Mama is excited. She grabs her husband’s arm and smiles broadly as their daughter marches proudly to the microphone. She is perhaps 11 or 12-years-old, but at this moment, with her head held high and her perfect erect posture, she possesses the poise of a young woman twice her age.
What happens next is magic – at least it is in the minds of the girl’s adoring parents who have been mesmerized from the moment their pride and joy first emerged from stage left. The young orator places her portfolio on the lectern, and while making her best efforts to imitate Johnetta Cole’s diction and speech cadence, she reads her essay that lauds the accomplishments of Barbara Jordan, Carol Mosely Braun and of course Kamala Harris.
When she finishes, she leaves no doubts in the minds of the audience that one day, she too will take her place in the ranks of these women. Listeners rise to their feet and generate an ocean of well-deserved, thunderous applause that washes over the prodigy who, while excited beyond belief, maintains her composure, and walks to the stage wings. Mama is on her feet clapping furiously, waving her arms, and shouting repeatedly: “That’s MY baby! That’s MY baby!”
In the aftermath of another Black History Month, many of us can say we recently witnessed similar or identical scenes. In so many places February has become a month reserved for ritualistic acknowledgment of the same superficial talking points from the same pool of people.. It is a month that is often heavy on ceremony and light on critical analysis.
But what if things were different? Would Black History Month have greater value if the community’s commemorations had more scholarly substance? Were he alive, Frantz Fanon might not think so. In his classic Black Skin – White Masks he suggested that for oppressed Africans, the urgency of struggle makes historical reflection an irrelevancy. He said:
“For the Negro who works on a sugar plantation…there is only one solution: to fight…It would never occur to me to ask these Negroes to change their conception of history.”
Fanon goes on to suggest that efforts to correct lies and distortions about the African past are sometimes motivated by a compulsive inferiority complex-driven need to prove something to white people. He says:
“Face to face with the white man, the Negro has a past to legitimate, a vengeance to exact; face to face with the Negro, the contemporary white man feels the need to recall the times of cannibalism…In no way should I dedicate myself to the revival of an unjustly unrecognized Negro civilization. I will not make myself the man of any past. I do not want to exalt the past at the expense of my present and of my future.”
By way of illustration, Fanon highlights the struggle of the Vietnamese people against imperialism. “It is not because [a Vietnamese person] has discovered a culture of his own that he is in revolt. It is because ‘quite simply’ it was, in more than one way, becoming impossible for him to breathe.” Fanon goes on to say: “The Vietnamese who die before the firing squads are not hoping that their sacrifice will bring about the reappearance of a past. It is for the sake of the present and of the future that they are willing to die.”
That having been said, Fanon does not reject the value of African history. He said: “Let us be clearly understood. I am convinced that it would be of the greatest interest to be able to have contact with a Negro literature or architecture of the third century before Christ. I should be very happy to know that a correspondence had flourished between some Negro philosopher and Plato. But I can absolutely not see how this fact would change anything in the lives of the eight-year-old children who labor in the cane fields of Martinique or Guadeloupe.”
Dr. Yosef Ben-Jochannan, Cheikh Diop, Ivan Van Sertima, Runoko Rashidi and other distinguished scholars have rendered enormous service by retrieving and reconstructing hidden history, often in direct response to the lies and omissions of white supremacists. W.E.B. DuBois explicitly acknowledged such as his motivation. In the foreword to his book The World and Africa, he said:
“Since the rise of the sugar empire and the resultant cotton kingdom, there has been consistent effort to rationalize Negro slavery by omitting Africa from world history, so that today it is almost universally assumed that history can be truly written without reference to Negroid peoples. I believe this to be scientifically unsound and also dangerous for logical social conclusions. Therefore, I am seeking in this book to remind readers in this crisis of civilization, of how critical a part Africa has played in human history, past and present, and how impossible it is to forget this and rightly explain the present plight of mankind.”
But on some level is Fanon correct? Notwithstanding DuBois’ articulated mission of filling in the gaps of historical records generated by white supremacists, do we tend to retrieve and reconstruct our history to prove something to white people? If not, and if we are doing this to prove something to ourselves, is Fanon correct nevertheless when he asserts that, at best, knowledge of this history offers psychic comfort but no practical contribution to the struggle for liberation?
Our history, as researched by DuBois and others can be a weapon, but at present, when we commemorate Black History Month we tend to celebrate “Black Heroes” who are often individuals who have by the standards of white society made great accomplishments. This has been regarded by some as important for our struggle during those periods when white supremacist propaganda so dominated the popular culture that African children saw no positive African images, and consequently developed inferiority complexes that so demoralized them that some young people not only felt no incentive to struggle for their people, but they were also motivated to abandon them. During those times, showcasing George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, et al. not only made sense to many, but it was also considered necessary to sustain inter-generational continuity of the struggle.
However, there is no longer a dearth of so-called “respectable” African images. We now live in a time when Black so-called heroes who satisfy bourgeois notions of respectability are found in the White House, the House of Representatives, the Senate, City Halls and State Houses across the country. In fact, Barack Obama was the only President Africans born during the first years of this century ever saw while growing up. Too many of these children were directed to regard him as a role model without paying any attention to his bloody record of deadly imperialism.
There is now less of a need to focus entirely on a grab bag of “Black Heroes” – particularly those who aren’t heroic. Even Fanon would likely agree that history can be used as a weapon if it is employed strategically in concrete struggles. If for example young Africans in the streets risking their liberty and their lives to resist police violence were approached and asked to listen to a lecture about Whitney Young, they would likely regard the invitation as bizarre, as it is so disconnected from their present, urgent reality. However, if they were instead offered an opportunity to review a compilation of records of tactics used by Black activists to fight police brutality during the preceding two decades, as well as internal police memoranda that disclose the strategies police have used over the years to disrupt demonstrations, then that is an invitation that will likely be enthusiastically accepted.
This is not to say that other aspects of the story of Africans’ sojourn both in Africa and in the diaspora should be abandoned or ignored, because the full history is of vital importance. Rather, those who choose to present or teach that history can make strategic decisions when doing so. If the present, urgent political concerns of a given audience are first identified, any history relevant to those concerns is more likely to not only resonate, but also have practical value.
If we educate and organize properly, there will hopefully come a day when Black fraternities, sororities, churches, social clubs and civil rights organizations will begin to host a new type of Black History Month program that does not feature smiling children reciting facts about the usual celebrated historical figures. Children are capable of more. How special it will be at these programs to watch brilliant 11-year-old children present relevant analysis of such things as the historical threat to the African World posed by AFRICOM, NATO, CIA, NSA and all the other alphabet-named imperialist criminal enterprises, as well as other history vital to waging our ongoing war for liberation.