I am of the opinion that the celebrations during the month of February, called "Black History Month", should be renamed "African Heritage Month" instead. There are many reasons why, which I will explain shortly -
- but first, we need to understand what the point of African Heritage Month is, anyway.
When the celebration which some people now call Black History Month was inaugurated in 1926, it was not even named "Black History Month." Nor was it even a month long. It was called "Negro History Week," and it coincided with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (two people very important to the history of Africans in the United States of America), which fall in the second week of February. The founder of Negro History Week, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, one of the first African-Americans to earn a doctorate from Harvard University, saw the creation of this week as the fulfillment of an educational mission.
Dr. Woodson had come to realize that people of African descent in the United States - popularly called "Negroes" then - had been written out of American (and Western, writ large) history books. The average "Negro," or "African-American," as we call our American cousins today - knew next to nothing about his or her origins, and their fellow Americans of European descent knew even less. And this tiny period of just one week out of fifty-two weeks - was his attempt to highlight a past which had been trampled into obscurity. The Encyclopaedia Brittanica explains Woodson's rationale very well: "In 1915 he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History to encourage scholars to engage in the intensive study of the black past. Prior to this work, the field had been largely neglected or distorted in the hands of historians who accepted the traditionally biased picture of blacks in American and world affairs." Also, the reader should note that the organization created by the very person who started Negro History Week has since changed its name to "The Association for the Study of African-American Life and History."
So...from the end of the Roaring Twenties, through the Great Depression and WWII, to the end of the Civil Rights era, Negro History Week was celebrated in the United States, growing steadily in popularity across an increasing number of cities and states. It was not until 1976 - half a century later - when American president Gerald Ford gave an official government nod to Negro History Week by celebrating it as Black History Month.
The point of African Heritage Month is, and always has been, TO EDUCATE. If this period was initially called "Negro History Week," and it changed, then naturally, we should allow the title to continue evolving, in order for the period to become yet more effective in helping us bring greater enlightenment to all our fellow citizens.
With that said, I will now respond to a few of the arguments which are most commonly heard here in Montreal in favour of keeping the name "Black History Month" instead of "African Heritage Month."
Argument: "We shouldn't change the name 'Black History Month' because 'Black History Month' is a brand."
Response: This is totally wrong. "Black History Month" absolutely is NOT a brand. Through the aforementioned efforts of activist-minded African-American academics and conscientious communities, "Black History Month" has become a government-sanctioned period during which the achievements and contributions to society of people of African descent are honoured and celebrated by civil society organizations, corporations, and governments from the federal level all the way down to the municipal level. There is no trademark to the name "Black History Month," any more than there would be a trademark to the name "Remembrance Day" or "Canada Day."
Furthermore, even if AHM were a "brand", brands which lose their ability to make an impact upon the target consumer population are continually updated and rehabilitated - and if rehabilitation is not possible, then the brands are simply removed from the public eye. The companies behind the best brands know how to modify certain aspects of the brand to suit today's client or consumer while remaining true to the essence of what the brand stands for! The essence of African Heritage Month is a period during which the achievements and contributions to society of people of African descent are highlighted and celebrated for educational purposes, because the entire population is under-informed (and misinformed) regarding those achievements. The substance of this celebratory period is not changing; only its name is becoming a more accurate representation of what it is.
Argument: "Are we changing the name 'Black History Month' because we are afraid to be 'too Black' now?"
Response: No, that is completely besides the point; it would be hard to find an African-Canadian or African-American who does not agree with the late James Brown, who sang "I'm Black and I'm proud!" Of course we are not ashamed of being Black. The real point, though (read closely, this is important), is that "African Heritage" fundamentally says far more about the history of Blacks than "Black History" does. The history of peoples of African descent does not begin with a slave ship and end with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other African-American heroes of the American Civil Rights Movement. There is so much more to us than this "single story," as writer Chimamanda Adichie wisely says.
Argument: "The word 'Black' is more inclusive than the word 'African'."
Response: This is technically wrong, and in fact such an argument is quite disingenuous. All Blacks - meaning the Black Americans who were the people originally referred to when the name "Black History Month" was coined in the United States - are at least partly of African origin, while the term "African" encompasses a much larger population. "Blacks" are a subset of Africans, not the other way around. "Black people" is simply a convenient term which has traditionally been used to refer to racialized populations of Africans (e.g. in South Africa) and - more particularly - racialized Africans in the diaspora, wherever they can be found - this means Afro-Caribbeans, African-Canadians, African-Americans, Afro-Brazilians, etc. (If you're not sure what "racialization" is or what it means, I invite you to Google it right now. It may even be a bit too large of a concept to suddenly grasp in a single definition, but it's essential to understanding the importance of why AHM is a more suitable name than BHM.)
Argument: "I am Caribbean. I'm not African. I'm Black. I don't want to use the term "African", because it doesn't mean anything to me."
Response: There is a glaring contradiction here. If someone is Caribbean, but not African, then that person is not Black either; how, then, could that person ever have identified with "Black History Month" in the first place? Remember, "African" > "Black". All Black people in the Americas are of at least partial African descent, but not all Africans are Black.
Argument: "We're trying to be too politically correct with this whole African instead of Black thing."
