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Black History Month Should be a Universal Celebration, Part 1

Black History Month is celebrated every year in February in the United States. The observance provides an opportunity to honor the contributions and sacrifices of African Americans. It is also a tribute to their rich cultural heritage, triumphs and adversities that have become an indelible part of the American mosaic. This year’s theme is “Black Resistance,” to “highlight how Black Americans have fought against racial inequality.”

The American celebration is often anchored in 1619, the year that a British privateer ship (slave trafficking) arrived in Jamestown, Virginia with human cargo of 20 some Negroes from Luanda (present day Angola, then a Portuguese colony). That day marked the institution of slavery in America. According to recorded history, however, the arrival of the first African slaves happened in 1526 in Winyah Bay, South Carolina. Their efforts to start a colony there failed and eventually moved to what is now Georgia.

To properly memorialize the celebration of Black History Month, it would be appropriate to understand the importance of 1619. By marking 1619 as a starting point, it frames the history of African Americans in the context of their negative experiences and struggles in America and erases the link to the ugly history of the global Slave Trade that Europeans pioneered and brought to North America.

America happened to be one of the English Atlantic colonies where African slaves were dispersed. West Indies, Brazil come to mind where the bulk (~70%) of African slaves went. American South’s share was only about 8% given the limited British occupation. By the 18th century when the initial 13 states declared independence, many African slaves in the Caribbean and Brazil started making their way into the United States.

The competitive capitalist economy was one of the main reasons for the migration to North America. While slaves in Latin America had better access to freedom, the Black population was mostly male because of the labor demands. In the American South, a bigger share of female slaves existed that contributed to an increase of population in the South where children were born Americans.

By the turn of the century when the Union expanded, the population of Black Americans was reversed in favor of the United States. Such confluence of migration by Latin American Blacks created distinct cultures in North America different from Southern Blacks. Since Latin American Blacks had more “freedom,” if you will from absentee landowners or venture capitalists where they came from; Blacks from the South were directly controlled and managed by their oppressive masters/owners.

This is an important point to make because the Slave Trade created a stereotype that Blacks in general, came from a “big country” called Africa. Well, Africa the continent is home to some 50 plus countries, but the stereotype gave rise to modern day conflated perception that African blackness looks the same and associate the “country” Africa with famine, AIDS, war, political corruption and poverty.

The worst stereotype of Blacks in America is that Blacks were mentally inferior to Whites, savages because of their anatomical appearance and as such were thought to be far less sensitive to pain. Such stereotypes were used to rationalize the harsh treatment of slaves during slavery in the United States which included murder, torture and oppression of African Americans following emancipation. Clearly, such stereotypes still exist today.

Bob Dylan’s 1963 hit “Blowing’ in the Wind” was a well-known anti-war song but it was really a harsh criticism of the treatment of Blacks in the hands of White people in America. “How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?” “How many deaths will take ‘til he knows that too many people have died?”

The beating death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols in the hands of law enforcement in Memphis, Tennessee is the latest incident that follows a long history of racial inequality and deaths from police brutality in this county. And it won’t be the last African American to sacrifice a life to ultimately achieve Martin Luther’s King’s equality dream because the answer is still “blowing in the wind” and asking the harsh questions.

We saw the video of how Tyre pleaded for his life while the police officers continued their assault on this young man. Tyre Nichols’ ordeal reminded me of a Black woman from ancient Egypt who was persecuted for her beliefs and suffered a much more heinous ordeal towards her death. Although her case happened centuries ago, it provides a window of Black people’s continuing struggle for equality since antiquity.

In this regard, the world ought to celebrate a universal Black History celebration not only to find answers to the harsh questions of today regarding inequality, poverty, violence that keeps us looped in a vicious cycle of a never-ending saga. A universal celebration will allow us to revisit the grandeur of Black history from where civilization began and bring to life a long buried Ancient Egypt history that Europe-centric West wants us to forget.

For that matter, slavery is really not a 16th century invention. It long existed in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece. Back then, they were already called slaves as part of the spoils of war. African slaves served in Greece, the modern center of Western civilization. Racial prejudice, although contextually not termed that way before, was evident with how these ancient societies treated slaves particularly women, and women of color.

Why is it important for African Americans and the rest of the world, to look back to ancient civilizations to fully comprehend the richness of their culture? The Cradle of Civilization was Mesopotamia, a historical region situated between two rivers (present day Iraq, home to ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians). Ancient Egypt is the second oldest civilization that is older than Greece.

Ancient Egypt is believed to be the central point of migration in all Africa. These ancient Black civilizations were known for the advancements it made in the field of astronomy (long before Copernicus, Galileo), mathematics, and literature. The Egyptian civilization in particular had written records and their writing system is known as hieroglyphics. They were polytheistic (many gods) and built massive monuments including pyramids.

The Hammurabi Code from Mesopotamia was the first code of laws written 3,000 before the Old Testament was written. Greeks borrowed their alphabetic numeral system from the Egyptian. Greeks also trained from Egyptians in philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy. Yet, by 16th and 17th centuries, the rise of Eurocentrism as an ideology has relegated Ancient Egyptian or other African culture for that matter, as inferior.

Eurocentrism has infected the Western perception of non-Europeans, non-White and gave rise to colonial domination and expansionism, White Supremacy, and slavery on a global scale. Wars, immigration, pandemics, and even in medicine and history books are viewed or written from a Eurocentric perspective. Consequently, the world views the European and Anglo-American way evolved as the “gold standard.”

At the same time, Eurocentrism has also created confusion and double standards. The United States, for example, markets itself as the beacon of hope. Yet, some states do not want slavery talked about in classrooms. (To be continued)


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