Journalism in the service of society

Black History Month

During Black History Month, I’m reminded yet again of the ways that the struggle for civil rights is interwoven with the struggle for workers’ rights – Tom Perez

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Black History Month 3

THE month of February is special in more ways than one to me. I can never forget; it is the month that conferred with that word “Father”. My first child, a beautiful daughter, was born in February. Apart from that, it is also a month that helps me to focus on who and what I am and how far I have come in the journey of life.

In the calendar of the world, it is known as the Black History Month. This means a lot to me as an individual. I grew up knowing that the world is made up of races and people of different origins. In the Jos, Plateau State of those days, we grew up knowing of oyinbo, kora and Indians. Our parents were not educated in the western way but they were able to differentiate for us who was who and who came from where. But that is a story for another day.

I grew up cherishing my heritage as a black man and never at any time felt I should have been anything else! However, it was something novel to me when television became a common part of the furniture at home in the eighties. We sat before black and white television screens and were watching people who look like us and were speaking through their noses in television programmes. We couldn’t place the idea. How could they be black and be speaking some form of English that we seem not to be able to follow, and yet we are told they are blacks just like us!

We knew then of other blacks in other parts of Africa that we have heard of. Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and other African countries we know about and know they speak English with some different kinds of inflexions. But what of these funny characters that we see on television every day?

The conundrum became more confusing when one day a much more senior brother came home and told us that those people, we see on television sets are Americans! We looked at one another in consternation. We couldn’t argue with him because he was by far older and more experienced than us in the affairs of this world. But how could he tell us that these people we were watching on television were Americans? Are Americans black? We scorned him behind his back and anytime we see him coming, we whisper behind his back that “Bros oloje yen nbo o”, which is literally translated as “That lying brother is coming.”

For many years until we got better educated and got to read about that fact, we always took with some pinch of salt whatever he told us because we never believed that America could have black citizens. Forget our ignorance, as of that time the only Americans we knew were whites and never believed or knew there could be black Americans.

We were to learn many years later that there are really black Americans. I am writing here about the time before the advent or perhaps more appropriately, before we heard of Soul Father James Brown and others who later made it abundantly clear to us that there really are black Americans.

I cannot vividly remember now but it was much later when I got to the senior class in secondary school that I got to know for sure that there are really black Americans. Then they were called Negroes, perhaps as a way of not directly accepting they are blacks. I was to later get to know more about this class of people through reading of books written by them detailing their experience of life as Blacks, Negroes or African Americans as they are called now.

I was later to read and hear about Alex Haley and his search for his heritage which culminated in the writing of Roots. That was not all, I was later exposed to the books of other great writers of African descent who have today shaped the literature of America and the experience of the world.

What has today become celebrated as the Black History Month was not achieved on a platter of gold. It was fought for, as everything that concerns the black race is. The month, according to records was first proposed by black educators and the Black United Students at Kent State University in February 1969. It was not until a year later that the first celebration took place at Kent State from January 2 to February 28, 1970.

The celebration has since grown from that little corner of Kent State in the seventies to a big celebration around the world. It is usually a period that journalists of my age looked forward to in the Lagos of the nineties. The then Public Affairs Section of the American Consulate used to host interesting programmes for the whole month of February to early March. We all struggled to be invited because of the fun and education those events are intertwined with. Some of us today look back with nostalgia at those days and ask what has happened to our world that things that unite and make us happy are today taking backseats in the affairs of the world.

Those days were the times one looked forward to because you are sure of getting free drinks and books of leading African American writers who have contributed to the knowledge industry. It was a time to hear actors and leading figures read excerpts from the books of authors and you watch films and listen to songs of those whose films or songs you may never come across easily.

The world has today become better with the writings of these people. My world of growing up is not complete without the words and works of these writers. Their writings blended and complemented those of my fellow Africans who use their words to paint pictures of life for many of us. Since my secondary school days through history lessons and reading of books from them, I have come to know that Bros Oloje was really right about what he told us. Education liberates you and reading takes you to higher heights.

That is why my February is never complete in any year if I don’t look for and read a book written by any of those writers who told us the truth about the American life long before I became a man and was able to travel there and witness it live.

Picture it this way: what will the American literature look like without the writings of Tony Morrison, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Alex Haley, Malcolm X and a host of others?

This year’s theme of celebration is “The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity.” But the Black History month is not about books alone. The influence goes beyond literature and history alone. What about music, sports, films, science and other endeavours? The truth is that the month is too short and too little to celebrate the contributions of this race to the American Dream. However, it is better than none at all.

Happy Black History Month.

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