By Oscar Wailoo
I’ve always been a bit bewildered about what has become known as Black history since Black History Month became an official part of the national calendar.
American Dr. Carter Woodson’s 1926 idea of writing Black America into the country’s history and celebrating Black achievement, deserve high praise for what he did in a country that was built on the backs of millions of enslaved African and whose presence in America goes as far back as the arrival of the first white man on the North American continent.
Before Woodson’s project, Black people’s presence in U.S. history was a passive one, counting among the tools, beasts of burden and cattle that were used to build the country.
Woodson’s idea has taken hold in countries where Blacks have been written out of their countries’ history. But I’m sure that he would have been disappointed to learn that after many decades of celebrating Black history, a lot of it has degenerated into trivia beginning with “the first Black man to do this or the first Black woman to achieve that.”
To be fair to the researchers, unearthing those facts would have been quite an accomplishment in the early stages of a history project where primary sources were in short supply, and had to be hunted down with diligence where every discovery was cause for celebration. But after many years of unearthing the facts, then setting them down as a list of statements related by a few words they hold in common like “Joe Brown was the first Black person to …” does not a history make.
Still, I can see where listed facts can resonate with Black Americans who for almost their entire history were treated as nonexistent except for lynching purposes. For people who, among other indignities, were not allowed to drink water from the same fountain as whites, every “first” has meaning in a place where Black people have to constantly assert that their lives matter.
I can also understand how a “list of firsts” can have profound meaning to those Black Canadians who have had a history of enslavement in Canada and whose relationship with white Canada parallels the American experience.
On the other hand, it’s puzzling that “first to” history is being peddled to Black Canadians who are Caribbean-born or descendants of people from the Caribbean; and that they are expected to find the idea of a Black person doing or being something for the first time so intriguing, so history making.
Could it be that we have forgotten that for generations the Caribbean has been producing Black educators, doctors, prime ministers, presidents, world conquering cricket teams led by Black men, artists, scientists, Nobel laureates, and world-class musicians for example? And that most Caribbean folk of a certain vintage were born and raised in a Caribbean where the presence of such accomplished people were quite normal.
Of course, these achievements had little to do with the relative merits of Caribbean Blacks versus Black Americans. It likely had more to do with the white to Black population ratios in the respective British colonies.
In the Caribbean where Blacks were in the majority, there were more opportunities for independent thinking and development in colonies where few whites chose to live. The whites were largely absentee landlords.
In the U.S. the opportunities for independent development were severely limited in the presence of a rapacious and overbearing white majority.
After many years of Caribbean excellence, the idea of a Black person being the first of any kind in any field should be seen as routine, to be expected by a people who came to Canada by choice, fully prepared to succeed.
Here are some Black Caribbean people whose stories are crying to be told to our children: Haitian revolutionaries Macandal, Boukman and Jean-Jacques Dessalines; Cuban independence fighter General José Antonio Maceo and his mother Mariana Grajales; Nobel laureates Derek Walcott and Sir Arthur Lewis; writer CLR James; Dr Eric Williams; Michael Manley; cricketer Sir Garfield Sobers; Baroness Valerie Amos; Baron David Thomas Pitt. These are Caribbean people, born and bred, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. But even if we stop there, we would have done almost as much as was done during past Black History months.