Marking Black History Month and our African responsibility

Martin Luther King Junior.

Martin Luther King Junior.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The bitter reality remains that we Black people were enslaved and colonised, and we continue to be discriminated against.
  • Avoiding reflections on this subject and discussion of it would be simply burying our black heads in the sand.

The famous Swahili performer, Bi Kidude (“Madame Thingummy”), sang in one of her taarabs that she could not avoid being harshly assessed or criticised. “Takadiri siwezi kuziepuka,” she crooned soulfully. Hers is a love song, and she suggests that, whether loving or being loved, you will be judged by observers. 

They will, for example, sarcastically wonder, “what did she see in him?” or “what, after all, is so special about her?”. The way forward, according to Bi. Kidude, is to love as no one has ever loved before (napenda pasi kifani) and leave the scorners to their miserable devices. Her advice, I think, is good for all of us Black people in the third millennium.

February, as you know, is widely observed and celebrated as Black History Month. The tradition started in the United States in the wake of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the work of Black rights activists, like Dr Martin Luther King, whose birthday is celebrated as an American national holiday on January 19th. The cynics, however, most of them not Black, never fail to ask what is so special about MLK Day or Black History Month. “After all,” the detractors say, “we don’t mark White History months or national holidays.”

That is of course not entirely true, as may be seen in such events as Columbus Day (second week of October), which many Native Americans regard with considerable reservations, to put it mildly. But when it comes to us Black folk, both in Africa and in the Diaspora, the emphatic assessment, celebration and assertion of our identity, our history and our future is imperative.

The bitter reality remains that we Black people were enslaved and colonised, and we continue to be discriminated against and disadvantaged, apparently because we are black. However tedious and unpleasant we might find the subject, avoiding reflections on it and discussion of it would be simply burying our black heads in the sand.

Transatlantic slave trade

Regarding our relatives in America and elsewhere in the Diaspora, the enormity of their plight hit me most palpably in late October 1995, when I visited Elmina Castle at Cape Coast in Ghana. Touring that bastion of the 400-year transatlantic slave trade, we were led through the basement dungeons to what is called the “Gate of No Return”, through which the African captives were herded into the holds of the ships that conveyed them to the slave markets of the New World.

I stood there, with the gate behind me and the seemingly infinite expanse of the Atlantic Ocean before me, and pondered the puzzle of people who dared inflict such inhumanity on their fellow human beings. Or may be they did not believe that the captives and eventual slaves were human!

The ships in whose cargo bottoms the captives were locked would be sailing for weeks on end before they hit the Caribbean and American coasts. Many who succumbed to disease, malnutrition or brutalization were “buried at sea”.

The late Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal estimated that more than ten million Africans were subjected to those ordeals while the slave trade lasted. Elmina is only one of scores of such fortresses dotted around the West African coast.

We will not dwell on the fate of those who got to the New World and were sold to the slave owners. The tales of rapes, lynching, forced family breakups, mutilations, on top of ruthless exploitation of people forced to work like -you know what, both before and after “emancipation”, are well-known. The ironies of claiming to convert people to Christian “brotherhood” while denying them basic literacy or any voice in the management of their lives defy any logic.

Slavery and colonialism

We have to know this history in order to understand that even today, more than two hundred years after the “emancipation of slaves” and over sixty years since the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the world has to be reminded that “black lives matter”, and racism and racist violence is alive and well, even in some public service sectors. Slavery distorted and dehumanized not only the slaves but also all of those involved in it, the slave captors, the traders and the slave owners.

The active evil practice of slavery lasted for over four hundred years. We may need at least a half of that period to eradicate its effects and aftereffects, if we keep working consciously and systematically at it. Taking time to reflect on our Black experience over the centuries, both in Africa and in the Diaspora, is a significant step towards improving it for ourselves and the future generations.

This brings me to my final and most important point. Though originating in America or elsewhere in the world, events and activities like Black History Month are directly relevant to us in Africa. We East Africans, and specifically Kenyans, who boast of playing a role in the putting of an African American President in the White House, need little persuasion about the truth of this. Closely related to this is the fact that most of us have thousands of direct relatives in the New World. Their history is our history and it is woven up with the history of all the Black people there.

Secondly, there is a close link between slavery and colonialism. Our continent was robbed of a significant portion of its human resource through the slave trade, rendering it weak and defenceless against the assault of the colonisers, when they moved in to plunder our resources. In the process, we were enslaved and exploited, forced to toil for the invaders, just as our transatlantic relatives were forced to work for their slave owners.

Our anticolonial struggle was inspired in significant part by Diaspora anti-slavery and anti-discrimination luminaries, like the lady, Sojourner Truth, Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington and Dr W. E. B. Dubois. The success of the African independence movements in turn inspired and encouraged the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It is, thus, a cyclic movement of African and African Diaspora history.

Happy Black history month!

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. [email protected]


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