Let me begin by thanking the administration of the University of Lagos for inviting me here today to help celebrate Black History Month.
Permit me to acknowledge Professor Folashade Ogunshola, Deputy Vice Chancellor of Development Services, as well as Professor Muyiwa Falaiye, the Director of the Institute of African and Diaspora Studies, in addition to the Deputy Director and the other leaders of the Institute.
All Protocols Observed!
It is a distinct pleasure to have the honor of speaking at such a distinguished institution on the occasion of such an important event, an event rich in meaning and symbolism. It is especially gratifying to me that the invitation was extended by your Institute of African and Diaspora Studies since I am a member of the African diaspora, who fortunately has made his way back home
When the leaders of the Institute approached me, they suggested that I speak on the topic of “Black Excellence.” I said to myself, Wow, that is a broad area. I am thankful that I was given some discretion about how to interpret this charge. I decided that I would like to reference Black Excellence by explaining why there is, and possibly always will be, the need to celebrate Black History. I am entitling my remarks “From 1619 to 2019: Why We Must Continue to Highlight Black Excellence.”
Let me begin.
Many of you may be aware that Black History Month actually began as Negro History Week in 1926. It was founded by a noted black historian by the name of Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life. The week was chosen to coincide with the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln, February 12, and Frederick Douglass, February 14.
It is not terribly surprising that his idea to recognize the achievements of black Americans and black people throughout history would eventually be deemed worthy of an entire month rather than a week and by 1969, black educators began advocating for a Black History Month. The first celebration of Black History Month took place at Kent State University in 1970 and six years later President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month during the celebration of the United States Bicentennial.
He urged Americans, all Americans, “to seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
In the U.S., we have been celebrating Black History Month for so many years, for some it has become routine, it appears to be institutionalized.
We have an annual Presidential Proclamation marking the occasion and schools, churches, and community organizations generally organize activities to remind us of great African-American historical figures from Crispus Attucks, who died in the Boston Massacre that helped stoke the American Revolution; to Harriett Tubman, the courageous escaped slave who returned to the South numerous times to help free approximately seventy others; to more recent heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr and former President Barack Obama.
At U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, we mark Black History Month by conducting programs to remind both local audiences and our fellow Americans of the significant contributions of black people in building the United States into the great country that it has become today.
As an example, last year the U.S. Mission in Nigeria featured black historical figures on its Facebook page throughout the month of February. As with any post on social media, you will receive a variety of responses, some positive, some negative. However, one of the responses that we received a year ago especially caught my attention and caused me to draft my own reply. The individual asked, Why are there historically black colleges and universities in the United States? Furthermore, the person also asked whether the establishment of these schools amounted to racism against white people?
To say that this question struck a nerve is perhaps an understatement. This presumably young Nigerian was clearly unfamiliar with the history of the African-American experience but I believe it was an earnest question and I believe I drafted an earnest and respectful reply, explaining that these colleges and universities were originally created because blacks could not attend the same schools as whites in many parts of the United States. Therefore, if blacks were to receive a college education, they had to attend schools established specifically for them.
I recalled that episode in drafting today’s remarks concerning the need to convey to every generation who and what came before them.
Why do I use the year 1619 in the title of today’s remarks? Please recall that the first African slaves to arrive in the English colonies of North America arrived in that year, 1619, to Jamestown, Virginia. Dutch traders who had seized them from a Spanish slave ship brought them there. For that reason, this year is being marked as the 400th anniversary of that momentous event.
It also marked the beginning of the need for events such as this. You see in the United States from that point forward, until slavery was abolished, there would be a need to justify that particular aspect of American life, to rationalize this specific form of inhumanity and injustice.
I actually don’t believe most people are by nature mean, cruel, brutal, or unjust. Therefore, I have noted that throughout the history of blacks in the New World, whether it be in the United States, in Jamaica, Cuba, or Brazil, there has always been a desire, perhaps a need, to justify race-based inhumanity to one’s fellow man.
