Black history is increasingly being celebrated in Europe and the Americas. In the United States and the United Kingdom especially, specific months of the year - February and October respectively have been officially set aside to celebrate or commemorate Black History month. On the African continent itself, the celebration or commemoration of Black history is yet to enjoy the same status or significance it does in the diaspora. This is possibly because Blacks in the diaspora are under greater psychological pressure to fill the void in their history and assert their social worth as equals to non-Blacks. It is important to clarify here, that 'Black' in this write up, is used in its 'narrow' sense to describe people of African descent or identity, as opposed to its broader usage in say the United Kingdom to describe non-white persons of African, Asian or other distinctly non-white origins.
It is also necessary to stress here, that African descent and identity are of equal value. This is an important clarification as there are now hundreds of thousands or even a few million persons who may be able to trace their ancestry to Europe and Asia, but identify themselves firmly and unshakeably as Africans, and must be accepted and respected as such. (Some Africans argue that those not of African descent that exhibit a settler or colonial master mentality should be excluded from this definition. Whatever the merits or demerits of that position, it is the subject of another debate entirely)
Why celebrate black history?
Many people of various 'races' including Africans, especially those that reside on the African continent often wonder what is significant about Black history that necessitates its celebration or commemoration in the diaspora. Why for instance is it not important to celebrate White history? A school of thought advocates that it is absurd to suggest that White history is not already celebrated. After all, European history takes up a large chunk of the history syllabus of secondary schools and institutions of higher learning not just in Europe, but also in much of Africa and Asia and wherever else European colonialists reached in their quest for riches, slaves and colonies to exploit. Even non – European history is taught from a largely European worldview. European and more significantly African children are taught for instance that Mungo Park the European explorer discovered the river Niger. The subliminal suggestion being that Africans lived around the river, and utilised its resources for centuries but never 'found' it. Any responses to exam questions, which contradict this imparted wisdom leads to failure, and failure is equated with ignorance or at least, the inability to learn. By default, African children have been taught since colonialism, that Africa has no history. But again, why is all this of any significance? Why is there an increasing desire to assert that people of African descent and identity have a history, hence the celebration of Black history.
The answer lies in the potential of history to influence or control the perception of self worth of individuals, countries, continents and peoples or 'races'. No history equals no achievement. No achievement equals no pride. No pride equals no dignity and no dignity equals an inferiority complex. The reverse of this process, a rich history, many achievements, cause for pride and dignity may not result in a superiority complex, but certainly does not lead to an inferiority complex. An inferiority complex, and lack of self-belief as any psychologist will confirm, leads to lack of motivation, which in turn results in underachievement.
Conventional history and wisdom has it for example, that most if not all the great advances in and contributions to science, technology, industry, social and political organisation were made, and are still being made by non-Black people. In other words and in one sentence, the great strides in civilisation have been largely attributed to Europe and those of European descent. Africa (and Africans) in contrast, has been portrayed as the “dark continent” of savagery and barbarism that needed to be 'civilised', and in contemporary times is perpetually in need of support and handouts to save it from descending into the abyss of anarchy, hunger, disease and poverty. This image has a negative effect on Blacks in the diaspora, and somehow has provided the philosophical justification for slavery, colonialism and possibly, the incredible refusal of western governments at last year's world conference on racism, to accept that slavery was and is a crime against humanity.
The consequences of these are grave and raise many questions that demand answers. Why, is race an issue? Because there is racism. Why is their racism? Because there is discrimination. Why is there discrimination? Because it rationalises exploitation. Why is there exploitation? Because some people benefit from it. If you are said to be inferior, your life cannot be worth the same as that of someone superior to you. If your life is not of equal worth, then it is expendable, or at least exploitable and you can be a source of cheap or even free labour, hence slavery – hence Apartheid which as we all know, institutionalised gross violations of human rights, and was established to be a crime against humanity. If apartheid is a crime against humanity, why not slavery?
Slavery and colonialism played a great role in the erasure and marginalisation of African history. We know today, that history is told from the worldview of the 'conquerors'. If the Nazis had won World War 2, for example, world history would be told differently. The consequences of slavery, have therefore included decades of mis-education, Africans not to excel, but to service the clerical and administrative ranks of colonial governments, as most Black south Africans were denied the same standard of education as Whites in order to perpetuate an underclass of ignorant millions with nothing but a life of slavery to look forward to.
What is there to celebrate?
The celebration of black history in the diaspora, can therefore be seen as an attempt by Black people to show that they had a history before slavery and colonialism that they have contributed to the march of world civilisation, that Black people have and can make giant strides and are therefore not inferior. This poses the strong possibility of instituting self-belief, improving motivation, and restoring dignity, which after all is a key human right.
In the entire history of humanity - both written and unwritten - only Africa and Africans, have been subjected to centuries of full-scale slavery and colonisation followed by being the battle ground of cold war politics. No continent or people could have survived the forced removal for slavery, of over three hundred million of its people - mostly youth, followed by ruthless colonial exploitation. If Europe were to suffer the same fate today, and lost three hundred million people in their prime to slavery, had borders artificially broken up and redrawn to lay the basis for conflict, suffered colonial exploitation, and cold war interventions that created and sustained dictators of the likes of Mobutu of Zaire, it would resemble Africa today. Conversely, if Africa had the dubious benefit of millions of unpaid slaves to build up the continent over centuries, it would have led to an accumulation of wealth and capital just as was created in Europe and America, which created the basis for the industrial revolution.
If we agree that the main aim of slavery was the economic exploitation of slaves, it is easy to appreciate the fear by American and European governments and corporations that the admission that slavery is a crime against humanity will leave them open to massive claims of compensation, which is a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that the accumulated wealth of their countries owes much to slavery and colonialism.
