So it’s Black History Month once again. For those of you who haven’t really “done” the whole Black History Month thing before, this is required reading:
So, for those of you who are unaware, tomorrow marks the start of Black History Month. I am so not looking forward to this. Since this year is a leap year, I have 29 of whitewashed history and white people complaints and tears to look forward to. Hip hip hoo-fucking-ray. I fucking hate Black History Month with a god damn passion.
In school, it was nothing but a fucking joke. The history teacher would pull out a specialized lesson plan for a few weeks. We would do reports on the same few people and hear the same bullshit stories. If you were lucky, you might have watched a movie.
I love Black history. Real Black history is a thing of beauty. When you learn about what Black people really had to face, you see that it’s a damn near miracle that we’re still in this country and surviving. The whitewashing that goes down during Black History Month is a damn shame. It’s not bad enough that we have the shortest fucking month of the year, but you have to dilute our history too???
I just want this to be over already. If you’re Black in America, February is probably not a good month for you.
I will add my own list of complaints about how Black History Month is handled. We will inevitably be treated to a number of (overlapping) lists of things that black people have invented. I could not possibly care less about who cultivated peanuts or invented the straightening comb and the traffic light. I’m more interested in actual history. Narratives. Stories. Experiences. Instead we get a “hey look, here’s a list of black people that have done a thing.” How utterly banal and useless.
Two years ago, I wrote a series of Facebook notes (this was in my pre-blog days) for Black History Month. Those notes formed the underpinning of the race discussions on this blog, which was launched the following month:
- What is “black”? Part 1: skin colour
- What is “black”? – Part 2: self-identity
- What is “black”? – Part 3: my working definition
- “The N Word”
- “Polite” Racism
- Three steps towards ending black-white racism
Last year, I took a cursory look at black history in Canada:
- Black History in Canada moment: British Columbia
- Black history in Canada moment: the prairies
- Black history in Canada moment: Ontario
- Black history in Canada moment: the maritimes
This year I thought of picking up a biography of a black Canadian and working my way through it. But then I got high. Well, the real story is that by the time I got myself organized to go to the bookstore, I realized that the only way to get a biography of a black Canadian is to order one online. Chapters doesn’t have a particularly robust section on black history – all its history books are folded into the ‘community’ section, along with books on commentary and contemporary black issues. While they have a large display for Valentine’s Day (what could be more romantic than a book? I dunno… anything?), they don’t appear to even recognize the existence of Black History Month. Which is depressing, but utterly unsurprising.
So what I did instead was pick up this book by Joseph Mensah, who has done a far more scholarly job than I can hope to chronicling black history and how it informs our contemporary experience. I am going to be working my way through it and post my reactions and thoughts. I’m hoping that this experience will have the effect that studying black history is supposed to have – informing and changing my outlook on contemporary black experiences.
Also, this Sunday I will be leading a discussion with the BC Humanist’s Association on how black history informs our contemporary attitudes on race. I have been told that the discussion will be recorded, so when I get my hands on the video I’ll post it here.
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By the way, if anyone wants to get me a present, I would love to find a decent text on pre-colonial African history. According to most libraries and bookstores I’ve ever been to, African people came into existence when the first Europeans showed up. Somehow I doubt that’s actually the case.
Uh… this isn’t precisely a textbook on pre-colonial African history writ large, and you’ve probably seen it before, but if you haven’t I heartily recommend The Rescue of Jerusalem by Henry Aubin. It’s about the evidence for the Kushite army fighting the Assyrians in ancient Israel (which is explicitly recorded in the Bible… I know, I know). At any rate, it goes quite a bit into what we know about Kush (and gives sources, of course, so you can dig up a lot more). Fascinating empire.
Even more cool, it goes into the history of this piece of history – how until roughly the colonization of Africa by Europeans, most educated Europeans accepted the bible story as straightforwardly true, but then once they had to demonize their new subjects, they started coming up with all sorts of reasons why it couldn’t possibly be a true story (which all amount to: It couldn’t be true because Kushites were black). Oddly enough, though, it’s probably one of the more straightforwardly historical parts of the Bible – it seems very likely that a Kushite army actually did walk from southern Egypt to near Jerusalem and engaged the Assyrians, forcing them to withdraw.
