In the early 1920’s, Dr. Carter G. Woodson introduced Negro history week to African people in the United States, at the time there were more than 100,000 people living who had been born in slavery. As we prepare to celebrate Black History month nearly 90 years later, some people may ask if it is still necessary to mark an event that on the surface may seem to isolate us from other groups of people. Dr. Woodson recognized how important it was for a people who had suffered the indignities of slavery to have knowledge of who they were prior to this horrendous event in their history.
For nearly eighteen years I have had the privilege to teach African history to people in the Detroit community. My classes are designed to give us regular folk an understanding of who we are as an African people and the role we have played not only in the origin of humankind but the creation of civilization. As part of our first lesson in the course, I include a discussion on the value of history and why it is important we study it.
History is generally projected as an irrelevant, unprofitable system of rarefied causes and effects, names, places, and dates. It is projected this way intentionally, to divert our interest from a subject many consider boring. Our lack of knowledge of self helps to maintain the status quo (keeping whomever are the current power brokers in power) and keeping us (African people) oppressed and believing we are powerless. History that we learn in most educational institutions is written and taught from a Euro-centric point of view, meaning that all events of any importance that have occurred at anytime in human existence are examined and understood within the context of Europe as the definitive center of these events. For example, the period of time from the 8th century thru the 11th century is called the “Dark Ages” in most history texts, a period when Europe was in turmoil. Yet the Empires of the Moors in North-Western Africa and Spain and the West African Empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai as well as many others across the African continent were flourishing however, these facts are not often referenced in our world history texts. The accomplishments of African people are treated as a side bar to the world’s history, having value only in their relationship to the needs of Europeans. Additionally, we were depicted in many widely used texts as an uncivilized group of inferior beings awaiting forced servitude to save us from our mundane existence. Black scholars (and some White scholars as well) have made monumental efforts to correct these mis-representations and to offer us life-affirming, factual, historical data as to the role of Africa and her people in human civilization.
History is only valid and purposeful when written and/or interpreted from the Black (African) experience, allowing us to have a context by which we can evaluate historical events. The Truth in history more often than not is based upon the motives and experiences of the group doing the writing. For example what was historical truth for the American settlers could not possibly be true for the Native Americans.
An oppressed people with little or no knowledge of their history are more likely to fall victim to the ills of the society in which they live than a people with a strong sense of history and identity. I share Dr. Woodson’s belief that history should be a road map, one we may follow on our way to some place. This map shows us where we have been, where we should go, and hopefully what roads we should avoid. History cannot simply be a feel good exercise or a celebration for those who struggled on our behalf. We must look at the lessons history teaches us and understand its use to confront the social ills in our community and for the restoration of African people to our historical greatness.