“Well, the election, it came out really well. Next time we’ll triple the number or quadruple it. We want to get it over 51, right? At least 51. Well this is Black History Month, so this is our little breakfast, our little get-together.”
— President Donald J. Trump, Feb. 1, 2017
With these words, transcribed by Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star, President Trump welcomed guests to the opening ceremony for Black History Month. During these 28 days, people in the United States and Canada hold special events to commemorate the achievements and events throughout the African diaspora, the history of the migration of populations from Africa to other parts of the world, particularly to the Americas. But the origin of the diaspora predates even the European discovery of the western hemisphere.
As far back as the 8th century, Arab traders captured people in Kenya, the Sudan, and other regions and sold them as slaves to others in the Indian subcontinent and the Far East. Beginning in the 16th century, Europeans began taking slaves from West Africa to the Americas in a pattern that is referred to as “triangular trade.” In all, the dispersal of people from Africa to other world regions represents the greatest forced migration in the human record.
Triangular trade was the well-established system by which commodities were exchanged among the continents of Europe, Africa, and the Americas for more than 300 years. Slave traders would fill their ships with manufactured goods (like metal tools and clothing) and sail to the coastal areas of West Africa. There, they would trade these goods to African and European trappers who had captured tribal members (mostly from interior regions).
Slaves were then packed into the holds of ships (most of which were specifically designed to restrain enslaved people) and transported to the New World, usually Brazil or today’s Caribbean nations. In the process of triangular trade, this was known as the “middle passage.“ Once in the Americas, these people who had previously worked their own small farms were trained for plantation work and then sold. Having unloaded their African “cargoes,” the ships would then be filled with New World commodities (rum, sugar, and cotton) to be exchanged for great wealth when the ships returned to Europe.
Despite the fact that African peoples were treated as lowly slaves, many managed to educate themselves in the ways of the Europeans and the emerging Industrial Revolution and made significant contributions to modernity. These contributions (agricultural innovations, industrial improvements, and social inventions) are especially noted during Black History Month.
A sense of self
As much as anything, Black History Month is important because it helps to restore a sense of self among African Americans whose heritage was stripped from them before emancipation and who were never fully accepted into the mainstream society of the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, to a great extent their history in the United States was simply ignored.
As Dympna Ugwu-Oju, a Nigerian who came to this country to attend college (and later to teach at the Madera Center of the State Center Community College District), points out in “What Will My Mother Say?” reprinted in Ferrante and Browne’s “The Social Construction of Race and Ethnicity in the United States,” “Everything I thought I knew of America contradicted what I was seeing on the streets of New York. The history and geography texts had treated slavery as a historical issue…. I was not aware of the millions of Americans who have a common ancestry with me….” “I believed … that all blacks, all descendants of American eighteenth-century slaves, were resettled in Liberia, Newfoundland, and the Caribbean countries. I was not aware that there were any blacks left in America; there was nothing in the textbooks — no pictures, no clues — that could have led me to that understanding.”
As far back as 1915, fifty years after the Thirteenth Amendment freed all slaves in the United States, Harvard-educated historian Carter G. Woodson attempted to solve this problem that would later be identified by Ralph Ellison in his novel, “Invisible Man,” in which the narrator is an unnamed African American man who considers himself to be socially invisible. In explaining the novel, Ellison said, “So my task was one of revealing the human universals hidden within the plight of one who was both black and American.”
Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and, a year later (1916), the Journal of Negro History, both being ambitious projects with the goal of writing black Americans into the nation’s story. In 1926, “Negro History Week” developed out of Woodson’s work. Finally, in 1976, President Gerald Ford declared February to be “Black History Month,” and every U.S. president since has officially celebrated the event.
Originally, Woodson chose the second week of February for Negro History Week because it coincided with the national commemoration of “The Great Emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln, who was born on February 12, 1809, but whose legacy is now part of Presidents‘ Day which will be observed on Monday.
When the celebration was expanded to a month-long event, it became obvious that February has many other reasons to be singled out for this particular event. For example, the famous African American author, orator, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass may have been born in February, 1818, but who definitely died of a heart attack on February 20, 1895. W.E.B. DuBois, the only African American to be a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was born on Feb. 23, 1868. In fact, the NAACP, itself, was founded on Feb. 12, 1909. And, the nation’s first black U.S. Senator, Hiram R. Revels, took the oath of office on February 25, 1870.
Finally, as students of history know, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves that were held in counties and parishes that fought for the Confederacy. But, as previously stated, slavery was eliminated throughout the United States by the Thirteenth Amendment. Citizenship was conferred on people regardless of their previous condition of servitude by the Fourteenth Amendment. And, the right to vote was extended to all citizens by the Fifteenth Amendment, which was passed on Feb. 3, 1870.
So for these reasons and many more, February is the appropriate month for all Americans to engage in activities that will acquaint them with or refresh their memories about the importance of the African diaspora in our country.