Thursday, 30 August 2012

Let’s dispel the myth of the post-racial society

Let’s dispel the myth of the post-racial society

TAOBQ co-ordinator
How times flies. It seems not so long ago when almost everyone was cheering on as Barack Obama was inaugurated in January 2009 as the first African-American US president. And now he’s just about back on the re-election trail. I’ll leave the arguments of whether or not Obama’s presidency as an African-American or “black” president has been markedly different from his European predecessors for another day.
However, what I wish to deal with here is one of the early legacies of his presidency, which is the “post-racial society” (PRS) term. I’m not sure about the genesis of the term. But the chances are that for most of us, its use became prevalent following Obama’s election in 2008.

But before we rewind, let’s me point to two incidents that happened in August 2012, just before I wrote this piece.
Firstly, a Spanish magazine, Fuera de Serie, in its infinite wisdom decided to run a feature article on Michelle Obama by running on its cover the superimposed head of the first lady over an 1800 Marie-Guillemine Benoist painting of an enslaved African with one breast exposed has some people crying foul. The question one has to ask is: Would such bad taste be meted out any of Obama’s European predecessors?
And in the land of the free, at the Mitt Romney-endorsing Republican party convention in Tampa, an African camera woman for CNN covering the event was taunted and racially abused by two peanut-throwing European men. Thankfully, the men were ejected from the building. It seems that nothing has changed, even with an African at the country’s helm sitting in the White House.
Back to the subject at hand - generally, what the pundits and advocates of this rosy society wish to conjure, is a society where race is no longer important or a significant determining factor. In order words, get on with things and stop shouting racism when you hit a stumbling block, such as not getting that job or university place, even though you are suitably qualified.
I imagine that broadly speaking racism isn’t an issue that exercises the minds of most Africans on the African continent, although this may not be the case particularly in parts of southern and eastern Africa, where there are significant pockets of Europeans. What is however quite common, is what could be classed as insidious racism, often manifested in the sickening deference some Africans show Europeans, simply because they retain that unquestioning post-enslavement/colonialist mentality that a person is superior simply by being European.
Also, all of Africa may be supposedly “independent”, but that does not stop there being pockets of “whites only” fiefdoms. Even Ghana, which was once at the forefront of the liberation of the continent and which is in the throes of celebrating its 55th anniversary of “independence”, has a recent “whites only” story. Last October, a Ghanaian lady in the company of non-Africans dined at a fish restaurant in the capital city Accra. But when she asked for membership, she was told by the management that “it's only for white people.”
That might be an unusual story from Ghana, or indeed Africa, but not in the diaspora – I’ll focus on the US and Britain, where these types of stories are not so uncommon. Hence, the need to continually debunk new, nice-sounding terms which belie the old reality, which is that racism still exists.
It may be over half a century since the American civil rights activism, which heralded laws that enshrined racial equality and affirmative action programmes to provide a more level playing field, but the scourge of racism hasn’t gone away.
The story some wish to tell is that there’s an African in the White House, who has possibly the most powerful job in the world. World leaders defer to him, whilst ironically, some media personalities at home speak disrespectfully about him perhaps because he’s African, others mock his very non-Anglo name, and “birthers”, including some military personnel, question his authority by casting doubts regarding his status as a natural born US citizen.
Never mind that as far back as the late 1860s (not 1960s), the US amended its constitution and enshrined laws – the 13th Constitution amendment of 1865 abolished enslavement, whilst the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the 14th amendment of 1868 and several subsequent acts, focused on racial equality.
But in spite of all these laws, earlier this year, restaurant workers filed a class action against their employer, citing, among others, the 1866 Civil Rights Act, and also launched an e-petition demanding a change in the discriminatory employment practice of the chain of US restaurants where African-American workers are kept in the lowest paid jobs and excluded from serving in the high profile parts of the top restaurants, because their ethnicity/race do not fit the exceptional image promised guests.
One of the chain’s top restaurants is in Washington DC, where Obama resides, and ironically, the chief executive of the chain is African-American.

