Why Black History Month should be called African Liberation Month

| February 6, 2012
Photo of author Ajamu Nangwaya

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As Black History Month 2013 begins, we are re-posting this piece by Ajamu Nangwaya. 

We are now in February and for Africans in North America it is a significant month. It is usually observed as Black History Month.

It is taken as an opportunity to acknowledge African people's struggles, achievements and commemorate significant moments in the fight against white supremacy, capitalism, sexism and other forms of oppression.

Some of us use this month to reflect and rededicate ourselves to the revolutionary or radical African political tradition.

In the spirit of collective self-criticism, are we at the point where Black History Month is due for a name change and focus?

Names are quite important to resistance. It was no accident that the enslaved Africans who were taken across the Sahara Desert ended up with Arab names and those who went by way of the Atlantic Ocean had European names imposed on them.

Denying a people their name is a classic method of colonization and cultural imperialism. It is used to weaken collective consciousness, which is critical to building a resistance culture.

Black History Month started out as Negro History and Literature Week in 1920 by the fraternity Omega Psi Phi. Carter G. Woodson was the guiding influence behind this development and he changed the name to Negro History Week in 1926. That year is generally acknowledged as the official start of this political observance.

In 1976, Negro History Week was transformed into a month-long celebration and reborn as Black History Month.

Black History Month has since become more about cultural puffery than the politics of emancipation.

Trade unions, school boards, corporations and even government agencies are, for the most part, comfortable with the current toothless, non-challenging thrust of this month.

Essentially, they have been allowed to co-opt it and channel its potential for radical consciousness-raising and political involvement into celebrating "Black firsts" and "Black notables."

Further, it serves as a platform to sell the virtues of integrating Africans into this racist, sexist and capitalist optical illusion that is the Canadian dream.

One of the things that we have observed about the forces of exploitation is their wily manipulation and transformation of acts of resistance into harmless and empty symbols. That state of affairs is not possible without the participation of the oppressed.

Norman (Otis) Richmond, a Toronto-based journalist, is one of the main advocates in Canada for renaming of "Black History Month" as "African Liberation Month."

I couldn't agree more with this suggestion.

African Liberation Month would assert the name of the people whose struggle is being affirmed, while clearly communicating to the people that the mission of this celebration is the cultivation of a culture of resistance and liberation.

Let's make the commitment to consistently use African Liberation Month and not the other outdated name. It has exceeded its best-before date so we ought to send it to the "Museum of Outdated Social Contraptions."

Of equal importance is doing the work to make African liberation and social transformation central issues on our activism agenda in Canada and beyond.

I am proposing the following endeavours which ought to be among the priorities of political militants and the socially engaged during this African Liberation Month and beyond. In essence, we would be signalling our commitment to the liberation ethic within the radical African political tradition.

Firstly, the community needs to devote the necessary resources to the reassertion of its radical, organized political voice. Since, the 1990s police repression, criminalization and surveillance of the Black Action Defense Committee (BADC) and the political and economic retaliation against Arnold Minors for speaking frankly about police containment of Africans, the community has gone into a sort of political dormancy.

We are at our political best when the politically advanced sectors in the community educate, organize and mobilize for justice. It should be noted that it was the combativeness of the largely African youth participants in the Yonge Street uprising of May 1992 that forced the government of the Ontario New Democratic Party (ONDP) to enact a slew of anti-racist initiatives.

Secondly, it is absolutely necessary to engage in a structured and systematic political education and skills-building program for existing activists and prospective ones. It is necessary to draw lessons from our past on the effectiveness of the process used to prepare and develop our activist base.

Based on my experience, observation and reflection on community activism, we have to take a path that consciously and methodically equips our activists with the knowledge, skills and attitude to wage a consistent and principled struggle against sexism, racism, capitalism, homophobia and other forms of oppression. We cannot leave to chance the proper development of ideologically prepared and skilled activists.

