Kehinde Andrews, the latter makes a brilliant case on how whiteness is a psychosis : a condition in which one ceases to capture reality as it is and entertains false beliefs.
“As long as you think you are white, you are irrelevant”James Baldwin.
This certainly does echo James Baldwin’s quote and highlights that, just how blackness has been constructed and has had different meanings depending on times and spaces (from the African ‘Negritude’ to the Harlem Black Renaissance); whiteness has been the cornerstone and set the very first race, the ‘white race’, in contrast to which other races think themselves by posing itself as the dominant one at the global level. Baldwin went as far as proposing a White History Week in order to detach America from a false truth, a truth embedded in the myths that White people tell themselves.
Put in other words, in order to undo the effects of whiteness as a political and social construct (which has nothing to do with being factually caucasian, shall I remind), from past imperialism to present systemic racism, we must rethink whiteness in and of itself. Until we do so, the celebration of minorities such as Women’s history month in March, Hispanic heritage month in September, Asian-Americans history month in May, Caribbean heritage month in June…to the very Black History Month won’t make them any more than alternative narratives.
Until the ‘Caucasianstory’ ceases to be the dominant narrative and the myth of whiteness deconstructed and changed, let us daily celebrate the stories of Black, Hispanic and Asian people and more importantly use them to address their present struggles within the diasporas and on the global level.
The significance and magnitude of BHM remembrances differ from a country to another for multiple reasons. But the reason for the need to celebrate black history remains the same : reconnect a diaspora with a lost identity, give it a sense of past for a better hope of future.
If the bipolarity of identities (of black skins and white masks) isn’t nearly as significant for Africans on the continent as it is for the Black diaspora; it is however paramount, through remembrance, to reconcile the continent and its people with the truth : that both have never been on the fringes of History.
So hopefully during and beyond this month, happy digging into ‘Blackstory’ for all !
Marie Dieng for MELA’LILLE