This is a country where no matter how high some Africans may have come within education, business and politics, racism still rears its head. In 2009, a prominent African-American history scholar was arrested by police following an incident in which he had to break into his home. The stories of wealthy African-Americans being approached with a “May I help you?” from high class shop or restaurant staff, which can be a code for “you are not wanted here” abound. So too are stories of African-Americans, rich and poor, being followed around in shops by staff and sometimes even by European customers, who think their only business for being in there is to steal.
Only last year, a British family caused a furore and were at the receiving end of a law suit from an aggrieved waiter, when it was revealed that they had instructed a US five-star hotel that they “did not want to be served by a black person”.
It’s amazing how despite its major role in the trans-Atlantic enslavement and subsequent colonisation of Africans on the continent and in the Caribbean, Britain has this benevolent, “fair play”, “mother country” image among many Africans.
Because of our lack of history, it’s so easy not to realise that racism has been rife in Britain for a long time, and that the fight for civil rights is not something that only took place in the US or South Africa. From the early 20th century, when Africans came to Britain, they faced racism, which was for most of them in sharp contrast to the image painted by the former colonial power.
Consequently, several organisations were formed by Africans to address the issue of racism in Britain, and colonialism in their home countries. Examples are the African Association (later known as the Pan African Association) founded in 1897 by Trinidadian law student Henry Sylvester Williams, and WASU (West African Students Union), which was formed in 1925 by Nigerian law student Ladipo Solanke, and had Kwame Nkrumah as one of its later executives.
In the 1960s, when the world’s media was focused on the civil rights activism in the US, Britain had its own. However, it’s so much under the radar that the US civil rights is part of the British history curriculum, whilst African British civil rights struggles are not.
Consequently, few people have heard of Asquith Xavier, who with his trade union, successfully fought the “whites only” colour bar at London’s Euston train station after he was refused to transfer there as a guard. On July 15 1966, he was offered the job and the station’s management announced the abolition of the colour bar.
Open racism was rife then, asnd it was not unusual to see notices pasted on boarding houses and other rental accommodation, stating no Irish, no blacks, no dogs!
Britain’s first Race Relations Act of 1965 came about as a consequence of African-led activism by organisations such as the West Indian Standing Conference, and the Bristol Bus Boycott, which was led by community worker Paul Stephenson, whose father came from West Africa. The boycott ended on August 28 1963, when the bus company announced it had abolished the colour bar, which had prevented non-Europeans from being employed as bus drivers and conductors.
Stephenson’s move had been influenced by US activists such Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Interestingly, in a recent article still on the New York Times website, an Oxford University history lecturer, erroneously stated: “Mr. Stephenson’s bus boycott was actually a strike by drivers seeking better working conditions rather than a copy of Montgomery’s passenger boycott.”
How could this respected historian get it so wrong, and conflate a boycott against racist employment policy into that of drivers striking for better conditions? Could this be a stretch of PRS revisionist history? We owe it to ourselves to learn more of our history, and not leave it to Oxford dons.
Keeping with the Oxford University connection - last year, the university was highlighted in the news from two different quarters. In April 2011, British prime minister David Cameron, told a public meeting: “I saw figures the other day that showed that only one black person went to Oxford last year. I think that is disgraceful. We have got to do better than that."