The myth of racial superiority is built in part on promotion of the falsehood that Africa was civilised by Europeans. On the contrary, it is widely acknowledged today by the greatest scientific minds of all races that Africa is the cradle of human civilisation. What is not widely acknowledged is the implication of this on world history. Some people argue that there is no need to duel on the past - that we need to look to the future. This is wrong. We must dwell on the past because the contemporary mis-understanding of history serves to promote the myth of "white supremacy" and facilitate racism and gross violations of human rights. No serious person today underestimates the importance of psychology in anything - even in sports. If all available evidence suggests that Africans and "Blacks" have contributed nothing to human civilisation, the myth of racial superiority will remain and with it racism and the psychological damage inflicted on many people of African descent and identity.
If contemporary history did not recognise the contributions of past Greek, Roman or Chinese civilisations to human development, the perception of their place in world history today would be different. Similarly, what would be the reaction if two thousand years from now, if the contributions of Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and other Jews to human civilisation were denied, or the contributions of countless and nameless Japanese persons to the development of science and technology? There would be a void in the history of these peoples and nationalities. Of course, not all of Africa attained the level of sophistication of the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Nubia or Ethiopia, or later the social and political organisation of Mali, Benin or Ghana "Empires". The same applies to China or Europe at the height of ancient Greek civilisation or the Roman Empire. Alongside advances existed backwardness. The Romans for instance had the barbarians alongside them who dealt them severe blows.
It therefore amounts to falsification of history not to clearly and openly acknowledge the contributions of "Black" and African civilisations and persons to human development. Contemporary accounts of popular history therefore need to be corrected. For instance, papyrus [paper], alphabets and ink, which are pillars of education, were used in ancient Egypt which contrary to the Hollywood version of history was at the time a "Black" civilisation. It is also historical fact, that the libraries of Egypt were torched by invading Roman armies of the Caesars during the decline of the ancient Egypt, which alongside its age, explains why most written ancient Egyptian History is lost. At the height of Roman civilisation, shorthand was famously taught in Rome by the African Tiro who opened a school to teach the scribes of the Roman Senate.
Similarly the fundamentals of modern mathematics were taught to Greek scholars by "Black" Egyptians who worked with fractions, algebra, geometry and the value of Pi which were all deployed in the construction of the great pyramids hundreds of years before Greek civilisation and Isaac Newton. To this day, modern science is unable to crack the wonders of the ancient pyramids of Egypt, which remain the best showcases of ancient African architecture. In medicine, it is widely assumed that Hippocrates a Greek is the father of modern medicine hence the Hippocratic oath but this is wrong. Imhotep of ancient Egypt is now acknowledged as the father of modern medicine. The symbol of the medical profession - a winged staff entwined by serpents - was the insignia found on his temples two thousand years before Hippocrates. His ancient temple was a centre for experiments in anatomy, surgery and pharmacology.
To appreciate all this, the history of civilisations has to be placed in context. The ancient African civilisations of Egypt, Nubia and Ethiopia existed from around 2600 BC, the Chinese from around 1600 BC. By comparison, the City-states of Greece only came into existence around 650 BC and the Roman Empire around 149 BC. With the possible exception of the Chinese who only stumbled upon other civilisations around 126 BC the general pattern was that the Romans borrowed ideas from the Greeks who in turn had borrowed ideas from the Egyptians. It is therefore not very surprising, that a lot of modern thinking is attributed to the Greeks especially through thinkers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It is also generally not known, that the Greek/Macedonian Army of Alexander the Great only reached Egypt over two thousand years after the pyramids were built and that Greek scholars had previously come to learn in Egypt. The rise and fall of civilisations also complicates much of history. For instance, the once great British Empire has shrunk while it is difficult to believe that the USA did not even exist a mere 300 years ago.
"Black" contributions to modern civilisation
In modern times, it is generally assumed that the inventions that have accelerated the growth of science and technology have been by "White" people. This perception exists in Africa, as well as in Europe and America where people should know better. But how are most people to know when the popular versions of history are misleading?
A variety of some popular everyday applications invented by "Black" people include: the railway signal; lawn mower; gas burner; automatic refrigeration system; traffic signal/traffic lights; fountain pen; motor used in engines; overhead conducting system for electric railway systems; vending machines that deliver tickets and return change to customers; and automatic street-sweepers. Other complex devices include the first lubricator or oiling device used for industrial machinery that allows machines to remain in motion while being automatically oiled. [The term the "real McCoy" refers to a question asked by buyers who wanted to know if the machines on sale were the "real McCoy" - after the maker Elijah McCoy]; the first automatic refrigeration system for long haul trucks which today allows the preservation of food in transit. This was, in turn, adapted to a variety of other carriers, including ships, railway cars, and aircraft. A self-starting gasoline motor; the railway telegraph that allows trains in motion to communicate with stations; and the carbon filament used in electric lamps. "Black" people also introduced medical innovations such as open-heart surgery and the blood bank. Most of these examples with the exception of the blood bank and open-heart surgery are over a hundred years old and exclude contemporary developments or other areas of human endeavour such as academia, art, literature, sport, music and so forth.
In other words, if presented correctly, history shows that racial superiority, which rationalises racism, is a myth. If all races are equal, then there is no basis for racism and economic exploitation just as there never was any basis for slavery and colonialism beyond greed. The correction of contemporary understanding of Black history has massive implications for people of African descent and identity, in relation to racism, human rights, dignity and self-respect. In other words there are serious sociological, psychological and political reasons for correcting the wrong perception of, and for celebrating Black history. It is not a White versus Black argument, its an argument for equitable recognition of the contribution of all peoples to the development of human civilisation.
*Sankore is Co-ordinator of CREDO for Freedom of Expression and Associated Rights. Send your comments to and we will consider them for publication in the Letters and Comments section.