Response: This is mischaracterizing the whole idea. "Politically correct" communication is defined as using a particular set of language and terms which will make the least waves, in order to minimize the potential "offense" taken by as many people as possible. On the contrary, as proof of the very fact that the term "African Heritage Month" is politically INCORRECT, we need look no further than the heat which this discussion usually seems to generate - especially among Concordians of African descent who are reading this. No, in our community, "African Heritage Month" is politically, very INCORRECT - but educationally, it is far more CORRECT than "Black History Month."
Argument: "Africa is behind us. Afrocentrism is a thing of the past, our parents left that - along with Afros and bell-bottoms - back in the seventies."
Response: Africa is not just in our past - Africa is very much alive right now, even within our North American culture (and even more so within Caribbean culture) in ways that we often do not detect; in fact, the legacy of colonialism is such that we have been taught to deny the African origins of many aspects of our culture and ridiculously overemphasize others (especially those of European origin).
Furthermore, Africa is the future. Today, there are over four times as many Africans on the African continent as there are Africans in the diaspora. In fact, since the beginning of recorded history, the population of Africans on the African continent has always greatly outnumbered the population of diasporic Africans. The future is not about "going back to Africa", it's about Africa coming back to the world stage. Africa, here in the early 21st century, is rising up to return to a position of global leadership in many respects - and it would be backward of us to not recognize that.
Argument: "Black is my identity, I don't want to change it to "African." I'm not African."
Response: This argument is missing the point entirely. We're not trying to force anyone to change their personal identity, it's just a new label for the same old month! (An important label, nonetheless.) But since it's been mentioned - here goes: "Black" is a European term used to identify a racialized group of people. All human societies have a name for themselves; most peoples are called either by a name which they invent for themselves, or by a name which refers to where they come from. The term "Black" is neither. In fact, it can contribute to the easy dehumanization of people of African descent by making it seem as if we have neither a name for ourselves, nor a place of origin. Although even the word "Africa" is Latin and thus European in origin, at least "Africa" can be identified as a place; we know where Africa is, we know that it has thousands of years of history, a rich diversity of cultures and civilizations, etc. But where is the "Black-land", where the Blacks came from? Nowhere - just as there is no "Yellow-land" for "Yellow" people nor a "Red-land" for "Red" people. Thus the term "Black," while having a fair degree of catchy appeal, still contributes to a racist misconception that African people's history only began when Europeans started eyeing them as extremely cheap labour. Did our predecessors simply materialize out of nothingness, like some kind of unfortunate, brutish and magical creatures, to go work themselves to death for free?
Today's mainstream, popular notions of "Black" history, by downplaying or simply excising the African origins of the descendants of Africans in the diaspora, give a truncated, incomplete view of our humanity. Although the term "Black" may be more suitable than the terms "Negro" and "Colored", this is only because the term "Black" has had less historical baggage associated with it since it came into vogue in the 1960s, long after African slavery had been abolished by Western nations. And although we can co-opt the term "Black" for our own positive use as people of African descent (incidentally, this is the same argument often used to justify the continued promotion of the word "nigga" within communities of African descent), in keeping with the fact that we are here to EDUCATE, we should no longer simply be content with the term "Black" as a heading for our educational efforts during this month.
Argument: Everyone already knows what Black History Month is, so why change the name? If we do that we'll lose people's interest.
Response: That is wrong. Far more important than the name of the month, is WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS during African Heritage Month. Whether we call it BHM or AHM, we still have lots of work to do to promote the events which will happen during the month of February. Marketing this series of individual events has far more to do with good planning and logistics than it does with the general name given to the series. Besides, with each year that passes, it will become easier to promote this period with its new name, "African Heritage Month". People may be conditioned towards seeing what they expect to see, but changes always have to begin somewhere. Just as most children of today will grow up seeing an African-American president of the United States of America as an everyday fact of life, from now on students coming to Concordia should see "African Heritage Month" as the normal name for the time during which Concordians educate each other about and celebrate the contributions of people of African descent to our society.
Furthermore, the educational focus of African Heritage Month should inform the marketing strategy, not the other way around. What's the point of marketing an educational month which is itself erroneously-titled in a certain respect? By adopting a title for this special period which is more appropriate, we stand to gain so much more than we would ever lose.
Argument: The city of Montreal calls it "Black History Month."
Response: So what? It wasn't until 1986, that U.S. President Ronald Reagan became the first to officially declare February to be "Black History Month" federally! The city of Montreal only started officially observing a Black History Month in 1990, and the Quebec government only came around in 2006. Unfortunately, they were all quite far behind the times - though we should all be happy that they are making great strides to catch up now! However, it's up to us as citizens to show the proper way when our elected officials simply don't know any better - they depend on us to give the right cultural cues. This is exactly what U.S. President Gerald Ford did, back in 1976, when he expanded official federal recognition of "Negro History Week" into "Black History Month." Other municipalities, jurisidictions, and major civil society organizations have moved forward and adopted the name "African Heritage Month" or even "African-American History Month". (The former name is far more common in Canada.) We also should know better than to stick with the name "Black History Month" - so what are we waiting for?
Until the African cultural heritage of our North American societies is consistently given its proper due in elementary and secondary school curricula across Canada, the lessons imparted through the context of African Heritage Month will continue to be a necessary dose of understanding which our societies so desperately need in order to thrive at their fullest potential; thus let us take a step in the right direction by adopting the title "African Heritage Month."
By Dwight Best