The university countered by stating that its admissions figures for 2009 included one "black” Caribbean out of 27 “black” students admitted for under-graduate study that year. David Lammy, an African MP and Labour party’s shadow higher education minister, revealed that more than 20 Oxford University colleges had not made any offers to African candidates for undergraduate courses in 2009, and that one college had not admitted a single African student in five years.
At the end of last year, an African chef accused Oxford University’s New College of bullying him out of his job. The basis of his racial discrimination case, to be heard later this year, is that after twenty years working for the college, the head chef’s post became vacant. He became acting head chef, but lost the permanent position to someone he alleges was not even short-listed.
How dare these proponents advocate we’re in a post-racial society? What planet do they live on?
When it comes to the world of high finance, Africans may be, but they are both under-represented and hardly seen. Recently, I read about an African broker in a British investment firm, who was told that his boss “doesn’t want to send a black guy to one of the clients”. Apparently, seeing an African representing his investment firm would “shock him”.
What perhaps is becoming less shocking is the recent proliferation of mixed heritage couples seen in the media, particularly in British TV commercials. It paints a rosy image of a multi-cultural, multi-racial Britain. This image may have had another boost, if it was not for the resolve of some African TV producers who tried to sell their sitcom about an African family living in London to one of the big TV companies. They turned down an offer which entailed not just getting a new and better known cast, but also changing the family to one of mixed heritage.
If we live in a post-racial society, why is it that it’s expected that we can all watch sitcoms where the whole cast is European, but not one where the central family is African?
This summer, the world will be seeing a lot more of London because the British capital city will be hosting the Olympics. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games states that “during the bid process, diversity was a key reason why London, one of the most multicultural cities in the world, was chosen to host the 2012 Games.”
Nice words. However, although there have been procedures put in place which are supposed to provide a fair compliance regime, critics see it more as window-dressing. Because in spite of the official diversity and inclusion mantra, many African-led businesses believe they’ve been discriminated against.
Voice Of Africa Radio, the only legal African radio broadcaster, which is based in Newham, one of the key east London Olympics boroughs, says it’s been discriminated against by not being awarded media accreditation to cover the games that will be taking place literally on its doorstep.
Interestingly, CompeteFor, the portal through which the Olympics contracts are bid by small businesses, states that just over six percent of so-called BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) led businesses have been successful. Engage Enterprise, a London organisation that deals with BAME procurement issues, has launched a petition at to feed concerns of African and ethnic minority-led businesses to Government and the Olympic authorities.
Even deputy minister Nick Clegg isn’t buying into the PRS myth. Last November, he spoke about the discrimination against ethnic minorities by British banks.  He said: “If all black entrepreneurs and businesses could borrow, compete and grow on equal terms, our whole economy would grow faster.”

One dangerous result of believing the PRS hype is to drop the baton of those who fought for the civil rights we enjoy in Britain. Yes, some Africans have risen through the system – we’ve had Africans as attorney-general, government ministers, and even chief executives of some of the the biggest public companies. But for all the progress made, Africans continue to die in the custody of the state.
Particularly since the end of last year, the anti-racist fight, which has traditionally focused on accommodation, employment and education, is now focusing on the issue of deaths in custody. Organisations seeking justice for victims include the likes of Friends of Mikey Powell Campaign for Justice, Campaign 4 Justice 4 Smiley Culture, Sean Rigg Justice & Change Campaign, Justice For Brian Douglas, and United Families And Friends (UFFC), a multi-racial collective that highlights such deaths on its website (, marches and other activities.
PRS advocates would have us believe that the focus has moved on from racism, thereby creating a disconnect with the anti-racist fight of the past. However, besides the families and friends of the death in custody victims, some of those on the forefront of this activism asking for answers and accountability, have taken the baton from the likes of Solanke and Stephenson. This includes the likes of former London Mayor race and policing advisor Lee Jasper, now chair of London Race & Criminal Justice Consortium, and Matilda MacAttram, director of Black Mental Health UK.
Last December, most of these players, along with a coalition including church leaders, came together to campaign against deaths in custody. Jasper, who opened that meeting informed the media that “it is absolutely critical that we have a full, open, public and transparent judicial enquiry into deaths in custody.”
An Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody report published late 2011 revealed that between 2000 to 2010, almost 6000 people have died while in the custody of police and prison officers, or detained under mental health or immigration laws. Whilst this statistic is not made up exclusively of Africans, racism is a dominant factor in the case of many Africans within those figures.
“Government figures show that black men and people who use mental health services are the most likely to lose their lives while in custody,” says MacAttram, one of the supporters of the UFFC’s e-petition for 100,000 signatures in order to force a Government debate on the call for an independent judiciary inquiry into suspicious deaths in state custody.
I’m not one that makes a living from the so-called “race industry”, harps on insistently about racism, or sees racism in every bad turn. So I’d wrap up by mentioning an incident involving Britain’s only African super-model Naomi Campbell. Last year, she is said to have threatened to sue a confectionery company for running a print and poster ad campaign for a chocolate bar with this strapline: “Move over Naomi, there’s a new diva in town.”
The super-model felt it was insulting and racist, saying: “I’m shocked. It’s upsetting to be described as chocolate, not just for me, but for all black women. It is insulting and hurtful.” She received an apology. But was it racist?
In the past, Campbell has spoken out against racism within the fashion industry, such as less opportunities and discriminatory pay rates for African models. In 2009, she said in an interview that "the American president may be black, but as a black woman, I am still an exception in this business. I always have to work harder to be treated equally."
Whilst I agree with her sentiments regarding the fashion industry, I’m of the opinion the chocolate ad was playing to Campbell’s much reported diva image. NA readers are welcome to express their views on my simplistic view in not recognising what they, like Campbell, might see as a racist slight.
Let’s wake up to the PRS myth. However, I also urge that we step up our game – not just in sports and entertainment, but in all spheres. That way, the racists will have less upon which to hang or propagate their pitiful views.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