I’m definitely out of my element here, so take all the above with a grain of salt. Suffice it to say that based on my limited understanding of history and that time period in particular, the arguments made in the book are pretty convincing, and I haven’t seen any dismissive reviews by professional historians.
(Just to clarify: this is not a sneaky attempt to get you to admit to the truth of the bible or anything like that. There is no God, the Israelites were just another empire, most of the bible is bullshit, etc etc. But some of the OT seems to be a fairly straightforward chronicle of stuff that actually happened, so when backed up by archaeology and other disciplines it’s a perfectly valid source.)
As a bibliophile, I am offended at your suggestion that books can’t be romantic. :-p
I’m still working through all the links, but what I’ve gotten through so far has been really informative. Thank you.
The social issues / “community” / black / feminism / first nations / lgbt section of Chapters is one of the most depressing things in the universe. Whenever I need a reminder of exactly where minority Canadians stand, it does the trick.
It’s especially horrifying when I notice that the black, first nations and lgbt stuff gets about two rows of a single shelf each (and the lgbt section will typically have only have one or two trans books at all, one of which is often the horrible, patronizing, by-cis-people-for-cis-people “My Husband Betty”), and feminism gets three rows, and then you look just a few shelves over and see “New Age” and notice it has FIVE COMPLETE SHELVES all to itself.
“I’m more interested in actual history. Narratives. Stories. Experiences.”
Thank you for this. I’m a homeschooling mom of three and am trying hard to teach my kids actual history and not the “white washed” version I learned growing up in rural Kentucky. Google searches for lesson plans on Black History Month had pretty much led me to what you described… lists of Important Black People, complete with fill-in-the-blanks and other fun activities. I abandoned all of that and instead spent time gathering as many black narratives as possible, and we are working through them gradually over the next month or so.
While I don’t confine our study of black history to the month of February, I do place an extra emphasis on it. I read the Middle Passage along with my nine year old daughter this time last year, and we were both moved almost beyond words.
I for one am surprised that your bookstore doesn’t have a special section for Black History Month. Ours always do, and I didn’t think Kentucky was ahead in, well, anything really.
Canada likes to pretend it doesn’t have black history. I was a LITTLE surprised, but not very.
I think it’s great you’re finding better ways to teach history to your kids. Listing names and dates isn’t history – you need someone to help you understand what the names and dates MEAN.
Canada likes to pretend it doesn’t have black history
This. Generally, I would say that Canada doesn’t even celebrate Black History Month at all, treating it more as an American import at best. Outside of the underground railroad heritage moment, which allows us palefaces to feel good about ourselves for rescuing slaves, I doubt many Canadians could name any other significant episode in our history regarding black Canadians, at least in the Prairies where I grew up, though I would hope those out east would be at least aware of the Loyalist transplants as well.
A good example of this was heard at a Saskatoon mall a couple of years back. They had a few mentions of Black History Month on their PA system message loop. But the references were all to American events and people. There was no mention of Oscar Peterson or Lincoln Alexander, of the story of Africville, or even of the African Americans who settled in Saskatchewan early in the 20th Century.
So, you’ve got no overview post on racial politics and Blackness in Quebec. Is there a reason for that?
I was in Quebec back in ’96 for the Montreal Jazz Festival, and there were two things that struck me: Montreal’s eagerness to claim Oscar Peterson as a native son, and the large presence of Black Francophones (Haitians, Cote D’Ivoireans, Senegalese, etc.).
(Okay, three things struck me: Number three is that the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal is the greatest music festival in the world, and everyone should go, and they should make a point of listening to music they would never otherwise listen to.)
I know from my study of jazz history that O.P. wrote and spoke extensively — and bitterly — about the racism he experienced growing up in Montreal in the ’30s (which makes their current embrace a bit galling [or is that ‘gauling’?]).
I suspect that race in Quebec is a bit of a rat’s nest of competing interests, what with the entanglements with linguistic nationalism. (The more Senegalese who come to Quebec, the more Francophone it is, but the less French.)
I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.
I had 4 weeks and I have monumental ignorance of cultural issues in Quebec. I plead a combination of laziness and fear. I will try to do better this round.
I didn’t mean that first paragraph to be as confrontational as it turned out to be. My apologies.