Among the consistent justifications have been the claims that blacks are not equal to other races, especially intellectually, and that blacks have contributed very little of value to the world anyway, besides their manual labor.
For the young people among us, this may seem shocking but I encourage you to read about the intellectual arguments used to justify slavery and colonialism.
A central tenet of white supremacy in America and Europe has always been that blacks had no real history; that they left behind nothing of value in Africa; that they had no real culture; that the black race had contributed nothing of value to the advancement of the world; and slaves should be thankful for what their slave masters had done for them. Perhaps needless to say, this made those who benefited from slavery feel much better about that cruel, inhumane system and the same could be said for those who advocated race-based discrimination, colonialism, and imperialism,
I doubt that those who advanced these theories of racial superiority were aware of the Kingdom of Mali, the Songhai Empire and the greatness of ancient Timbuktu, Abyssinia, the Kingdom of Benin or the Oyo Empire. Nevertheless, for many, many years, not only were white Americans ignorant of the true history of Africans and African-Americans but many black Americans were just as oblivious of their history.
Carter G. Woodson created Black History Week because he saw the cruelty that can be justified when one group of people lack respect and empathy for another group of people. He also understood the effect that absorbing misinformation about the history of Africa and African-Americans had on the sense of pride and self-worth of back Americans. It should come as no surprise that the creation of Negro History Week coincided with the period of black American self-awareness known as the Harlem Renaissance and similarly the quest for a Black History Month began during the Black Pride or Soul Power movement of the nineteen sixties and seventies.
You see the misguided notions that were used to defend slavery or racial discrimination also warped the minds of some black Americans, who actually accepted these notions out of their own ignorance.
If black Americans were to be able to throw off the psychological shackles that imprisoned them, they would have to know much more about their actual history.
I know that the actual history of African-Americans is a wonderful story full of heroes and heroines who have contributed immensely to the world. Permit me to mention just a few:
Are you familiar with George Washington Carver, the agricultural scientist and inventor who developed hundreds of products using peanuts? Have you heard of Dr. Charles Drew, the surgeon who pioneered methods of storing blood plasma for transfusion and organized the first large scale blood bank in the U.S.? How about Dr. Ralph Bunche, the political scientist and diplomat who won the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War? Did you know that Benjamin Banneker, a black surveyor and mathematician reproduced the design for Washington, DC from memory after the Frenchman hired for the project quit and stormed off with the original plans?
When we discuss black history, we also do not restrict the discussion to African-Americans. I would encourage the students in the room to take note of the fact that the author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas, was a black man. Alexander Pushkin, known as the quintessential Russian writer, supposedly took his inspiration from his African great-grandfather, Abraham Petrovitch Gannibal, who was kidnapped from Africa as a young man but rose to become a general and a member of the royal court of Tsar Peter the Great.
On the African continent, I am sure you take great pride in the accomplishments of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Fela, Kofi Annan, Angelique Kidjo, Miriam Mkeba, and many, many others.
Nevertheless, the need to tell our stories, accurately, and with pride, is just as important today as it ever was. There are still doubters among us, there are haters, and there is the need to instill a sense of pride in our children and grandchildren. That need will never cease.
Let me begin to close with a quote from one of my personal heroes. It comes from the famous African-American female journalist and civil rights activist, Ida B. Wells, who risked her life numerous times to investigate and report on the lynching of African-Americans during some of the worst periods for race relations in American history.
She said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” To correct the historical wrong of neglecting or diminishing the contributions of the black race to humanity, I believe we will always need to turn the light of truth on falsehoods and ignorance by passing down the stories of our excellence, Black Excellence. I do so with pride and I hope you will too.
The Keynote Remarks was delivered during the Opening Ceremony of 2019 Black History Month
“From 1619 to 2019: Why We Must Continue to Highlight Black Excellence,” at UNILAG on Tuesday, February 26, 2019.