By Bibi Khanam
“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves”
– Abraham Lincoln
The celebration of Black History Month is to honour the overall achievements and contribution that African-Americans made in the USA. Its origin dates back to 1926 when Carter Woodson, an African-American historian, founded Negro History Week to honour two abolitionists – one black (Frederick Douglas) and one white (Abraham Lincoln) both of whom were born in the month of February. Little would Woodson know some of the far-reaching consequences and controversies that his initiative created!
Bibi Khanam is a statistical analyst who has worked with the UNDP in New York for almost 20 years. She has a BSc in Economics and Certification in Disaster Preparedness.
With the expansion of this celebration from one week to a month in 1976, it raised some eyebrows. Some African-Americans are of the view that they do not see the usefulness of having a month-long observance that the white establishment only pays lip service to. They feel that it further highlights the colour barriers in an already segregated country.
February is also important for African-Americans with the ratification of the 15th Amendment in February 1870, which supposedly accorded African-Americans the right to vote (on paper only), since it took almost 100 years before they were finally allowed to vote. Jim Crow laws such as the use of violence, intimidation, poll taxes and literacy tests in the South were effectively used to disenfranchise African-Americans from exercising their voting rights.
It was not until 1965, when more than 600 African-Americans, led by the late Dr Martin Luther King, set out on the 54-mile long ‘bloody Sunday’ march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to demand their right to vote as well as other civil rights that were denied them following the abolition of slavery. This demonstration led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed all citizens 21 years of age and older the right to vote. Thus, in 1966, African Americans were finally free to exercise this franchise.
On a “60 Minutes” broadcast in 2006 with Mike Wallace, actor Morgan Freeman stated that: "I don't want a Black History Month, black history is American history” and that Americans should stop talking about racism, and that people should stop calling him a black man and that he will stop calling a white man – a “white man”. The issue some African-Americans had with his statement is that African-Americans were rarely mentioned in American history until the founding of Black History Month. More importantly, to stop talking about racism would not automatically make it just disappear; we saw many instances of racism rearing its ugly head when President Barack Obama was elected as the 44th president of the USA.
A couple of nights ago I was flicking through the TV channels and I came across the Tavis Smiley Show on the Public Broadcasting Service channel. His guest that night was Mr Lloyd Price, who happened to be one of the very first R&B singers and an inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. He was also one of the first African-Americans to own his own record label. He was crowned Mr Personality after the title of his 1959 million-dollar hit song “Personality”. In 1969, when his business partner, Harold Logan, was brutally murdered, he thought that he might be the next victim, causing him to flee to Africa, where he lived for 15 years in Nigeria and Ghana.
Price, the generous philanthropist at heart, thought that during his 15-year self-imposed exile in Africa that he would help those less fortunate people in the villages; he thought he could improve their lot in life. Price recalled a conversation he had with a Nigerian general (Akon) whilst residing in Nigeria, during which he mentioned to the general that he wanted to help the villagers. The latter could not believe what he was hearing from a man who “ran from his country only to become a stranger in another”. Price’s conversation with the general went something like this:
General: “Why you [African-Americans] guys always come over here like you’re going to help us? Help me do what? We never lost our language, we never lost our home, and we never lost our culture. Who are you?”
Price: “Well, I’m an American.”
General: “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. You don’t have any land, what is your political philosophy? What is your culture? What is your tradition? Even what is your religion, you know what I mean?”
Price claimed that the conversation he had with the general made him think about who/what he really is and that the best he could have come up with was that he “is a clone of the white man.”
Also, having lived in Ghana and Nigeria for so long, Price developed a strong affinity to the continent, where he also made a lot of friends in the right places, and in 1974 he helped Don King promote and co-produced “Rumble in the Jungle” – the fight between Muhammed Ali and George Foreman – in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). Price took the opportunity to organize the very first R&B three-day music festival in Africa, showcasing the talents of the likes of James Brown, B.B. King, Etta James, Bill Withers, the Motown Spinners, Celia Cruz and Fania All Stars, among others. This event attracted between 100,000-120,000 Africans and others. Price also co-produced and promoted the “Thriller in Manila”.
I wish Mr Price (and others like him) continued success in their humanitarian work in their future endeavours to make a difference in others’ lives. I close with this extract from W.E.B. Dubois, Men of Niagara speech, 1906:
"We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America! The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone but for all true Americans. It is a fight for ideals, lest this, our common fatherland, false to its founding, become in truth, the land of the thief and the home of the slave, a byword and a hissing among the nations for its sounding pretensions and pitiful accomplishments. Never before in the modern age has a great and civilized folk threatened to adopt so cowardly a creed in the treatment of its fellow citizens born and bred on its soil. Stripped of verbiage and subterfuge and in its naked nastiness, the new American creed says: ‘Fear to let black men even try to rise lest they become the equals of the white.’ And this is the land that professes to follow Jesus Christ! The blasphemy of such a course is only matched by its cowardice.”