I had in the past been somewhat ambivalent about our celebration of Black History Month. Our history is about West Indian people, largely black people, about our relationships with others who peopled this landscape, the indigenous people-the Kalinagos who came before us; remembering too, that the Garifuna people, another section of our indigenous grouping resulted from the cohabitation of Blacks, largely escaped enslaved and the Kalinagos. Then there were the Portuguese and Indians who came after emancipation through efforts of the planter class and imperial government to provide competition to the newly emancipated to prevent them from holding the planters to ransom by withholding their labour from the estates. So that is what our history is about.
Unfortunately, we have paid little attention to the land from which our black people came and their life and culture before they were stolen and brought here through the middle passage. That is the foundation of our history and should be taught throughout the year. Admittedly our majority black people were depicted in colonial texts as objects rather than subjects of our history. Even more than us, the indigenous people were considered to be cannibalistic; were subjected to genocide and in 1797, the majority of the them, largely Garifuna people deported from their own country.
Black History Month, February, was copied from the Americans. February has no real significance to us in the way that August has as Emancipation Month. Black History Month owed its origin to Dr Carter Woodson who was the son of former slaves and was unable to enrol in High School until he was aged 20. He went to Harvard and earned a PhD in History. Black History Month came out of the earlier celebration of Black History Week. February was chosen because it was the birthday of Frederick Douglas, the Black Abolitionist. It must be noted too that President Abraham Lincoln who issued the Proclamation of Emancipation was born on 12 February. We must remember the struggles in the 1960s to establish Black Studies and African history programmes at colleges and Universities in the US. I mention this because there is a sort of racist madness in Florida as Governor, Ron DeSantis in his fight against what he calls Critical Race Theory and based on the Stop Woke Act which he signed in 2022, is attempting to dictate how African history should be taught and what should be taught. Along with this is the banning of a number of books including Toni Morrison’s celebrated novel BELOVED that won her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, and another of her works The BLUEST EYE.
The racist governor of Florida wants to ban any discussion that might make whites uncomfortable, including matters relating to the Civil Rights Act, Slavery and Reconstruction. DeSantis has his eyes fixed on becoming the next US President. It is of interest too that George Orwell’s “1984” and ANIMAL FARM are among the books banned.
African American Studies arose because of the marginal treatment given to Blacks in the history of America and the white washing of American history. The American Civil War, for example, is seen largely as a struggle between the Union and Confederacy, with only passing reference to the real cause, the issue of slavery.
Black History in the American context has relevance to us in that Caribbean people made a large contribution to that history. We can think of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and his role in the Civil Rights Movement. Sylvester Williams was one of the figures behind the First Pan African Conference in 1900. CLR James was one of the early pioneers for African Independence and acted as an advisor to men such as Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta who returned to lead their countries to independence. Then there was Marcus Garvey who led one of the largest Black Movements that spanned many countries outside the United States. Hugh Mulzac a son of Union Island was the first person of African descent to command a merchant ship in America. He also commanded one of the ships in the Garvey Black Star Line, the Booker T Washington named after the outstanding African American who founded the Tuskegee Institute. The DRAMA OF KING SHOTOWAY, the first play about an African, written and produced in New York in 1823 by William Alexander Browne who is believed to be a Vincentian. Unfortunately, the text of this play about Vincentian National Hero Chatoyer has not been found but Browne is regarded as the Father of Black Theatre in the United States.
Black History Month in SVG is not today given the kind of attention that it had commanded in the recent past. Schools used to have annual lectures and other activities celebrating the month. Today there doesn’t appear to be much attention given to it.
Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian