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It is the month of February—Black History Month. This month is set aside by African Americans to observe the contributions of Black peoples to America and by extension the African diaspora. Beginning as Negro History Week in 1925 as an initiative by African American historian and scholar, Carter G Woodson, it officially become Black History Month in 1976 when the American Government formally designated it as such. While is not an official observance in other parts of the African Diaspora such as Guyana, over time, it has been informally accepted as part of our annual cultural calendar of events.
In our racially charged environment, some may ask what is so special about Black history—why should a month be set aside to observe this phenomenon? Why not have a month for all ethnicities? The truth is that in Guyana, a month is set aside to observe the contributions of our Amerindian brothers and sisters—justifiably so. All ethno-racial groups have made indelible contributions to our country, region and by extension the world. But that fact should not prevent us from highlighting the fundamental interventions of the individual groups. It is in that spirit that the United Nations has designated the current decade as the International Decade of the Peoples of African Descent—a decade that Guyana officially recognises.
There can be no doubt that the African experience in the Americas is unique. As the only group brought to the hemisphere in chains, their story bears a particular mark that distinguishes it from others. The subsequent experience of enslavement and its aftermath are at the core of the evolution of global history. Whether in the field of economics or politics or sociology or science one cannot avoid colliding with the realities of plantation or chattel slavery. It therefore stands to reason that while the stories of all groups are essential to the shaping of the national story, the African story is indispensable.
What is of great importance is that that story has been subject to deliberate and unconscious forms of denial, silence and misinterpretations. Hence the quest for reclamation of its history by the descendants of the enslaved Africans. This is the basis for the special place of Black History on the national agenda and the national consciousness. Of course, in a divided plural society that initiative has to by necessity be spearheaded by the African community. Even when the wider community accepts the reality of slavery, it has not always been ready to embrace the narratives emanating from assessments of the continued scars of that history of bondage.
As our own Walter Rodney and other eminent Black historians have reminded us, history is not detached prose consisting of dates, places and persons. Rather it is a living account of human experiences attached to emotions and consciousness that go deep beneath the proverbial skin. Historical Memory is a tool of resistance, reclamation and liberation, particularly for communities whose history has been scarred by centuries of bondage. History is also an indispensable tool of identity shaping and reclamation.
Africans in Guyana and the rest of the world continue to feel the “crack of the whip” in the form of economic policies, cultural alienation and structural racism which permeate the institutions of the society. While the world confronts the bigoted violence of law enforcement institutions in real time, the ravages are not confined there. Even societies governed by Black and Brown elites have not escaped this indictment. Our Guyana is a perfect example of the unfortunate persistence of anti-Black racism in a non-white environment.
We observe Black History this year as the universal cry of Black agony fills the air in Guyana. From the extrajudicial killing of Orin Boston and others to the racially tinged murders of the Henry cousins to the official persecution and prosecution of Black political leaders to the economic deprivation of the Black community to the willful construction of a culture of African beggary, the anti-Black crusade is hitched to the national agenda by the ruling elite.
In a country caught in the crossfire of ethnic competition for common resources, there is an unwillingness to observe the reality and narratives of the other. Observance of the dreaded history of Africans in Guyana has been subject to every ridicule and downplay to the point where Africans are more often than not driven into silence about that history. Its proponents have been labeled everything from “Memory Warriors” to “Racists.”
The outcome has been a country unable to overcome minimum barriers to an enlightened ethno-racial consciousness. The unwillingness to acknowledge the centrality of Black History to the shaping of our national and regional histories beyond shallow cliches has not served us well. It has led among other things to mindless comparisons of suffering such as the often-repeated likening of indentureship to slavery. In the final analysis, the country has become numb to the suffering of the “other.”
Yet, in spite of this, the salience of the African story cannot and must not be allowed to be silenced. Whether as “memory warriors” or “memory recorders” African scholars and activists must help Guyana come to grips with its sordid past and the manifestations of its consequences. The threat of racist labeling must not drive Africans into shame about their history and prevent them from confronting attempts to drive them back into the realm of official inhumanity. Further, Black history must not be appropriated by those whose agendas are influenced by racial domination. Sanitization and criminalization of the African quest for real racial emancipation must be confronted for what they are—schemes aimed at reintroducing the plantation without physical shackles.