On my visits to Ontario, race and racism pretty much followed the rules I know as a mid-Northern USian (cf, Underground Railroad, last stop; Hello, Windsor!) But Quebec plays by its own rules, and the rules weren’t readily apparent to me. I saw racism and bigotry, but I couldn’t contextualize it.
Honestly, I don’t what you can offer (“Hey, Ian, you’re a Black Canadian! What’s the deal with Montreal? And do you know my friend Luc?”). Jason Thibault has a French surname, maybe he has some arbitrary insights.
One of the things that comes out of looking at race and racism in different countries is just how f*ing arbitrary it is. Depending on where you are, people might point to skin color, or language, or — I dunno — hairstyles or some sh*t, as indicative of some kind of intrinsic difference. In college, I had a dear friend from Venezuela who once confidentially asked me to tell her specifically which race each of our mutual friends identified with, so she wouldn’t embarrass herself.
I was listening to an episode of the BrainScience podcast that was an interview with the author of “The Myth of Alzheimer’s”, a book written by Peter Whitehouse, M.D. He was speaking of the politicization of diseases and mentioned Drapetomania
I was gobsmacked.
I’m relatively new to your blog, so I read the linked posts with interest. One thing that struck me about the “N-word” post is that it seems to me that the word in question has, if anything, become *more* negative over time, rather than less, unlike many other unfortunate words from the past.
It reminded me of my recent experience rereading Huck Finn. While the casual dehumanization inherent in the word was pretty damn uncomfortable to encounter, there was a certain degree to which I could “forgive” the characters for talking like that, because most of them didn’t have venomous intent, they were just thoughtless and ignorant. But now, even the most thoughtless and ignorant among us have at least a vague sense that they probably shouldn’t talk like that, even if they don’t really understand why, so pretty much any possibility of well-meaning-but-misguided use has been stripped away, and all that’s left of the word (in white people’s mouths, at least) is the naked hate.
I’m fortunate enough not to have any white acquaintances who have any desire to use this particular word “because black people get to use it, so why shouldn’t I?” or for any other pseudo-ordinary conversational purpose, but I’ve occasionally been dragged into discussions of how to handle it in academic contexts. The point always gets raised that “the N-word” is a ridiculous and terrible euphemism that makes the discussants sound like a bunch of goddamn elementary school kids getting all excited because somebody swoo-ore, I’m gonna tee-ell. And then people start making high-falutin’ points about how making a word taboo gives it power, or maintains its power, or whatever, and we’re letting ourselves be ruled by the past if we can’t even say it to critique it.
But more and more lately, I’ve started to realize that it just doesn’t fucking matter to me what fancy principles people want to cite, because I can’t stand to hear the word coming out of my own mouth or any other white person’s mouth either, no matter how clinically detached we’re being about it. Some words just really do have power, and it seems to me that pretending otherwise perpetuates the problem far more than a little bit of self-censorship does. Until we really do see the end of this word being used to perpetuate the nastiest kinds of racism, I don’t think it’s at all a bad thing for white people to feel massively uncomfortable saying it and to strongly second-guess doing so, regardless of how good their reasons may be. One *ought* to feel uncomfortable about the implications of the word, whether one chooses to say it or not, and attempts to argue the discomfort away are fundamentally attempts to evade and elide the issues which should be most central to any discussion of racism.
So, anyway, since I’m sure none of these thoughts are actually novel to you, what I really wanted to say here was, thanks for helping me past a block in my thinking about the subject, and towards this new perspective.
I think that there is a distinction to be made between merely ‘using’ the word and ‘talking about’ the word.
I agree that the use of the N-word is entirely unacceptable, but (within academic contexts) the discussion of the word is acceptable.
And while the idea of ‘making a word taboo gives it power’ is somewhat trite, it’s a documented psychological fact that avoiding a thing that causes us anxiety increases the anxiety that that thing causes, be that thing a situation, a person, an animal, or a word.
Well, sure, I’m not saying that there’s no circumstance ever under which That Word can ever be said. It’s more, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being expected to exercise a fair bit of caution and feel extreme discomfort about doing so even when there’s good reason.
