“The American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future … History must restore what slavery took away.” —Arturo Schomburg
Black History Month was important in my household. My father, reared in the South and educated in a segregated school system, shared both personal and historical accounts of the separate but equal America in which he was raised.
Every February I wore sweatshirts adorned with the faces of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas, we gathered around the television to watch this year’s latest Black History Month special, and I was quizzed on my knowledge of Black inventors like Benjamin Banneker and Garrett Morgan.
Not until I became an adult did I fully understand that the Black history in my household was different than other African-American homes; it was a Pan-African History. A self-described “diasporal baby,” family history spans five countries and two languages … well three if you count my abuelita’s Jamaican patois. As a person of Panamanian, African-American, and Caribbean descent, I was encouraged to know my history, ALL of my history.
My mother, who immigrated to this country upon my birth, lectured me almost daily about the challenges of being a woman, Black, and immigrant. And my mother’s challenges were the same as her mother, a Jamaican native who traveled to Panama in her twenties looking for better economic opportunities. I was raised on the stories of Caribbeans who endured yellow fever and racial discrimination while digging the Panama Canal.
At a young age I was acutely aware of the migration of African descendants all over the world before, during, and after slavery. “Black people are everywhere,” was a phrase I often heard; yet I saw little acknowledgement of the impact of African diaspora in Black American history outside of my household.
Though many celebrate that the Black history written in our textbooks has grown from the one paragraph that magically took us from slaves to having a dream to an entire page or chapter, I believe the celebration of Black History Month has even farther to go.
Throughout the 20th century, immigrants of African-descent struggled alongside African-Americans in the pursuit for equal rights. Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican immigrant, fostered the spirit of Pan-Africanism throughout the Black world and even established a school in Jamaica modeled after Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. Stokley Carmichael, a Trinidadian immigrant, is a Freedom Rider who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and served as the chairman of SNCC. Their influence brought us the phrase “Black power,” the term “institutional racism,” and the red, black, and green Pan-African flag.
Annually, many of us celebrate Carter G. Woodson as the father of Black History and founder of Black History Month but alongside Woodson stands Afro-Puerto historian Arturo Alfonso (Arthur) Schomburg. Schomburg’s indelible contribution to Black history includes his a collection of artwork, books, and slave narratives chronicling the history of Africans in the Americas. His work continues to shed light on the influence of Afro-Latinos and Afro-Caribbeans in Black America through the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York.
The Schomburg Center’s exhibit The African-American Migration Experience asserts that the face of African America is the New Yorker in Atlanta, a Mississippian in Chicago, a Nigerian in Houston, and a Haitian in Miami. This diversity has been face of Black America for more than a century. It is my face and the face of my parents. Ours are the faces which tell the story of Black history past and present.
Morgan Freeman famously said, “I don't want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.” Unlike Freeman I do want a Black History Month, but I also want an African-American History Month that reflects the history of the African diaspora.
Jamila Aisha Brown is a freelance writer, political commentator, and social entrepreneur. Her entrepreneurship, HUE, provides consulting solutions for development projects throughout the African diaspora. You can follow her on Twitter @divalutionary or on the web at www.hueconnect.com.