Black History as World History

PhD candidate Miron Clay-Gilmore narrates how reflecting on the roots of Black History Month offers us a glimpse into a less Eurocentric and a wider view of human progress that appreciates the contributions of peoples from marginalised backgrounds.

Though Black History Month has a different history in the United Kingdom than in the United States, both traditions emphasize Pan-Africanist cultural unity and the historical achievements of African and African-descended peoples across the diaspora (i.e., the collection of African descended population groups around the world) in the wake of New World slavery. This places Black people in a global context and connects them to world history in a way that has been fundamentally obscured in our contemporary thinking. For scholars like Carter G. Woodson, this global historical methodological approach was necessary to recognize the positive human qualities denied to Blacks and other colonized segments of humanity around the world under white supremacy. Though he is often credited with organizing what was to be institutionalized as Black history month in the US, his reasoning for doing so is given less attention.

The basic consideration for Woodson here is that, even after their formal freedom from enslavement, Blacks in the US were dehumanized by the Jim Crow/Eurocentric knowledge systems of the American educational curriculum. Against the logics that underlie Eurocentric knowledge systems, Woodson formulated the study of Black history premised against the dominant civilizational (i.e., cultural) logics of American White supremacy. He recounts the importance of history on this basis in an article titled Negro History Week (1926)[1]. A crucial insight motivating his reasoning in the article was the observation of the educational system’s role in systematically reproducing myths in promoting a view where the white race receives “all credit for human achievements” throughout human history (p. 1).  Races deemed as having no history were “a negligible thought in the world” and thereby placed “in danger of being exterminated” altogether. Because Blacks were held to have had no traditions or positive contributions to history within the logics of the Western educational curriculum, Woodson argued that the lynching, segregation, and mistreatment of Blacks characteristic of Jim Crow America was simply the logical consequence of this kind of curriculum. As he explains, even Blacks themselves had not even fully escaped its influence. He wrote that,

A Negro is passed on the street and is shoved off into the mud; he complains or strikes back and is lynched as a desperado who attacked a gentleman. And what if he is handicapped, segregated, or lynched? According to our education and practice, if you kill one of the group, the world goes on just as well or better; for the Negro is nothing, has never been anything, and never will be anything but a menace to civilization. We call this race prejudice, and it may be thus properly named; but it is not something inherent in human nature. It is merely the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind. The doctrine has been thoroughly drilled into the whites and the Negroes have learned well the lesson themselves; for many of them look upon other races as superior and accept the status of recognized inferiority. – Woodson, p. 3

Beyond the racially-inflected cultural truisms and the underlying race-based human hierarchies assumed by Western knowledge structures, Woodson fused the particulars of the diasporic and continental African historical experience to articulate Black peoples’ positive contributions to modern and ancient human civilization. Without regard to specific national or ethnic identities, Woodson indicates a more unified and universalist way of thinking about Black people that develops into a humanist appreciation of all mankind. For instance, Woodson wrote that the systemization of the historical accomplishments of Black people will not only note them “as a factor in early human progress and a maker of modern civilization” (for their scientific and cultural contributions in the New World and in ancient Africa) but also will naturally lead to “an appreciation of the virtues of all races, creeds and colors” (p. 2). That Woodson logically ties Black history to world history and fuses this towards a genuinely humanist end is clear by his concluding passage, where he writes the following:

Let the light of history enable us to see that “enough of good there is in the lowest estate to sweeten life; enough of evil in the highest to check presumption; enough there is of both in all estates to bind us in compassionate brotherhood, to teach us impressively that we are of one dying and one immortal family.” Let truth destroy the dividing prejudices of nationality and teach universal love without distinction of race, merit or rank. – Woodson, p. 3

Woodson’s insight previously mentioned about the systematic reproduction of myths of white supremacy in our now globally integrated westernized educational curricula remains especially relevant today. These patterns have not been eradicated. The continuing marginality of Black people wherever we find ourselves in the world is not the only issue here. An especially concerning recent development is the upsurge and evolution of white nationalism across the political and ideological landscape of the globe today[2]. This includes the sophisticated infiltration[3] of white nationalist ideology within the police and military forces of these same imperial entities. More importantly, Woodson’s insights remind us that the kinds of questions, underlying philosophical logics, and civilizational proclamations that negate Black humanity that are still reflected in today’s Western educational curricula are rooted in a historical paradigm of global white supremacy. The natural trajectory of this educational paradigm dislodges Black people from any positive relation to modern or ancient civilizational human development.

Out of respect for the sacrifices and contributions of both Woodson and Akyaaba Addai-Sebo (who inaugurated the UK’s celebration of Black history month in 1987) and the overall promotion and preservation of the dignity of Black lives, we should reflect on how to demystify the collection of ideas that undermine the character of Black radical Pan-African thinking expressed by them within our disciplinary discourses about Blackness today. Prejudged to be masculinist-patriarchal (anti-woman) and homophobic, and thereby in need of intersectional/feminist logics, Black nationalist thought has been severed from its humanist ideals and goals. Rather, it is seen as “legitimate” by those trained within Western disciplines to the extent that it positively reflects the dominant ideas found within those same traditions. To this extent, these Western disciplines seem to be continually motivated towards the projection of itself (i.e. its disciplines) as the only legitimate body of human knowledge[4]. These problems in thinking continue to inhibit our ability to build on the positive potential of Black history and its systematic connection (via Woodson) to World history today.


About The Author

Miron Clay-Gilmore is a husband, father, and PhD Candidate in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests include Black Male Studies, Anti-Colonial Philosophy, Black Aesthetics and Black Nationalism.

Endnotes

[1] Originally published in The Journal of Negro History, Vol. XI, April 1926, No. 2)

[2] Hate Beyond Borders: The Internationalization of White Supremacy, Anti-Defamation League, see: https://www.adl.org/resources/reports/hate-beyond-borders-the-internationalization-of-white-supremacy

[3] White supremacists and militias have infiltrated police across US, report says, Guardian, see: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/aug/27/white-supremacists-militias-infiltrate-us-police-report

As Neo-Nazis Seed Military Ranks, Germany Confronts ‘an Enemy Within’, New York Times, see: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/03/world/europe/germany-military-neo-nazis-ksk.html

Pentagon report warns of threat from white supremacists inside the military, NBC News, see: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/military/pentagon-report-warns-threat-white-supremacists-inside-military-n1258871

[4] Philosopher Tommy Curry has called this legitimatization problem the ‘derelictical crisis’ of Black philosophy; In her work, Philosopher Sylvia Wynter has coined the term ‘supraculturalism’ to anthropologically describe the Western World’s over-representation of its local cultural thought and biologically determined conceptions of humanity as necessarily universal and in continuity with all human cultural thought.

Related Links

Black History Month in the UK

More on Carter G. Woodson

Interview with Akyaaba Addai-Sebo

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