The thing that bugs me is listening to people making a huge deal about how unfair and Deeply Wrong it is that they’re made to feel uncomfortable for using the word, like it’s a major crime against free intellectual discourse that there should exist any word at all that they can’t use without awkwardness. There’s a certain self-centeredness to a priority system in which the awfulness of the taboo against the word’s use is the most important thing a white person can think of to say about it.
To add to my point, I’d say a similar thing about words like “cunt” or “retard” — people getting all pissy about how unfair it is to be socially penalized for casually throwing these words around are kind of missing the point. One *should* feel uncomfortable saying these words, even if it’s just to talk about them rather than to “use” them, because they simply do have really nasty implications. I have to take a sort of deliberate grip on myself to type them out here, even though I’m a potential target of the first word and therefore by “n-word” logic have a right to comfortably use it myself. And I don’t think it’s necessarily problematic that I feel that way about it.
This is also an entirely different beast from the discomfort some people feel about words like “penis” or “vagina” — those words are awkward to say just because of straight-up taboos with no real rational basis. I think it’s just good sense to try to argue ourselves out of feeling uncomfortable if we use grown-up words for genitalia or talk openly about sex. But when we’re discussing genuinely troubling human behaviors like racism, sexism, and ableism, the terminology of the perpetrators *ought* to feel wrong in our mouths, especially for those of us who fit the image of the perpetrators. If these words don’t bother us, it seems to me that that means we’re not taking the issue seriously enough.
…text on pre-colonial African history
Would you like a book that builds a complete story but is bound to be heavily revised in a little while because it’s been put together from incomplete data and contested theories? Or a book that talks about what kind of data there is, the various ways in which people are trying to interpret it and what it’s limitations are?
I was hesitating to recommend this book without a preview option, but I eventually found one. Also from the preview, you can access the suggested reading lists, which might be interesting.
I’m not sure if you’ve read this or not (I’m still catching up on what you’ve written, and even then you might have read it and not blogged about it), but a good novel that gives a very detailed and excellent picture of pre-colonial Africa on a small scale and then the impact of colonialism on the same tribe is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. General caveats about it being a novel and not a history text apply, of course.
Regarding teaching history in general, I had a brilliant teacher at my local community college who taught from a custom text that one of his colleagues had written (actually added to). It was a standard history book, dates and events and whatnot (fairly comprehensive, though, and it did examine motives/etc.), and then the colleague had added in tons of primary and secondary source material. So essentially there was always a chapter of “Okay, here’s the overall picture of what happened, and here’s what the leaders were doing” and a supplementary chapter of “Now here’s source material showing WHY people were doing what they were doing, at the individual / crowd level.” My teacher integrated the source material and used it to give us a much deeper understanding of not just what happened, but why and how. I think people’s understanding of history would benefit a lot if more people were exposed to this kind of teaching.
I read Things Fall Apart back when I was a freshman at the University of Saskatchewan in the mid ’80s. I’m sure it was part of English 110. In any case the bit that’s still stuck in my head all these years later is some of the Nigerians mocking Christian missionaries for their weird belief that God could have a son, yet not a wife.
I probably haven’t been in a book store for fifteen years. They only carry what they think the market wants, and have clue zero about library science. Weird old used bookstores are more interesting but usually not very well organized.
I think pre-colonial African history (pre-modern-Euro-colonial) is really interesting, but I never found many books directly on this subject. What I have found were lots of papers, with access sometimes limited to abstracts. These tend to be rather narrow, of course. Sometimes the best concatenation of resources comes in the form of course materials from universities, and I used to be able to find stuff from the days when universities had internet before it was publicly available.
So on the intarnets, you can find material you might have to vet for yourself if you don’t have any sort of reputation reference for the instructor or compiler. Still, you can find somewhat centralized overviews with lots of links.
I’m a book addict, but I mostly use the internets these days. Don’t get out much.
Dammit, I used to have a collection of pre-colonial African epic poems that were surprisingly informative about the political climate of the time. There were even competing versions of some, along with commentary by the poets and analysis by the translators, showing, for example, the bits that were pre-Islam and post-Islam.
Gotta go dig through the shelves to find it, though. All I can remember was it had a picture of a statue of Sunjata on the cover.
I used to have a collection of pre-colonial African epic poem
I haven’t read it, but you may look at the 1966 BLACK AFRICA VOLUME I From Pre-History to the Eve of the Colonial Era by Russell Warren Howe.
