THIS month, the USA and Canada observe Black History Month, in recognition of the contributions of Black people to the history of those countries. Although it is not an official observance in other parts of the African Diaspora, it has, over time, become informally accepted as such. Beginning as Negro History Week in 1925 as the initiative of African-American historian and scholar, Carter G Woodson, it evolved to become Black History Month in the post-Civil Rights era in the late 1960s. In 1976 the US Government formally designated it as such.
From 1976 to the present, African-Americans and Blacks in the diaspora have become more and more part of the so-called mainstream of the societies they inhabit. Despite continuous challenges, the group has made significant strides in our Caribbean. The crowning achievement was the rise of Barack Obama to the US presidency in 2008. That moment marked a more than symbolic achievement for Blacks; it was, for African-Americans, a tremendous blow struck for inclusion in formal structures — a signal that real socio-racial equality was possible.
But for all the strides made, Blacks all over the world continue to suffer from the scars of a history of bondage. It is for that reason that Black History Month continues to have great relevance. It is a reminder to Blacks and the rest of humanity that emancipation and independence do not necessarily mean freedom; that the formal end of oppression is not logically followed by the end of the system that birthed that oppression.
What does Black History Month mean for us in Guyana? In our ethnically divided country, any reference to race is generally viewed with suspicion and open condemnation. Ethnic and racial identities are contested, and are often derided as false consciousness. In such an environment, Black History Month elicits a polite nod from high and low.
The notion of Black History flies in the face of a denial of ethno-racial identity. After all, Black History arises out of the recognition of Blackness as a marker of identity. A proper discourse on, and celebration of, our ethnic diversity yet beckons; for it is only within the context of an acceptance of that diversity would we be able to respectfully observe the significance of Black History to all of Guyana.
Black History is pregnant with the inhumanity of slavery and the noble resistance that ensued. It is a pivotal period in Guyanese history, and has had a defining influence on our nation. It was the unravelling of slavery that led to a new migration to the then colonial outpost in the form of indentureship. The colonial regime which succeeded slavery really evolved as slavery without slaves, and, in the end, consumed all ethnic groups. The Black Village Movement was pivotal to the development of independent freedom spaces and organised communities, which we celebrate today as Local Government.
For the African Guyanese community, Black History Month could be a time for sober reflection on the state of the community. This is, of course, not a new call; it is repeated at every moment of Black observance. But it continues to be a necessary one. Some African Guyanese leaders and organisations have been making this call for some time now. They have pointed to the drift in the community, and have argued for a repair-job to be undertaken by the group.
The very notion of learning Black History could be a starting point. All Guyanese should learn Black History; it should find its place in our school curriculum. One remembers two books for children written by the esteemed historian, Dr. Walter Rodney — Kofi Baadu out of Africa, and Lackshmi out of India — and asks why those books are not required reading in our schools. African Guyanese, however, have a particular responsibility to lead the way in becoming steeped in Black History.