Thirdly, we need to seriously operationalize the message within Kwame Ture's (formerly Stokely Carmichael) dictum, "Organization is the weapon of the oppressed." The radical and progressive forces in the community need to consolidate their ideas, efforts and resources in organizations, coalitions and alliances. We cannot continue to get by with fleeting committee-like entities that respond to an issue or organize a project and then wither away.

It is through durable organizations that we will be able to educate, organize and mobilize Africans in working-class communities and students in high schools, colleges and universities, work in coalitions and alliances with allies and address the issues prioritized by the oppressed and progressive sectors within the community.

Fourthly, we must educate and organize Africans to self-fund the resistance or liberation work so as to counter the corrosive impact of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. The Non-Profit Industrial Complex is a kind of counterinsurgency pacification program that has co-opted the community's sense of agency -- its "can-do" spirit. Community workers are not likely to risk their jobs by facilitating the radicalizing of consciousness and action of the people.

It is not political activism that is being used to challenge economic, social and educational exploitation. Instead, we see the tranquilizer of foundation and government funding patching up the wounds of social oppression and putting the people to sleep politically. Social workers and social service workers have replaced political activists as the "organizers" within the community. It is not an encouraging development.

We do not need to remind you that the person who pays the piper is the one who calls the tune. Many of us do not think twice about giving money to our religious organizations. It is high time that you pony-up a portion of your income and put it into the coffers of progressive African human rights and activist organizations. They are the ones fighting for your material interests and not organizations that are focused on spiritual otherworldly matters.

Fifthly, we need to explore the development of a labour self-management strategy to provide employment and promote economic democracy. It is critical for the left within the African community to counter the right-wing forces that see our liberation being adorned in the clothing of Black capitalism or mimicking the ethnic capitalist enclaves that are spread across Toronto.

We must stand opposed to white or African capital exploiting the labour of the working-class. Therefore, the anti-capitalist left ought to explore the development of a program of labour-controlled workplaces and enabling organizations.

Sixthly, priority must be given to creating independent labour organizations to organize and agitate around the workplaces issues that affect the unionized and non-unionized members of the African working-class. The racialized constituency groups or affirmative action elected positions that are officially part of the Canadian labour movement are too compromised and powerless to be of relevance to the racialized working-class -- at this moment.

They can only become useful when we start to carry out critical educational and organizing work among unionized rank-and-file union members. The pressure and initiative must come from the base. The purpose of this work among racialized workers would be to radicalize consciousness and develop or expand the skills needed to advance their needs in union structures as well as in unionized and non-unionized workplaces. The Ontario Coalition of Black Trade Unionists of the 1980s and early 1990s could provide instructive lessons for us.

Lastly, the African community must develop the organizational structures to advance international solidarity work with sisters and brothers in other parts of the world. Imperialism, patriarchy and racism are international in their respective characters. We need to provide moral and material support to the struggle of Africans and other exploited peoples across the globe.

Too often international solidarity activists and organizations do not give sufficient attention and resources to campaigns dealing with the suffering of African peoples. If we look at the massive rape of women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an estimated 250,000 women raped, and the relative indifference of international solidarity forces, it should be clear that Africans must step up and take the lead on this matter.

We do not need to mention the Darfur conflict in Sudan where reactionary forces in North America and elsewhere are exploiting this matter to score geopolitical points in the Middle East. As anti-imperialists, we must support the struggle of Africans in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere in a spirit of Pan-African international solidarity. Martin Luther King's declaration, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" should guide our solidarity work with all of oppressed humanity.

The radical political tradition of the Angela Davis, Walter Rodneys, Dionne Brands, George Jacksons, Assata Shakurs, C.L.R. James, Claudia Jones, Amilcar Cabrals, Paul Bogles, Ella Bakers, Mumia Abu Jamals, Malcolm Xs, Sherona Halls, Hubert Harrisons, Audre Lordes, among many others, may serve as a guide in our fight for the just, good and free society. We have no option but to use history and culture as weapons of struggle.

Ajamu Nangwaya is a trade union and community activist and a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto. This article was originally published on Dissident Voice.

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