Commentary: Toward a Unified Black History

Whose history did you celebrate this month?

Posted: 02/28/2013 02:07 PM EST

As Black History Month comes to a close, if you celebrated at all, whose history did you celebrate?

Over the past weekend, I accompanied a friend to a Black History Month program. My white friend. And if you think I pinned her down, stuck a Marcus Garvey button on her shirt and dragged her there, you’re wrong.

It was all her idea.  

So, off we went to a program that used music and narration to explain the significance of rites of passage rituals in traditional African societies. The performance was filled with singing children, music that fused jazz, gospel, R&B and various African styles and bright, poised young people.

“Well, that was a cultural experience,” she commented as we put on our coats to leave. “Did you learn anything new about your culture?”

I laughed little and answered no. I was familiar with everything presented.

But she replied, “Neither did I.”

Her answer surprised me. Although I saw young, Black children celebrating and sharing their history through ecstatic song and dance, I was worried that she would have just seen a play about Africa … put on by some Black people. Instead, she said she’d learned about rites of passage ceremonies before and understood their connection to African-Americans.

However pleased I was, I know my fears were not unjustified. I have met countless African-Americans, Africans and Caribbean folk who feel no connection or continuity between their native culture and the cultures of other Black people.

I wondered that if Black History was not known through only the singular lens of either ancient African majesty or civil rights and overcoming American racism, might we be able to cure our communities of the us/them syndrome that silently hangs over relations between different Black cultures?

More than ever, the terms we use to describe ourselves, like “Black” and “African-American,” are starting to lose their distinctive meanings in what I see as a positive shift that will bring us closer to a day when we can dialogue and work together to solve problems.

Even if you suggest that Black History Month in America should reflect the experience of just African-Americans (meaning descendants of Africans brought to the U.S. and enslaved), then you still would have to include information about who those people were before they took that fateful journey across the Atlantic. And as you discuss the civil rights era, what about the many people from the Caribbean who came to America and fought alongside their “original” American counterparts. Wouldn’t you tell their history, too? About where they came from in the time before America but after leaving Africa?  

In an age where our first Black president has Kenyan roots and young Black people are still under assault from Florida to London, a unified version of Black History Month is our best bet at achieving the goals all of our ancestors sacrificed for.

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(Photos from left: Universal History Archive/Getty Images, Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, REUTERS/Alexander Joe/Pool)

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