So in fact, it would seem that Black History Month, which began in as the more modest Negro History Week, constituted an important milestone in the growing realisation that black people had a history - and thus a permanent place and inalienable right to be citizens - in the United States. It is certainly true, as historians Leigh Raiford and Michael Cohen write in their Al Jazeera column on Black History Month and the Uses of the Past, that the present corporatised version of Black History Month is but the latest example of how radical black voices, and the ultimately radical vision of black - and through it, American - liberation of figures like Martin Luther King, have been suppressed from the mainstream narrative associated with the month.
But if we consider how much effort conservatives continue to expend to deny President Obama his identity as a natural-born American citizen never mind a Christian; that is, a bona fide member of the dominant cultural community , it's clear that, if the focus and even substance of the activities surrounding the month can be debated, the need for continued emphasis on the legitimacy of black history in American society, cannot be denied.
And if we consider that Euro-American historiography has for centuries defined sub-Saharan Africans and Africa as literally having no history as epitomised by the view of that ur-modern philosopher of modernity, G W F Hegel , the long road before us until black history, and through it black power, is as acceptable as its white counterpart, comes more clearly into view. A decade before he established Negro History Month, the historian Carter G Woodson created the Journal of Negro History , which in recent years changed its name to the Journal of African American History to reflect the changing politics of black American identity.
Reading through the first issues of the journal, I was struck by the the particular vision of "negro history" it heralded. In its pages we do not see negro or black history merely as one slice of a larger mosaic of American history, in which each narrative is placed next to each other to create the "great American melting pot" without actually helping to form the basic identity of other groups. Instead, it's clear from the first issue of the Journal that negro history shaped the identities of Americans from the inside, while at the same time remained at its heart a world history.
Reading through articles on subjects as diverse as the first black inhabitants of Cincinnati and the passing of tradition among African cultures, I understood that one of the main contributions of my own field, the historiography of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is less groundbreaking than I have long imagined. Against this innaccurate but common understanding, scholars have developed "implicate" or "relational" histories of the two peoples, which challenge the dominant narrative of exclusivist nationalism by demonstrating how each community's identities and histories have been profoundly shaped through its interactions and evolution with the other.
Without using terms like relational or implicate, early 20th-century negro historians were clearly thinking along similar lines. Take, for example, this minor character described in an article on the still today neglected historiography of 18th- and 19th-century African American women, from the Journal 's first issue. He was a Latin of some Negro blood, had noble ancestry, and had led an honourable career.
Educated in London and resident in Guadaloupe, he spoke both English and French fluently. Because of poor health in later years he was directed by his friends to the salubrious climate of Virginia. He settled at Fredericksburg [Virginia], where he soon became captivated by the charms of the talented Maria Louise Moore. On learning of his marriage, his people and friends marveled that a man of his standing had married a coloured woman or a Southern woman at all.
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It is highly probable that he learned these trades in the West Indies, but having adequate means to maintain himself, he had not depended on his mechanical skill. In Fredericksburg he had the respect and support of the best white people, passing as one of such well-to-do free Negroes as the Lees, the Cooks, the De Baptistes, who were contractors, and the Williamses, who were contractors and brickmakers.
His success was in a large measure due to the good standing of the family of Mrs Richards and to the wisdom with which she directed this West Indian in his new environment. It's hard to overstate just how many threads of American history unknown to most Americans - black or white - are woven into Richard's brief biography. But the central theme is one of the inherent globality of African identity and culture in midth-century United States. Another fascinating article from the first issue of the Journal of Negro History, "What the Negro Was Thinking During the Eighteenth Century", seemingly by Woodson himself, offers powerful and eloquent negro voices against slavery, whose claims both to universal and through the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence at that point still uniquely American rights and freedoms call out for a hearing today as much as they did well over two centuries ago.
As one writer excerpted by Woodson declared in a article, "Upon no better principle do we plunder the coasts of Africa, and bring away its wretched inhabitants as slaves than that, by which the greater fish swallows up the lesser.
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Relational or implicate histories, it is clear from the articles in the Journal of Negro History , do not merely teach us that we have common cultural DNA. They also force us to confront the violence that is at the core of our shared history. Without having to focus on it explicitly, reading the Journal reminds us that black people were not just indigenous to another continent; their passage to the Americas constituted the foundation - and along with the genocide of indigenous Americans, the original sin - of modernity, from which the world, and particularly Africa, have yet to recover.
It is in this sense that I argue that all history is ultimately black history. We might be tempted to qualify this by saying that all modern history is ultimately black history, given Africa's and Africans' central if still subaltern role in the history of the modern world. But as another article in the Journal 's first issue, "The Passing Tradition and the African Civilisation", argues, in fact the history of civilisation from its start can only be understood as beginning in Africa.
Black History Month tried to correct this by pointing out the achievements of individual black American scientists or inventors the approach celebrated by Stevie Wonder in his seminal song "Black Man". I prefer to point out to fans of country music that the famous country twang, not to mention the banjo, that define the quintessentially white American "country music", in fact derive directly from black Muslim African melodies and instruments that came to the United States with the black slaves whose cultures and identities were so ruthlessly, if incompletely, stamped out upon arrival. Sadly, while corporations use Black History Month to erase their continued combination of marginalisation and exploitation of black American communities, the study of black history, and ethnic studies more broadly, is coming under intense attacks from conservative politicians who are desperate to preserve white cultural-political dominance against all forces that might challenge it Latinos, gays, blacks, the working class and from budget-conscious university administrators who see ethnic studies - ironically, along with other smaller fields such as the once-dominant European languages and literatures - as easy fodder for drastic reductions in course offerings, if not elimination.
Is it a coincidence that these attacks have risen at the same time that a prison-industrial complex arose in the United States, which has so disproportionately criminalised and incarcerated young black men? Even at the grade school level, Black History Month seems to have lost much of its heuristic power.
All history is black history
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All history is black history | Black History | Al Jazeera
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