While Black History Month celebrates the achievements of the Black diaspora, the main assumption that places Africa and all of Black history in subordination to the West remains — and, at this rate, will not disappear anytime soon.
As a European, I realize my position of privilege. I lived practically my entire childhood and adolescence outside of Europe in eight countries — including Kenya and Sierra Leone — and am currently studying at UC Berkeley. I have been lucky. On top of this, I recognize the inherent contradictions of a privileged white male being shocked that Black History Month is not doing enough when I am not even remotely the first person being directly affected or threatened by Western racism and ignorance. But I firmly believe that who you are and what issues you care about are shaped by more than what you look like on the outside. I pick up on the ignorance, the racism and the assumptions that are made everywhere every day, and I feel shocked that our world is still so dictated by views shaped by the era of imperialism.
The idea of Black History Month originated in 1926 when it was known as Negro History Week. Carter Woodson, an influential African American historian who held a doctorate in history from Harvard University and taught at Howard University, conceived the idea. In 1976, with the wave of the Civil Rights Movement, the week expanded into the entire month of February; its name was changed to Black History Month. In the U.S., Black History Month celebrates the achievements of African Americans, but the idea of celebrating this important facet of history soon expanded to Canada and the U.K.
While I understand why Black History Month is crucial for celebrating the achievements and history of people of African descent in all parts of the world, there is a prevailing issue within this event: Black History Month is celebrated today while Black voices are still constantly erased.
Here is just one example. In February, Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate change activist attending the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, was cut out of a group photo with three other young female (white) activists by a photographer from the Associated Press. Yes, she was standing at the edge of the group, but that is definitely not a good reason to cut her out.
It is not just these Black voices who are erased. It seems as though the entire African continent and its rich history are completely ignored by Western media and mainstream culture. It remains largely understudied and underappreciated in the world today, despite its crucial role in shaping Western and world history. While most of us know of Queen Victoria, few of us have ever even heard of Queen Nzinga, the 17th-century revolutionary ruler of Ndongo (in present-day Angola) who stood up against Portuguese encroachment.
Black History Month certainly helps to diverge attention from purely white figures. Our focuses are turned toward revisiting and appreciating Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, which is great. But we are missing large pieces of the puzzle. What about studying African liberation leaders, such as Jomo Kenyatta and Léopold Sédar Senghor, in-depth or touching upon African decolonization movements, such as the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola and the Mozambique Liberation Front, in school curricula? After all, Black and African history is integral to both Western and world history, the same way that the Roaring ’20s, Maoism in China and Nazi Germany are all relevant for our understanding of the globe. But if you were to talk to a student from anywhere in the world, he is a lot more likely to know who Adolf Hitler is than who Kwame Nkrumah is.
It is not just our global lack of knowledge of African history that is appalling but also our saddening lack of knowledge of Africa in general. A study conducted by The Guardian found that in 2012 and 2013, the number of articles that mentioned only “Asia” — as if it were a single country — numbered 2,948, which is shocking in itself. But those that mentioned only “Africa” numbered 5,443.
By ignoring certain places and people in the world, we will never appreciate how interconnected our histories truly are. Every “achievement” of Western history has been dependent on the exploited rest of the world. The Industrial Revolution in Britain would not have been possible without the construct of chattel slavery in the New World. Economic prosperity in Europe and the U.S. would not have occurred without the manipulation of markets in colonial empires. Cultural and artistic achievements, such as the construction of cathedrals in Spain and Italy or the charming lighting of the streets of Paris, would have been unimaginable without imperialist financial capital exploitation in Africa, Asia and Latin America to divert resources to the West.
We could continue ad infinitum with this exercise. Africa and what is termed the “global south” has historically been used by the West to fulfill specific purposes, whether it is building cathedrals or institutionalizing racism that is still very much alive in the U.S. today.
The history of Western civilization is as impressive as it is violent. There are significant economic, cultural and political achievements that are manifested in the West, but they are tainted with exploitation, war and imperialism. It is time we begin addressing this in school curricula, both in the U.S. and across the globe. Simultaneously, Black History Month is an opportunity for everyone to rethink why it is that we crop certain people from photos or forgo naming entire regions of the world. It might take a lot of work, but systematic change is always possible when we want and need it.
Luigi Muci is a junior at UC Berkeley majoring in history and is passionate about African history and politics.