24, Feb 2018 | Mansi Mehta
Black History Month also known as African American History month in the US, refers to a month long commemoration of the struggles of the African American community, as well as a celebration of their achievements and culture. Of late, it is also commemorated in Canada, United Kingdom and the Netherlands where it is called Black Achievement Month.
Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.
This is what the purported villain, Erik Killmonger, in Marvel’s latest blockbuster, Black Panther tells his cousin, King T’Challa, after the latter mortally wounds him in battle. Black Panther has broken several box-office records, but, more importantly, is a representation of what Africa would have been were it not for centuries of colonisation, imperialism, and plundering by white Europeans. Black Panther was released in mid-February this year, strategically during Black History Month.
The story of Black History Month
First started by black students and educators at Ohio’s Kent State University in 1970, Black History Month was officially recognised by US President Gerald Ford in 1976, as part of the United States Bicentennial celebrations. However, ‘the father of black history’ remains Carter G. Woodson, an author, historian, and journalist who, in 1915, founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), formerly known as the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. In 1916, Woodson began publishing the Journal of Negro History, now renamed to the Journal of African American History. In 1926, he founded the Negro History Week, a precursor to Black History Month, aimed to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass in February.
Black History Month today
Black History Month is commemorated in schools across the United States by the study of black history, but has also prompted concerns about relegating African-American history to one single month–the shortest one–in the year, instead of completely integrating and emphasising it in the larger curriculum. After all, is not black history American history?
Black Feminism and Women Achievers
This year, bestselling author Jason Reynolds, has started a Twitter thread to highlight African-American women’s achievements, focusing on those who are not widely known, using the hashtag #OfCourseABlackWomanDid. The thread features Alice Parker, who invented the gas heating furnace, Ruane Sharon Jeter, who invented the toaster, and also invented the stapler and staple remover along with her sister, Marie Van Brittan Brown, who created the first home surveillance security system, a precursor to today’s home alarms, and several more.
In 2016, the film Hidden Figures highlighted, among others, Katherine Johnson, an African-American mathematician who worked for NASA, and its predecessor the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). According to NASA, as a computer, Johnson calculated the trajectory of Alan Shepard, who became the first American to go to space. Even after electronic computers were used, John Glenn asked for her to personally recheck their calculations for his flight during which he became the first American to orbit the Earth. “Her calculations proved as critical to the success of the Apollo Moon landing program and the start of the Space Shuttle program,” NASA says.
Invisiblising the Black innovator
The black community has made an immense contribution to the history and tapestry of the United States and the world, in science, in art and music, in literature, and in sports, among various other fields. Their contributions often distilled into bite-sized facts that do not necessarily reflect their work and effort. As Doreen St. Félix writes in the New Yorker, American public school children learn –possibly during Black History Month– that George Washington Carver invented peanut butter. “In reality,” she writes,
Carver was an advocate for black farmers, a formidable agricultural scientist, and an anthropologist of food. For all of his influential experiments with alternative crops, such as the soybean, the sweet potato, and the epochal peanut, he did not invent peanut butter; the Aztecs likely did. He did, however, propose more than three hundred uses for it, and for other cheap foods, including a prophetic technique of pressing nuts into ‘milk.’ In 1941, Carver was featured in Time magazine as the ‘Black Leonardo.’ To schoolchildren, he’s known as the Peanut Man.
The history of African Americans is one riddled with systemic exploitation, oppression, and othering, with their achievements and contributions still unfortunately largely coming in spite of the systemic disadvantages they face. Although the US government, military, and schools have been desegregated for several decades, the community continues to struggle with high rates of incarceration, crippling economic injustice, and pervasive racism. Slavery may not still persist, but these invisible shackles continue to do so. The “bondage” Killmonger speaks of isn’t just in prisons, but also in the larger American society that seems to value black people and black bodies less than it does white people and bodies.
Black Panther Party
In 1966, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the Black Panther Party to fight back against police brutality in Oakland, California, but also had a ten-point program demanding justice for black and other oppressed people, including employment, healthcare, housing, and education. However, the party dissolved in 1982, and police brutality against the black community has not ceased.
Black Lives Matter
A slew of police shootings of black in recent years has prompted the Black Lives Matter movement, which has in turn has triggered criticism for being too radical, too ‘thuggish’, the latter a clear racist dog whistle from those who are too privileged or too indifferent to consistent oppression of African Americans, and their constant struggle.
The significance of a film like Black Panther, a black superhero, cannot be understated in this context, in which whiteness is the default, in which white children have had access to vibrant and varied fictional characters to model themselves on, and in which pop culture has frequently depicted Africa as forsaken, war-torn, dusty and impoverished, often without historical context as to why it is so.
Taking a knee
It is unfortunate that society often directs outrage at those who highlight and call out injustice, instead of the injustices themselves. During the 2016 season, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during the national anthem ahead of football games to protest against the killing of unarmed men of colour by police. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he told NFL Media that year, prompting vicious criticism about his apparent disrespect for the United States flag and its troops. Kaepernick was not re-signed by the 49ers, or any other NFL team for the following season, and those who have taken a knee since, especially black players, have also been subjected to a volley of criticism, including from US President Donald Trump.
Wakanda and the World
Contrast Kaepernick’s situation with the fictional Black Panther, King T’Challa, who flies under the radar, and resists taking in refugees because his country, Wakanda, is effectively in hiding, to prevent its wealth and resources from falling into the wrong hands. Wakanda only wages war if it needs to do so, even as people from its neighbouring African nations have suffered at the hands of slave traders and colonisers for centuries, with the African diaspora continuing to be oppressed. Is it any wonder, then, that his cousin Killmonger is furious at what he thinks is Wakanda’s inaction at helping its brothers and sisters? Can one blame him for wanting to mine its wealth to fund an armed revolution across the word?
So clear is the injustice that African Americans face today that Marvel felt no need to even develop this as a story, instead simply using current events as context. The film ends with Wakanda opening up somewhat, building a community centre in the US and offering its advanced technology to the world. This could prompt skepticism about not doing enough, or taking a step that is too little, too late. But progress must begin somewhere; a crack of light can illuminate a whole room. After all, although Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, Lewis Latimer, a child of fugitive slaves, perfected it, inventing a filament made of more durable carbon so that it wouldn’t burn out too quickly.
As long as the Africans and the African diaspora around the world don’t obtain equity, the question of doing enough will be constant one.