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Black History Month Should be a Universal Celebration, Final

The celebration of Black History Month is mostly confined to the United States. History tells us, however, the need to internationalize such celebrations. In particular, Filipinos ought to connect themselves to such celebration because of their own Black ancestry and the intertwining of the Filipino and African American cultures that was configured against the concept of “blackness” particularly during the American occupation of the Philippines beginning in 1898.

To provide context to the Philippine occupation, the United States became the de facto ruler by virtue of its victory over Spain in Puerto Rico and Cuba. The Philippines was an entirely different matter because it was not at war with the Americans. As a matter of fact, the Americans co-opted the exiled Filipino leaders led by Emilio Aguinaldo to return to their country to help the United States defeat Spain.

The Treaty of Paris in 1898 officially ended the Spanish-American War and established independence in Cuba, ceded Puerto Rico and Guam to the U.S. but it also allowed the purchase of the Philippine Islands for $20 million without the consent of the sovereign Philippine Republic. Consequently, it resulted in the short-lived Philippine-American War that the Filipinos lost.

The American colonial period was not only opposed by Filipinos; it was similarly detested by the American people because it ran counter to American espoused ideals when it was a British colony. Frankly, ratification of the treaty was delayed because of strong opposition to colonial annexation of the Philippines.

Influential publications that catered to a White audience such as the Puck Magazine, and anti-colonialist writers and poets like Mark Twain, Waldo Emerson, and Booker T. Washington resisted the racist colonial education and occupation to justify empire and caricatured America’s duplicitous albeit naked ambitions.

The need, however, of the ascendant commercial, industrial and military interests to penetrate the markets and natural resources of Asia as a gateway to China trumped any modesty. The treaty’s ratification set in motion the Monroe Doctrine (of not allowing another European country to establish colonies in the Americas and beyond the Western Hemisphere).

President McKinley issued the “Benevolent Assimilation” proclamation promising America’s “altruistic” mission sans arbitrary rule in the Philippines. To convince the American people, however, McKinley had to portray Filipinos as savages, Black, and incapable of self-rule. General Arthur MacArthur (Douglas’ father) declared martial law to facilitate the delivery of colonial education and to assimilate them to the American way of life. The assimilation effort turned out to be not so benevolent. Over 500,000 Filipinos perished against 4,200 Americans as casualties of war.

The 1904 world’s largest fair in Missouri dubbed as the “Louisiana Purchase Exposition” included a human zoo that featured a village for over a thousand Filipino native Igorots (black skinned) that were transported from Bontoc, Mountain Province. They were on display to portray an Igorot village and how they lived. They hardly wore any clothes over their tattooed bodies.

They were paid to perform barbaric acts like hunting animals with spears and machetes, slaughtering dogs and eating them. They performed ethnic activities that showed their lack of “civilized” living. The headlines successfully portrayed the Filipinos as diminutive, Black, unlettered and savages. It scandalized Americans but it also captured their imagination that McKinley was right about the “White Man’s Burden” and that the Filipino “niggers, monkeys” needed to be taught good manners and right conduct.

Over 50,000 U.S. troops and over a thousand teachers were sent and dispersed around the country to pacify the Filipinos. Majority of them were White and only a few were African Americans. Carter G. Woodson was one of the teachers who went on to become the founder of “Journal of Negro History” and pioneered the celebration of “Negro History Week,” the precursor of “Black History Month.”

Woodson’s 4-year stint (1903-1904) opened his eyes to the irony of why he was there and found it oppressive - to teach Filipinos using a template that was already in use to miseducate African Americans back in his homeland. His observations in the Philippine setting helped solidify his understanding of “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” a thesis that Black people of his day were being indoctrinated rather than being taught, in American schools.

“The mere imparting of information is not education, “ he wrote. “Above all things, the effort must result in making a man think and do for himself.” Still from Woodson on colonial mentality, “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it.”

“The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worthwhile, depresses and crushes at the same time the spark genius in the Negro (or the Filipino Indio) by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other people.”

Colonial curriculum purposely avoided teaching Philippine history, Filipino languages, and its culture. Instead, it successfully transformed a nation unsure of its identity, ancestry and culture. Those who resisted the regime like the Moros of Mindanao and the indigenous peoples of the north, indeed ended up preserving most of their cultures. Today, Filipino colonial mentality is on autopilot and is still very pervasive.

Woodson, who recognized the irony of such racist service, was not alone. There were also the “Buffalo Soldiers” who were deployed to the Philippines long before Woodson volunteered to join the Thomasites. Regiments of Buffalo Soldiers that were authorized by the U.S. Congress to fight the American Indian Wars, and later the Spanish American War, were deployed to the Philippines for their brutal expertise.

Many of them were Medal of Honor recipients for their wartime campaign successfully seizing lands from the native American Indians. Ironically, the Buffalo Soldiers joined the U.S. Army to gain their freedom from slavery but in the process, ended up becoming slave masters themselves, denying the natives their freedom.

Such a contradiction was not lost among African American soldiers who deployed to the Philippines to prosecute the bloody American war against Spain but ended up fighting for the “enemy.” The Balangiga Massacre turned a town in Samar into a “howling wilderness.” Concentration camps where waterboarding and torture of captured “insurrectos” were conducted proved too much for Sergeant David Fagen and seven other Buffalo Soldiers who deserted their units and joined the local resistance movement.

Backlash from White officers caused Privates Edmond DuBose and Lewis Russell to be publicly hanged to serve as examples to others who were contemplating desertion. Fagen was eventually caught, demoted to private, tried, found guilty of treason and sentenced to death by hanging but was dishonorably discharged instead.

This year’s theme of “Black Resistance,” to “highlight how Black Americans have fought against racial inequality” extends to the African American resistance during the colonial period in the Philippines.


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