How we understand history is central to our understanding of the world and it can therefore have a powerful influence over the ideas and values that structure the societies in which we live. As such, the study of history is rarely insulated from contemporary politics. This is most obvious in authoritarian states and absolutist governments have always looked to exert control over the teaching of history. But even in democratic countries like Britain, the historical record we take for granted has often been distorted and misshaped by centuries of imperial and aristocratic propaganda. Black History has long suffered from this kind of treatment. And if we’re not careful, we can end up repeating the racialised version of history that Black History Month was originally intended to dispel.
The idea of Black History Month is often credited to Carter G Woodson, an African American historian whose classic book “The Miseducation of the Negro” has become a foundational text in pan-African studies. In it, Woodson laid out the many ways in which Black Americans were purposefully miseducated to maintain transatlantic slavery and the Jim Crow apartheid that followed. Central to this programme of miseducation was the erasure of Black history and the spreading of the myth that Black people, rather simply, have no history, cultures, civilisations, or achievements to be proud of. Such nonsense was preached by serious academics and scholars for hundreds of years. And this mythologised history of the human race was actively taught to Black slaves to indoctrinate them into an imperial ideology – to teach people of colour to believe not only that they were inferior to their White brothers and sisters, but that this inferiority sentenced them to a life of servility.
It was also the rationale used by European powers to defend their own actions. To take only the example of the UK, the fact of the matter is that for centuries the only way British imperialists and politicians even attempted to justify British Foreign Policy, and the atrocities committed in the name of the Empire, was by disseminating the idea that people of colour were something less than human. But the notion that there are meaningful differences between the human races has always been nonsensical. And because it is so moronic, racism can only be believed in ignorance – which is often manufactured as much as it is organic (Although one does run into the odd wishful thinker).
As Akala put it in his brilliant Oxford University lecture, “for racism to function in human society, everyone has to be functionally mis-educated about the human story.” Understanding Black History is therefore important not only for the psychological emancipation of people of colour, but for the dissolution of racism itself.
In telling the tale of Black History, it is important to take a wider look than is common in mainstream media. During Black History Month, the tendency is to focus on the various forms of racism people of colour have suffered, and continue to suffer, both in the UK and abroad. Thus stories routinely centre around the horrors of transatlantic slavery, the civil rights movement, the fall of apartheid South Africa, and the enduring nature of systemic racism – evidenced most plainly in cases such as the murder of George Floyd.
Such pivotal moments in world history should never be forgotten and given the undeniable importance of these events this is an understandable and often well-intentioned effort. But to reduce Black History to the study of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, inspiring as they were, does a disservice to the thousands of years of Black History that occurred prior to interference of pasty European explorers. Most worryingly, it threatens to reinforce the notion that people of colour have no history outside of their relatively recent interactions with White Europeans.
Because of this focus, British people largely remain gripped by the colonial account of Black History and as a result, few are aware that Black people occupied key roles in Ancient Egyptian society, or that the Spain was a Muslim country for hundreds of years, having been conquered by North African Berbers in the 7th century. Nor are they generally aware that modern day Sudan is peppered with ancient Nubian pyramids or that Timbuktu is, in fact, a very real city that was once central to the obscenely wealthy Malian empire – and achieved an almost mythical status in the minds of medieval Brits who were too busy dying from the plague to take seriously the glitzy accounts of European explorers.
Throughout the age of the Empire such facts were largely obscured from the historical record, precisely because of the intelligence and humanity they attribute to people of colour. Today, I’m inclined to see the continued distortion of history as more habitual than intentional, given how common sense how this racialised vision of history has become. But the point stands that the history we have inherited remains shaped by old colonial aspirations and continues to influence our worldviews.
In fact, the irony is that even the accounts of the abolition movement that are paraded about during Black History Month tend to paint people of colour as mere passengers of history. In the UK, the abolition of the slave trade is portrayed as resulting from the benevolence of the British ruling class who, we are led to believe, were eventually won over by the arguments of White abolitionists. We rarely, if ever, hear about the countless Caribbean slave revolts that were instrumental in undermining the profitability of the slave trade and destabilising the industry as a whole. Particularly depressing is the omission of the Haitian revolution, which remains the only time in recorded history that an enslaved people have successfully overthrown their masters and become the government. For a society that champions democracy, freedom, and self-determination, you would think this was a cause worth celebrating.
These chapters of history are fascinating in their own right, and are worth studying for this reason alone, but even during Black History Month they tend to be forgotten. This not only robs us of the opportunity to celebrate some of the human race’s oldest civilisations and achievements, but risks reproducing a colonial worldview that should have been discarded long ago. Dr. Woodson intended for Black History Month to do just that. Perhaps it is time to live up to that ideal.