This post is an amalgamation of two talks I gave in the last half a year:
- ‘Pan-Africanism, Afrofuturism and Decolonisation: Realising visions of freedom,’ University of Bristol, Black History Month programmes, 4 October 2018
- Getting to the Future by Revisiting the Past: Law, history, education, knowledge in Africa, The International Students Conference for Africa (TISCA) 2019, University of Lancaster, 5-7 April 2019
I have divided this into two parts.
During the month of October, the UK celebrates Black History Month. In February, every year, the United States marks the same occasion, though it is sometimes called African-American History Month. These month-long markers are a way to, among other things, remember people and events often left out of mainstream curricula. The name ‘Black History’ itself, could be seen as a misnomer, if most of what these celebrations commemorate is triumph over slavery, colonisation and racism etc, that is not Black History being marked, but White and Black History. It also seems to me (and has been remarked on by others) that the activities of BHM are often infused with an underlying presumption that while we may celebrate Pan-African culture there is no cerebral benefit to studying Black/African history, that while there is something to learn from the Black experience, there is no intellectual value to Black/Africana thought. So a lot of BHM is focused on the food, fashion and music of the Other and not on the history that othered the Other. Even when we deign to celebrate people who ‘fought for freedom’, we omit to mention what they fought against [sneeze! White Supremacy sneeze!]. We laud people who ‘gave their lives for freedom’, but do not mention who or what took their lives. [sneeze!!] As a student of history and specifically African history, it seems to me that dedicating one month in this way to such a wealth of history can never be a perfect solution to continuing erasure and distortion. In one month it is almost impossible to answer all the questions that are left unanswered, to unearth the history of a world that has sub-humanised and continues to sub-humanise Blackness. Example:
What Exactly is History?
On the evening of the 1st of April 2019, my grandmother relinquished her hold on this world and passed on to the next. I will always miss her, but I also know how lucky I have been to, throughout her life, hear first-hand accounts of what life in Nigeria was like in the 30s and 40s and 50s from the perspective of an ‘ordinary’ Nigerian woman. Though my grandmother was far from ordinary.
There have been many other people who have influenced my perspectives of contemporary history. In a previous post I narrated how, my grandfather, in the 1920s, trekked 2 weeks across Nigeria to seek out a formal school as they were very rare at the time. Before he died, he had told me this story so many, many times. He told me of a very different country from what exists now. He was taught by Irish and Scottish missionaries and so had an accent inflected by those interactions. It was always quite jarring to go and visit him in the village, passing by strong Ekiti Yoruba speech, thick Kwara forest, mountains covered in Savannah brush, only to be greeted in tones of 1920s Ireland.
My other grandfather, who was older than my other two grandparents, used to tell us stories of British colonial district officers who would travel to his out of the way village to collect colonial taxes. He would tell us of how he and one of his wives – he had eight – had to trek 4 days from Olle Bunu to Auchi with barrels of palm oil on their heads to sell. My grandparents are all gone now, but they have left me their living stories. And so, I know I have been lucky. I have been given the gift of living history.
History, as we know it, is the record of what those who keep the archive will say happened when those who actually lived through it are no longer here to tell us the truth about what they remember. History is the record. History is political memory.
Then What is Black History?
I have already stated that the almost universal habit of limiting history to racialised Others hides more than it reveals, but let us precede thus… It is almost impossible to talk about Black History without talking about the imperial/colonial archive. Where exactly, can we go to find Black history? To unearth hidden and erased histories, we look in colonial records, in slave records, and in that sense Blackness as history exists only as a reaction to Whiteness. Black History Month then becomes a chronological site for us to mark and rehearse only the trials, tribulations of Black people as we have reacted to racialisation as we have passed through time. But these sites have also become a shrine of not-forgetting, horological monuments and testaments to the vast and varied multitude who preceded us all across this terrestrial space. Month-long resurrections of memories of the departed, of those who wore our skin and went ahead of us to draw back the night under which we had been flung, and ensure that we have the measure of freedoms that we have today.
We must also note that the study of history should not just be backward looking, but forward-looking. What good is history if we do not learn from it? So, Black History Month gives us an overt opportunity to look to the future to chart a way forward for a people with full knowledge of where our people have been, the dreams they have dreamed, the hopes, the victories, the tragedies and triumphs of the past.
And so I return to my the question. What is Black History?
Because history is testimony, it is also subjective. History is the interpretation (arising from the record) of past events, of things that the powerful choose to remember as time passes. And so, a lot of history is distorted and missing. As Siddhartha Mitter says, it is; ‘Established, not settled. History is restless. Afterlives are busy. Every record is incomplete. Many records are absent. Most records. The archive is mostly omission.’ Take a few seconds and dwell on that with me for a bit. ‘The archive is mostly omission.’ Our archive is mostly omission. As people who believe that we are intimately connected to our ancestors and that they live on in us, we are the missing.
History, as record, as testimony, interpretation and memory of time, is always political. But what we call Black history is especially so. So, we must resist the temptation to join in the tendency often exhibited to confine Black History to boundaries that attempt to confine our identity and tie it to Whiteness. As a reaction or counterpoint to Whiteness. We are who we say we are. As we realise that history is political, we also realise that in its presence as mythology and in its absence as epistemic silencing, it has had political effect on geographical spaces. A lot of this is seen in how ‘Africa’ as political idea is distorted, confined and maligned. We should not stand for it. Because, let us face it, even though we often try, we cannot effectively and categorically talk about Blackness without talking about Africa; we should not talk about Africa without talking about all her Diaspora’s. We are still the missing.
So Black history is complex and interconnected. It is not one thing. We are many things. We really do carry multitudes inside us, but Black History is also the connection of many multitudes. It is full of ideological remnants and cultural leftovers that surprise our different sub-communities, in a turn of phrase, an attitude, in food, in dance, in song, in the face of my Nigerian Uncle looking back at me from the body of a Trinidadian stranger. Black people are Black History. Political history is personal history and personal history is political history. Because we believe we are connected to our ancestors and that we have some influence over the future of our children and children’s children, we can and do exist across time and space. We are living history. But if we do not know our history what are we living for? We are still the missing. We are history because the past lives on in us. As James Baldwin says, we are controlled by history, we carry it within us, it is present in everything we do.
So, this is why our history is precious. Remember that history is a record of interpretation pre-disposed to the subjectivity of who tells the story. But who tells Black History? Who tells the history of Black History? African history? African history is mostly missing, African history is a history of erasure, of obliteration, minimisation, infantilization, exotification. That template of othering in history is cast around Black bodies today. So we must know who we were, to know who we are and thus who we may be. Africa as the origin of Blackness is both a physical/geographical space, and also a political space of consignment, negative myth-making, forgetting and erasure. Now as it was then. We are still the missing and unseen.