By Norman (Otis) Richmond
I remember asking Denzel Washington once during a Toronto International Film Festival interview who would he prefer to play, Toussaint Louverture, Henri Christophe or Jean-Jacques Dessalines?
Washington laughed and said, “If it was left to me I’d play Dessalines.” I had recently read in a radical American newspaper that Washington had just finished reading C.L.R. James’ classic The Black Jacobins.
Black History Month must be updated for the 21st century. February should be the month that we re-double our struggle against imperialism and white supremacy and for reparations for slavery, the slave trade and colonialism. In February – and every month – we should also call on boards of education to put James’ book about the Haitian revolution on the curriculum.
A growing minority prefers the term African Liberation Month. El Jones of Halifax, Nova Scotia, has gone on record in support of the term African Liberation Month. Richard B. Moore, the great Barbadian revolutionary and author of the book The Name Negro: Its Origin and Evil Use was clear on the issue of naming people and historical events. Moore always maintained that dogs and slaves are named by their masters; free people name themselves.
Where did the idea of Black History Month come from? Did it drop from the skies? No. Was it conceived in the lab of a mad African scientist? Wrong again. Personally, I’m tired of hearing uninformed people remark: “They give us the coldest and shortest month of the year to celebrate Black History Month.”
First of all, they didn’t give us anything. The great African American historian Carter G. Woodson, his organization – the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, formed in 1915 – and the masses of African people in the U.S. and Canada forced the system to recognize the contribution of Africans to the world. Woodson’s organization came into existence only 30 years after the Berlin Conference, where European colonial powers carved up Africa like a Thanksgiving turkey.
Why did Woodson pick February as the time to commemorate Africa’s many gifts to humanity? Says John Henrik Clarke in Africans At the Crossroads: Notes For An African World Revolution: “Black History Week comes each year about the second Sunday in February, the objective being to select the week that will include both Feb. 12, the birth of Abraham Lincoln, and Feb.14, the date Frederick Douglass calculated to have been his natal day. Sometimes the celebrations can include one day, in which case Douglass’ date gets preference.”
February never was meant to be the only month African people reflected on their past. Clarke states, “The aim is not to enter upon one week’s study of Black people’s place in history. Rather, the celebration should represent the culmination of a systematic study of Black people throughout the year.
“Initially, the observance consisted of public exercises emphasizing the salient facts brought to light by researchers and publications of the association during the first 11 years of its existence. The observance was widely supported among Black Americans in schools, churches and clubs. Gradually, the movement found support among other ethnic groups and institutions in America and abroad.”
The time has come to update Woodson’s idea. As activist / scholar Abdul Akalimat has pointed out: “Some of us have been promoting the notion that it was important to move from negro to Black, from week to month and now it is time to move from general notion of history to the specific theme of Black history which is liberation.”
The question is history for what? The answer is for liberation. In Toronto people like Jean Daniels, Dr. Dan Hill Sr., Jean Augustine and Rosemary Sadler have kept the history of African people alive.
We as a people like all human beings have a right to determine what we call events that deal with our own history.