By R M Austin
Former Guyana Ambassador to Beijing, China
I am not a fan of American social and cultural extravaganzas which take the form of such holidays as Columbus Day or Memorial Day, to name only two of them. The former needs no detail. I am firmly opposed, as I am sure the rest of humanity is, to the notion that Columbus “discovered” America. But I always welcome the celebration of Black History month; not, however, for the reasons that most Americans do.
For my brothers and sisters, it is an opportunity to get involved in feverish debate and activity to prove the centrality and validity of Black History to the development of American society. In this, as in so many things, the Americans, including my Black sisters and brothers, in the words of Gibbon, are “confounding their borders with the rest of the world.” I am not aware that Americans look beyond their boundaries in celebrating this important event when it is of great symbolical value to the global nonwhite population. In so doing they are limiting the appeal and influence of one of the more important American events.
Growing up in Guyana we did not have national heroes. Before we discovered Cuffy and Rohan Kanhai, we had to look beyond our borders. And we liked what we saw. Bill Russell the basketball genius was as attractive as he was a bit of a puzzle. How could a man be so tall? Of course, when we discovered that he had slept with over 200 women we added a few cubits to his stature. And then there was Wilma Rudolph and Mohammed Ali. The latter was a revelation. He considered himself the equal of any man and proved it too. In the world of the Arts and Literature and History we discovered a gold mine: Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, James Baldwin, Richard Wright and W.E.B. Du Bois, made us aware that there was a field of achievement beyond the white construct of society. Also, the Presidents of the Black American Colleges and the Black inventors such George Washington Carver and others claimed our attention. Bliss it was to be in that mental dawn and to be young was very heaven.
When Black History Month was proclaimed, inspired by Carter Woodson, encapsulating the Black experience and its achievements, we were ready and prepared for this historical and cultural development. From its inception, to the present time Black History Month has been and continues to be a significant event in the annual calendar.
At this point I want to switch pronouns and speak of an important aspect of this event. Apart from the inventions in music and art and the programs for the advancement of the Black population in the US, I am particularly uplifted by the developments in the field of Black History. Many scholars, including White representatives, have now largely conceded the thesis that the fruits of Black Labour financed, in significant part, the economic development of the United States.
This is a revolutionary notion. For most of my life I was given to believe that Blacks in the US made no contribution to the development of their country.
One would have thought that a society which has initiated some of the most seminal technological developments in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries would have fertilized the most elevated thinking. Such thinking should have caused the respect for human rights, the diversity of the American society, and, specifically, the acceptance of the Black community as necessary and valid members of American society.
Not so at all. Side by side with its progressive and enlightened technological sector of its society, America is haunted by the ghosts of its past: white supremacy, suppression of non-white voting rights, political violence aimed at its non-white population, and, believe it or not, the banning of books in places like Florida. The banned books, be it noted, is mostly the work of Black writers such as Martin Luther King and Tony Morrison.
The cumulative effect of all this is the passing of laws which have banned the teaching of Black History in Florida and other states and the wholesale questioning of the Black experience. This is a dagger pointed at the heart of the celebration of Black History Month. If the backward classes succeed in pushing America back into the past, Black History Month will perish. I have no doubt about this.
Therefore, as we prepare to celebrate Black History Month we have to pay close attention to the wonderful achievements of America’s Black population while paying attention to the ominous storm cloud on the horizon. But the spirit contained in the celebration of Black History Month will not be crushed. I am of an optimism born of the justice of the history of black people, the grace of its writers, the beauty of its music, the nobility of its art, its resilience and man’s unconquerable mind.