Another novel which sounds like it may be interesting is Imaro by Charles Sanders, although it appears to be a mix of modern with pre-colonial aspects.
I’ve been looking at history of the Almoravids in Al-Andaulus history recently and I’ve come across a few titles which mention the Almoravids in North Africa which I haven’t explored (for time reasons, not for lack of interest).
If you do happen to find a good one, please blog about it. What am I saying, of course you will. 😉
According to most libraries and bookstores I’ve ever been to, African people came into existence when the first Europeans showed up. Somehow I doubt that’s actually the case.
Rather the opposite. For most of human history all people were Africans. Then a few wandered north, started settling down and mutating, and eventually there were Europeans, Asians, Americans, Australians, Pacific Islanders, etc.
I’ve read your essays on Canadian Black history, mainly because it’s a topic I know nothing about. Now you’ve whetted my interest. I’ll be doing some digging to find out more about it.
I don’t know if it happened in Canada, but in the second half of the 19th Century a large number of American Blacks became merchant sailors. Being a seaman was a poor paying, dangerous job which entailed long periods of absence from home.* It’s estimated that in the 1870s and 1880s about 25% of American merchant seaman were Blacks.
*Some whaling ships would literally spend years away from their home ports. It took a long time to fill the ships’ holds with whale oil.
I especially like the story of how former Kentucky slaves petitioned President McKinley, in 1899, in order to get Charles Chilton Moore, America’s first militant atheist, released from federal prison. This initiative was proposed and executed by Robert Charles O’hara (R.C.O.) Benjamin, who deserves a little Google searching, because he was an awesome, awesome black man. Unfortunately, his life ended tragically trying to get blacks registered to vote in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1900.
From my book comes a short excerpt about the petition.
Thanks to post and commenters for lots of stuff to go look up.
Just want to mention that this is an excellent reason to treat this history-learning and history-discussing as a matter of some urgency.
It seems history teachers are the new front-line fighters in the knowledge wars.
One of my favorite books at the moment is Letters From Black America. http://www.amazon.com/Letters-Black-America-Portraits-Experience/dp/0807001155/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1328477333&sr=8-2
I feel like this is “real” history – the private thoughts of people living through the white-washed events they try to talk about during Black History Month.
And this is a (somewhat dry) updated edition of a book I bought several years ago called Africans: http://www.amazon.com/Africans-History-Continent-African-Studies/dp/0521682975/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1328477527&sr=1-1
It reads like a textbook, but I learned so so much.
Oh, I know just the thing. I have a friend who is actually a professor of history in the very subject you wish to know more about. Email me at the address I’m commenting with and I’d be happy to connect you.
Very late to this post, but stepping out of my complicated re-embraced lurking to make a couple of recommendations for great voices:
The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown edited by Michael S. Harper.
Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans Since 1945 edited by Michael S. Harper and Anthony Walton.
My limitation in this recommendation is not enough knowledge of Canadian history, as neither volume is Canada-specific.
Regardless, both are fantastic, with many excellent voices.
Crommunist, I’ve been reading your blog since it’s arrival at Freethought Blogs and I wanted to say thank you for your writing and effort and power and humor and risk and perspective and challenge for us all to do better. This blog is a giant in the company of giants. In the ongoing effort to better myself and examine my own privilege I am grateful for the lighthouse you (and other Freethought blog writers) have built here and how its beam illuminates, including the times it circles back around to reveal myself run-aground on the shoals of my own ignorance.
Thanks, Robert! I’ve been meaning to start reading poetry again (for a few years now). Those are some helpful title recommendations.
Hey, HEY! I’ll handle the florid imagery and multilayered metaphors around here, thankyouverymuch! Seriously though, it’s always incredibly gratifying to know that people like what I do here. I really do appreciate your saying so.
whining never solved anything
[Crommunist’s note: I didn’t know whether this was spam or not, because of how content-free it is. Since ‘alan’ doesn’t seem to fit the profile of a spam-bot (i.e., linking to a product’s website, bad grammar, praising me for “the gloriously acceptable content of your web log site”), I’m letting this through on the assumption that he’s not a bot; he’s just an angry asshole.]