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THE MONITOR

  • Professor Nigel Westmaas

Black History Month: Honoring Black America and Embracing Global Solidarity


Martin Luther King Jr. | Public domain photo by Rowland Scherman

Mural of George Floyd in Germany | Public domain mural by Eme Free Thinker

Dr. Carter G. Woodson | Public domain photo by Addison Norton Scurlock

Mary Church Terrell | Public domain image restored by Adam Cuerden



Dr. Nigel Westmaas is an Associate Professor in Africana Studies at Hamilton College.


“You don't stick a knife in a man's back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you're making progress ...” 

―Quote attributed to  Malcolm X


Black History Month, observed in February, originated from "Negro History Week," an initiative established in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), a distinguished African American historian. His initiative was preceded by the contributions of figures such as Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954), a prominent activist against lynching and a leader within the National Association of Colored Women. Terrell's dedication to promoting Black history was evident through her initiatives like Frederick Douglass Day, illustrating her pivotal role in the early dissemination of black history and laying the groundwork for what would eventually be recognized as Black History month.


Black History month (BHM) was formally established and acknowledged in the U.S. in 1976 by President Gerald Ford, who encouraged Americans to "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history." This observance is not just a mere recognition, but a vibrant celebration of the vast and varied cultural and artistic contributions of Black Americans that have been both transformative and foundational to the American cultural landscape. From the rhythmic complexities of jazz to the soul-stirring verses of the Harlem Renaissance poets, black Americans have been at the forefront of artistic innovation and cultural expression. The world of literature has been equally enriched by Black voices. Authors such as Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou have explored the depths of the Black experience, weaving narratives that challenge, uplift, and resonate with readers across the globe.


As we commemorate BHM and concurrently noting present and future challenges ahead, let us not forget the main face of the civil rights movement in the USA, Martin Luther King Jr. whose activism was set against a backdrop of a nation (and world) in turmoil. Despite the halo of reverence we place on him today, the reality of his era was starkly different. King’s opposition to the Vietnam War, combined with his unwavering commitment to social and economic justice (as evidenced by the Poor People's Campaign) and civil rights, established him as a polarizing figure. A 1968 Harris poll revealed a staggering 75% disapproval rating for King among Americans.


In the vein of King, BHM should be recognized not merely as a national observance within the United States but as a global acknowledgment of the pervasive issues of racism, classism, and colonialism that continue to impact black and brown communities worldwide. The issues King and his colleagues and black movements fought against—racial discrimination, economic inequality, and the militarism that often underpins oppressive systems—are not confined to any single country or era. They manifest in different forms across the globe, affecting communities in unique yet interconnected ways.


The introspection and recognition during this month should remind us of the collective fight against systemic injustices that know no borders. James Baldwin, a pivotal figure in articulating the Black American experience, aptly observed, "to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost all of the time." This sentiment encapsulates the persistent state of vigilance and fury with which African Americans have historically confronted injustices, both domestically and globally.


In the very marrow of this ceaseless tale of defiance and fortitude stand the Black women activists, whose indelible imprints have profoundly shaped the contours of both past and present battles for justice and equity. Figures like Ana Julia Cooper, whose pen and intellect were as sharp as they were insightful; Ida B. Wells, a journalist who, with unflinching bravery, waged war on the barbarism of lynching; and Rosa Parks, whose life of activism was highlighted by the significant act of resistance on a Montgomery bus that became a symbol for the fight against the tyranny of segregation.

 

Before the modern period, Harriet Tubman, known as the "Moses of her people," is celebrated for her daring missions that led hundreds of enslaved individuals to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Her bravery and strategic acumen in the face of immense danger underscore the pivotal role black women have played in the fight for liberation.  In more recent history, Angela Davis's advocacy for civil rights and her long career in intersectional social justice. Davis's work, which encompasses issues of race, class, and the criminal justice system, continues to inspire new generations of activists committed to social change. These women, among countless others, have laid the groundwork for ongoing fights for justice and equality.


Black History Month: Enduring Challenges and Criticisms


Carter Woodson famously asserted that  "history is the depository of great action, the witness of what is past, the example and the instructor of the present, and the monitor to the future." This perspective fuels the ongoing debate about the continued relevance of BHM in addressing present-day needs. 


Discussions surrounding BHM often encounter a spectrum of criticisms, ranging from those who advocate for a "post-racial" America to detractors who argue it's time to "get over slavery." These critiques, along with various other objections to the commemoration of BHM, overlook the clear evidence that underscores the ongoing necessity of this observance, both within the United States and in the broader context of global affairs. The glaring indications of the continued relevance of BHM are the recent setbacks in voting rights for African Americans, and the increasing challenges to the inclusion of black history in educational curricula, from kindergarten through to university level, signal a troubling trend toward the erasure of vital historical narratives. Recall that this trend toward black erasure is not new – it was exemplified in the early reaction to Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye," a seminal work that faced significant opposition upon its release. The novel, which explores themes of race, beauty, and identity, was met with calls for a ban from various educational institutions.


