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Taking Black History Month to the next level: Why Pan-African history is important by Jaimee A. Swift

Growing up, the monotony and one-dimensionality of Black History Month was utterly frustrating. Being one of few African-Americans in a predominantly white school, the educational curriculum for the month of February centered on only two narratives: Black people were slaves and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream. Often, if not most of the time, I was constantly bombarded by white peers and teachers with questions like:

Why can Black people say the n-word and we can’t?”

“Do black people prefer Black or African-American?

“Why don’t Black people follow MLK’s rhetoric on peace and nonviolence?

And even flat out statements of white guilt—

“I’m sorry for what my people did to your people.”

Despite coming from a semi-conscious family, as I got older, I had to unlearn stifling narratives about individuals and movements within Black history. I had to become knowledgeable about African-American inventors, theorist, authors and leaders through self-education.

Charles Drew's research on blood plasma lead to the invention of the first blood bank. (Photo: LIFE)

Charles Drew’s research on blood plasma lead to the invention of the first blood bank. (Photo: LIFE)

I learned about Dr. Charles Drew, who pioneered the use of blood plasma banking; Garrett Morgan, who was the inventor of the gas mask and the traffic signal; Sarah Goode, who invented the folding cabinet; and Jan Matzeliger, who created the “shoe lasting machine.” I discovered the stories  of Audre Lorde, Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, Countee Cullen, James Baldwin and Florynce “Flo” Kennedy.

However, while discovering the amazing contributions of African-Americans, I realized something was missing — a link to the African Diaspora. We hail from a lineage of mighty African ancestry that spans generations. “Their” history is our history too.

In efforts to break the perpetual historical and media representation of Africa and Africans as “poor,” “war and HIV-ridden” and “primitive,” many millennials of the Diaspora have been creating their own narratives.

Take for example singer and songwriter Juliana Pache, who created the hashtag #blacklatinxhistory, inciting a much-needed dialogue on the presence of Afro-Latinxs as a part of the Black historical framework.

Courtesy of Twitter (@thecityofjules)

Juliana Pache, creator of #blacklatinxhistory is redefining historical narratives (Courtesy of Twitter @thecityofjules)

It taught me about Afro-Dominican musician and social activist, Johnny Ventura; Luz Guerra, an Afro-Puerto Rican and Dominican Human Rights and LGBT activist; and Felipe Luciano, an Afro-Boricua poet, who was also a part of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican nationalist movement for self-determination within the barrios of the United States.

Other hashtags such as #BlackHistoryYouDidntLearninSchool and #BlackHistoryUntold are helping reclaim our past. We rightfully honor Rosa Parks for her valiant and brave act on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus in 1955, but we rarely learn she was not the first to refuse to leave her seat. Claudette Colvin was.

Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus before Rosa Parks took a stand. (Photo: Claudette Colvin family photo)

 Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus before Rosa Parks took a stand. (Photo: Claudette Colvin family photo)

There’s Sofiya Ballin, a staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer, who curated an identity series called “Black History: What I Wish I Knew.” With celebrities such as Jazmine Sullivan, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter of The Roots and Marc Lamont Hill giving their insights, the series is a powerful testament to the intrinsic need for the integration of African Diasporic history within Black History Month.

In one of his most powerful speeches, Malcolm X touched upon a need to discover our pasts, as means to know oneself – now, then and forever:

They’ll come at you and me next month with this Negro History Week, they call it. This week comes around once every year…They give us the impression with Negro History Week that we were cotton pickers all of our lives […]

But when you go back into the past and find out where you once were, then you will know that you weren’t always at this level, that you once had attained a higher level, had made great achievements, contributions to society, civilization, science, and so forth. And you know that if you once did it, you can do it again.”

We must know fully that our presence expands the length of time, place, and space. It must be taught to our children from inception that while they must give homage to those who were enslaved, they are not to be reduced to slavery. It must be ingrained in us that we are heirs and heiresses of the cradle of civilization.

Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia (Photo: Biography.com)

Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia (Photo: Biography.com)

This is our greatest weapon: the consciousness of our true history. For when we know ourselves, we shall not be moved, deterred or shaken. Despite whips and chains, we are still here. No matter how hard the mainstream tries to deny our salience, we are the backbone of this country and the world.

From Baltimore to Bahia, even with guns pointed at us, no weapon formed against us shall prosper.

We must keep learning about African-American pioneers such as Ida B. Wells, Benjamin Banneker, and Dr. Ronald Walters.

But it’s also time for Black History Month to comprise Pan-African leaders such as Yaa Asantewaa, the appointed queen of the Ashanti tribe of Ghana; Haile Selassie, a renowned emperor of Ethiopia; Zumbi dos Palmares, a leader of a slave-resettlement community in Brazil; or Faith Bandler, a profound campaigner for the rights and equality for the Aboriginal people in Australia.

Don’t know these names? It’s okay.  It’s not too late.

Because today even the Black history they don’t want you to know is still yours to reclaim.

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