By José Francisco Ávila
Following the conclusion of another celebration of Black History Month, I’d like to reflect on its meaning to the Garifuna people.
Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by black Americans and a time for recognizing the central role of African Americans in US history. The event grew out of “Negro History Week,” the brainchild of noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans. Since 1976, every US president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month.
José Francisco Ávila is the chairman of the board and co-founder of the Garifuna Coalition USA, Inc., which advocates for the improvement of the social, economic, political and cultural conditions of New York's Garifuna community. He can be contacted here.
Among the unsung heroes of Black History Month, is William Henry Brown, whose African Theater presented its first performance in Greenwich Village on September 17, 1821, nearly a decade before slavery was completely phased out in New York City. Mr Brown was the first American playwright of African descent and in 1823 wrote "The Drama of King Shotaway," recognized as the first black drama of the American theatre and has as its subject the 1795 Black Caribs (Garifunas) defence of the Island of Saint Vincent, against colonization by the British.
This year we celebrate 190 years of the Garifuna Intangible Cultural Heritage's contribution to New York City’s vibrant cultural life and 218 years of the subject of the play. However, despite his achievements, Mr Brown has been virtually obscured in black history. Therefore, to celebrate his great contributions to the fabric of New York City and New York State, the Garifuna Coalition will launch the Garifuna-American Decennial 2013-2023, which will culminate with the 200th (bicentennial) anniversary of the Drama of King Shotaway to celebrate Mr Brown’s achievements and to recognize the central role of African Americans contribution to New York City’s vibrant cultural life.
When I think about the significance of the Drama of King Shotaway in black history, I can’t help but wonder if its obscurity has anything to do with the fact that the author was not born in the USA! This reflection is based on my personal experience, after migrating to the United States in 1969 and despite being black and living in a black neighbourhood in Boston, my friends did not consider me black and referred to me as a “foreigner” because I did not speak English at the time and my last name was not Smith or Johnson! However, I never doubted my blackness nor denied my ethnicity.
It is the rejection by others and my determination not to let them define me that leads me to research the history of my people and to eventually use the experience of the Black Power Movement to advocate for my people and organize the first Garifuna meeting in New York In 1989, which led to the First Garifuna Summit Meeting in New York City in 1991 that served as a catalyst for the Garifuna grassroots movement that organized the Commemoration of the Garifuna Bicentennial, which laid the foundation for the modern Garifuna advocacy movement in Central America and eventually the modern day Afrodescendant movement in Latin America.
It is that research that eventually leads me to the unsung hero of black history, Mr William Henry Brown and his contribution to black theater. As we mark the celebration of the 87th anniversary of Black History Month, I invite you to come together as African descendants during the Garifuna-American Decennial 2013-2023 to celebrate the first black drama of the American Theatre.