These setbacks represent a significant regression in the fight for equality and highlight the fragility of civil rights advancements and a larger trend of backsliding that echoes past moments in American history when African Americans experienced significant setbacks after making strides in their struggle for rights and recognition. The Reconstruction era, roughly from 1865 to 1878, exemplifies this trend. In that time, African Americans achieved notable progress in political and social rights, only to have these gains methodically rolled back in subsequent years. The "separate but equal" Jim Crow doctrine, established in 1896 by the Supreme court, epitomized this regression by legitimizing racial segregation and eroding the social and economic rights of black Americans.


The cyclical nature of progress and regression in the struggle for African American rights actually underscores the critical importance of Black History Month. BHM serves not only as a celebration of the contributions and achievements of black individuals and communities but also as a potent reminder of the ongoing struggle for equality and justice. It is a time to reflect on the past, to understand the present, and to recommit to the principles of equality and justice for all. In the face of contemporary challenges and criticisms, the observance of BHM stands as a vital testament to the resilience of the African American community (and by extension their black and Latinx counterparts in the region and the world) and the unending pursuit of a more inclusive and equitable society.


In the insightful book The Quiet before: On the Unexpected  Origins of Radical Ideas, author Beckerman highlights the rapid expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement following George Floyd's death in 2020: “…within a month it was estimated that as many as twenty six million people had taken part in a protest. An analysis by the New York Times counted 4,700 demonstrations, or an average of 140 per day.” The newspaper even termed it "the largest movement in US history." The wave of solidarity for George Floyd transcended national boundaries. The outcry was not confined to any single geography; instead, it echoed through the streets of major cities worldwide, from London to Berlin, Sydney to Tokyo, demonstrating the universal appeal and urgency of the call for change.


Black History Month: A Global Perspective on Unity and Resistance


Black History Month (BHM) transcends the confines of American history, serving as a testament to the rich and diverse experiences of global blackness. This month should highlight the varied yet interconnected struggles for resistance, resilience, dignity, and equality that define the black experience worldwide. The narrative of resistance against oppression encompasses a wide array of struggles across the globe. It includes bringing attention to the enduring exploitation of resources in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a situation that has persisted for nearly 150 years. In Australia, there is an ongoing fight for Aboriginal rights, highlighting the need for recognition and justice. The horrific situation prevailing in Haiti represents a critical part of this narrative, as the country not only faces the lasting impacts of colonialism but also holds the historical significance of being the first to decisively overthrow chattel slavery.


In Europe, the stand against racist xenophobia forms another important chapter in this collective story. Similarly, the struggle continues against the relentless exploitation of resources and the resultant destruction of communities across Africa. The push for indigenous rights extends beyond Australia to Latin America, where similar battles are being fought.


Additionally, taking a firm stand against antisemitism and Islamophobia should not be seen as conflicting with unwavering solidarity with the people of Gaza. This stance highlights the global nature of resistance. Each of these elements, from regional conflicts to global movements, contributes to a broader narrative of opposition to various forms of oppression, underscoring the interconnectedness of these struggles and the universal pursuit of justice and equality.


And of course, we face the impending catastrophe of global climate change (now more appropriately, global boiling) which will affect every single community in the world. BHM, therefore, not only serves as a reflection of this shared history but also as a rallying cry for action and solidarity across the globe. 


Frantz Fanon, psychiatrist, philosopher and revolutionary delved into the profound psychological and existential effects of colonialism and racism on black identity and consciousness. In this context, BHM stands as one strand of an existential affirmation of freedom, resistance, and the enduring journey towards self-definition in the face of oppressive forces.


As we observe Black History Month in 2024, particularly on campus, it's crucial to acknowledge that there's still much to be accomplished. Stay aware of the system's failings, and as you commemorate, remember it is crucial to act. Kendrick Lamar's thought-provoking words resonate deeply: “where was your presence, where was your support you pretend.” These lyrics serve as a powerful reminder to not only reflect but also to actively support and engage in the ongoing struggle for equality and justice.


Certainly, aim for peaceful resolution through respectful dialogue for any matter that arises. Yet, if campus authorities attempt to diminish or seize control of your autonomy and initiatives, offering only superficial solutions in return, refrain from silent compliance. Embrace the wider ramifications of “know thyself”, remain radically authentic, educate the community, and boldly express your truth—raise your voice! — both during Black History Month and beyond.

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