There are a number of annual celebrations of Black History Month here in Japan. I’ve attended dozens of them over the years. Have even spoken at several, and in fact will be speaking at one later this month. And more often than not, I’ll be asked the question, “Why?”
Even those who recognize that at one time BHM met a need and served a purpose wonder why their Facebook timelines are clogged with MLK’s dream, and their child’s Happy Meals are plastered with the mugs of black leaders every February. Others decry that BHM self-segregates the black experience from world history. Some say having a special race-based celebration itself fuels racism. Some even point to the presidency of Barack Obama as a clear sign that we’re on the threshold of a post-race era on this planet, and believe that once these baby boomers and other relics of a dying era die off, they’ll likely take the remaining residue of race-related injustice and inequity with them to their graves.
Well, I sincerely hope, or rather wish, these folks were right.
The first national celebration of black history in the U.S., in 1926, was the brainchild of Harvard scholar and historian Carter G. Woodson. It was the product of a decade of research focused on how to resolve the educational deficiencies and esteem issues of a people that had been bred to be stupid and esteem-less, and at the same time promote achievements by black Americans that occurred despite the efforts of the institution of slavery. For this purpose, Woodson had founded the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH).
“If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, then it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated,” said Woodson, and so ASALH sponsored a national Negro History Week. He chose the second week of February, to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Half a century earlier, Lincoln and Douglass were the two men primarily responsible for the passing of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States and legally made those who were constitutionally considered to be three-fifths of a person into whole persons.
Woodson also believed that studying the roles black people played in American history would serve as a solid foundation upon which young black minds could further develop core elements of basic humanity hitherto denied them, such as a sense of self-worth, dignity and identity. While these qualities were very much present in people with their histories intact, among blacks — who had been systematically stripped of everything even resembling a history — they were in short supply.
“If you teach the Negro that he has accomplished as much good as any other race he will aspire to equality and justice without regard to race,” said Woodson. This was revolutionary thinking at that time, believe it or not.
Teaching black children about the substantial and diverse contributions people of African descent had made to the birth and development of the country was considered subversive. But Woodson believed it was the only way black people could begin the process of being vested in America. And once enfranchised, they would be better capable of being productive members of society and participating intelligently in the affairs of the country.
And clearly he was right. Gerald Ford, U.S. president in the mid-1970s, agreed.
“With the growth of the civil rights movement has come a healthy awareness on the part of all of us of achievements that have too long been obscured and unsung,” said President Ford in 1975 during Black History Week, a year before it would be extended to a month. “Emphasis on these achievements in our schools and colleges and in daily community life places in timely perspective the benefits of working together as brothers and sisters regardless of race, religion or national origin for the general well-being of all our society.”
The after-effects of the African slave trade are generally discussed only in the context of how it impacted African-Americans. But in actuality, enslaved Africans were also brought to countries in South and Central America as well as the Caribbean. And the final destination for many slaves escaping from American slavery, via the Underground Railroad of secret routes and safe houses, was Canada. Not to mention the many blacks who wound up in those European countries whose wealth and empires were built upon the slave trade, like France, England, Holland, Spain and so on.
Inspired by the actions taken by Woodson, thought leaders in other nations with historically under-represented black minorities have also taken action to assure the contributions of their black citizenry are recognized, by starting BHMs of their own. In 1987, a Ghanaian analyst by the name of Akyaaba Addai-Sebo was instrumental in organizing the first celebration of BHM in the U.K. At the time, Sebo was serving as a coordinator of special projects for the Greater London Council.
The incident that inspired Sebo’s activism toward establishing a BHM in London began when he encountered a black colleague of his looking distraught. She confided to him that though she had made every effort to make her child knowledgeable and proud of his African heritage, the previous night, when she was putting her son to bed, the child had asked her, “Mum, why can’t I be white?”
“It dawned on me that something had to happen here in Britain,” said Sebo. “I was very familiar with Black History Month in America, and thought that something like that had to be done here in the U.K., because if this was the fountainhead of colonialism, imperialism and racism, and despite all the institutions of higher learning and research and also the cluster of African embassies, you could still find a 6-year-old boy being confused about his identity even though his mother had tried to correct it since birth, that meant the mother had not succeeded because the wider society had failed her.”
And in 1995, a motion to celebrate BHM in Canada was introduced to the House of Commons by a Grenada-Canadian immigrant named Jean Augustine. She’d made history herself by becoming the first black woman to be elected to parliament just two years earlier.
“There was very little that was written for and about the Canadian black community, and the presence of black people as part of Canadian history,” said the honorable Ms. Augustine. “It was a passion of mine to see how we could make this happen — to have black history be part of the curriculum, and black people acknowledged and celebrated in the Canadian mosaic.”
Woodson did not intend for Black History Week to be perpetuated eternally, or even extended to a month. In fact, he too expressed hope that it would someday outlive its usefulness — that the day would come “when all Americans would willingly recognize the contributions of black Americans as a legitimate and integral part of the history of this country.”
Has that day arrived? In my estimation we’re flying high, and in the right direction, but the landing strip is nowhere in sight.
So my answer to those folk wondering about the relevance or importance of celebrating black history in this day and age, I’ll just say this: In an ideal world, the diverse experience of African people, as well as the African diaspora, would be fully integrated into the global narrative. But this is not an ideal world.
However, this deficiency presents opportunities for black people living here in Japan and in other places where black history is obscure or missing altogether. Whether you’re from the African continent, the Caribbean, North or South America or where have you, you are, more often than not, being viewed and judged by your race — by Japanese and non-Japanese alike. And through that limited viewpoint, what you do will likely be attributed to your race as a whole. Which is great if you’re doing something that places black bodies in a positive light. And messed up otherwise.
So we need to be mindful and vigilant. And remember that every day — not just the 28 or 29 days of February but every single day — is Black History Day in Japan. You don’t like to dwell on the past? Believe me, I know how you feel. So don’t. Dwell on the now instead. Because everything you do now becomes history and herstory the moment after you’ve done it, and that deed is potentially historic. Particularly here. The opportunities to be a trailblazer abound in Japan.
Don’t get me wrong. Of course, you should be yourself — your best self, no matter what. But I say do so with the wisdom of Woodson. Remember that when he put this thing together, his vision was that one day we’d get our act together, and eventually, perhaps even as a species, come together. And, like I said, I truly believe we’re on the right track.
But in the meantime, the onus is on us to make a positive impact, to be remarkable, to be phenomenal, to be historical!
Perhaps one day the Japanese government will recognize the benefit of having students here study the contributions black people have made to history globally, including the history you’re making here in Japan today. If so, what role will you play in that textbook? In that Google search? On that Wikipedia page? In those Cliff Notes?
Let your answer to that question guide your actions from here on in. Don’t just celebrate black history. Be black history!
Black Eye appears in print on the third Monday Community Page of every month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com. Your comments and ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org
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