Editor’s Note: Nayaba Arinde is the editor of Amsterdam News, one of the oldest black-owned publications in the United States, and is an activist and radio commentator in England and in the U.S. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Nayaba Arinde: It would be absurd for black people to seek validation for the month from white people, but whites should pay attention
How ironic that Africans, the Earth's first people, get ignored by revisionist Eurocentric history, says Arinde
The racial issues that simmer unceasingly beneath the surface of America have rushed to the surface again and again over the past year, boiling up as recently as the Grammy Awards last week.
Attired in a blue prison uniform and shackles, rapper Kendrick Lamar shuffled out on a stage flanked by prison cells, then challenged viewers with a fiery performance of “The Blacker the Berry” and his hit, “Alright” as the stage behind him erupted in a bonfire. The performance ended with Lamar standing silhouetted before a map of Africa with the word “Compton” splashed across it. “Black Twitter” rose up in recognition and solidarity.
This hot on the heels of Beyonce’s Super Bowl halftime performance, in which she and a cadre of black female backup dancers invoked the Black Panthers for Self-Defense, Malcolm X and other imagery resonant of the racial struggle in this country and of black empowerment, as she performed “Formation.” Opting to ignore, or deny, Beyonce’s legitimate political critique, some people – mostly white people, such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani – denounced it.
We are in the midst of Black History Month, and with these two high-profile events alone, the need for it could not be more self-evident.
But every year, someone questions the legitimacy of this month.
Late last month, Fox News contributor Stacey Dash, who is black, dismissed the debate over the lack of black nominees for the Oscars, adding – ridiculously – that “if we don’t want segregation, then we have to get rid of channels like BET and the BET Awards and the Image Awards.” She said: “There shouldn’t be a Black History Month. We’re Americans, period. That’s it.”
What the heck are Dash and people who think like her talking about?
Black History Month has roots that go back 90 years. One cannot celebrate it without honoring its founder, historian Carter Godwin Woodson. In 1926, Woodson, the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, launched Negro History Week in recognition of black achievement and contribution.
This, of course, evolved into the monthlong celebration.
Today, a variety of books and calendars that feature the likes of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Madam C.J. Walker, Dr. Betty Shabazz, Denmark Vesey, Rosa Parks, J.A. Rogers, Sojourner Truth and Marcus Mosiah Garvey, for example.
Most broadly, the month is a time to celebrate the contributions and achievements of black people. But its meaning goes deeper and wider than that for many. To make sense of our ongoing conflicts in America, it’s crucial to understand this.
For example, Black History Month is also the acknowledgment of the (relative) collective triumph of black people surviving the African Holocaust – the Maafa, a term coined by anthropologist Marimba Ani in her 1994 book “Yurugu: An African-Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behavior.” Ani writes of the devastation caused by four centuries of enslavement, imperialism, colonialism, Jim Crowism and cultural, economic, social and economic oppression of Africans.
This is fundamentally why, Dash-like utterances notwithstanding, it would be absurd for black people to seek validation for our celebratory month from white people. But they would do well to pay attention anyway, particularly in a presidential campaign season.
Indeed, a similar time of observance, Black Solidarity Day, was conceived of in 1969 by Dr. Carlos E. Russell, a professor emeritus at Brooklyn College. It was inspired by the play “Day of Absence,” by Douglas Turner Ward, which describes a day – often before a general election – when black people are asked to withdraw from the workforce and economy to demonstrate their collective power and influence.
Likewise, some see Black History Month as a kind of organizing principle – an ideal time to strategize about how best to politically, economically and socially harness said power and influence for the betterment of the black community.
That aspect is particularly resonant this year in America, with police officers involved in the deaths of black people such as Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd – among too many, many others – and still not held responsible for those deaths.
And this year, we again saw all-white nominees in the main Oscar categories. It is no great mystery why none of the “black” movies (“Straight Outta Compton,” “Beasts of No Nation,” or “Concussion”) were nominated for acting awards, what with the Academy’s 94% white voting membership.
That is just to name two affronts that make the need for Black History Month obvious.
Given this, candidates in both parties have to face the fact that black voters may not show up on Election Day in the post-Barack Obama era.
With the Republicans doing their level best to remain the party of “nope” (to voting rights, racial justice and the reduction of inequality), and the Democrats simply assuming they automatically have the vote of black Americans, this could be a white-like-the-Oscars turnout, come November.
How ironic that Africans – the Earth’s first people – get ignored by revisionist Eurocentric history, but are known to be phenomenal contributors to the sciences, medicine, architecture, agriculture, education, culture and civil society, and yet still, too often, find themselves expected to require the validation of the European-descended to be seen as legitimate.
Thankfully, the works of renowned historians and educators such as Dr. Yosef Ben-Jochannan, Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Dr. Charshee McIntyre, as well as “The New Jim Crow” author, Michelle Alexander, allow the truth about African heritage to be told and applied in our daily lives.
Black History Month has particular meaning if we honor the wonderful people we have read volumes about and seen biopics on, but we must also take heed of the unknown people, the folk who in the light or in the dark do the work to improve the lives of everyone else.
We say thank you to all who came before us and paved the way.
That’s why there should be a Black History Month.