A TAOBQ Open Letter: Why I Say No To “Slavery Memorial Day”, “Slavery Remembrance Day” And Similar Terminology

A TAOBQ Open Letter: Why I Say No To “Slavery Memorial Day”, “Slavery Remembrance Day” And Similar Terminology

August 23 2012

By Kwaku
TAOBQ (The African Or Black Question) co-ordinator

Today and in the next few days, there will be a number of events across Britain marking “Slavery Remembrance Day”, “Slavery Memorial Day”, and another terminology I came across a few days ago, “Slave Remembrance Day”. I believe these terminologies to be misnomers, and do not do justice to the spirit of what they purport be commemorating. The preferred terminology ought to be the International Day of AfricanResistance Against Enslavement.

Hence this open letter, and for those that like their commucations in bite-size form, the conversations can continue on Twitter using hashtags  or .

The marking of August 23 is an initiative of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), which was adopted in 1997. If you have not heard of this national commemoration, it’s not surprising. Member states are merely “invited to give this international day all due prominence and to mobilise their educational, scientific, artistic and cultural communities, youth and, in general, civil society”.

Re-wind to 2007, which was the bicentennial of the 1807 Abolition Of The Slave Trade Act. This Act, championed in parliament by William Wilberforce, did not, and was not intended to end chattel enslavement. But many people were not to know that, as numerous publications and commentators, either directly or implicitly talked about the Act in terms of having abolished chattel enslavement.

During that period of self-congratulatory, back-patting commemorations of Britain having taken the moral high ground by abolishing the vile “trade”, which was the trafficking of African people, the Government initially wanted an annual commemoration of the trafficking and abolition to be on March 25 – the date the Act was passed 200 years ago.

Many grassroots organisations, conscious pundits, and indeed the then London Mayor Ken Livingstone, opposed this. They suggested that the August 23 date be adopted. It was not until the end of the bicentennial year, in December that the Government finally announced its adoption of August 23.

Whilst the Government used the UNESCO’s Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition terminology, some organisations, including trade unions and anti-racist organisations, decided to opt for “Slavery Remembrance Day” or “Slavery Memorial Day”.

But before then, among the first libraries and museums that took up the challenge of commemorating August 23 in Britain is the National Museums Liverpool (NML), which began its “Slavery Remembrance Day” events in 1999, the year the city of Liverpool “apologised” for its prominent role in the so-called “slave trade”.

NML, and now through its specialist wing, the International Slavery Musuem (ISM), which was inuagurated in 2007, has continued to regularly put on a range of August 23 activities. Whilst its programmes are perhaps one of the best on offer – reasons which will be explained later – the museum is one of the institutions that have popularised the “Slavery Remembrance Day” terminology in Britain.

NML states on its website that “the date has been designated by UNESCO as Slavery Remembrance Day, a reminder that enslaved Africans were the main agents of their own liberation.” The first part of the statement is erroneous.

This is how UNESCO described the initiative in 1998, when it first marked August 23: “By its decision to proclaim 23 August each year as the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, UNESCO sought to pay tribute to the tireless struggle of the slaves for their freedom.”  And UNESCO has been consistent in using its official terminology ever since.

As embracing as the UNESCO terminology may seem, some pan-Africanists have an issue with the kind of focus the terminology so easily lends itself to. So at a meeting of the Recovered Histories London Regional Network in 2008, a new terminology was adopted: International Day of African Resistance Against Enslavement.

This terminology, which I implore all Africanists and true African supporters to use, underscores the significance of August 23 1791, which heralded the start of the Haitian Revolution - the first successful revolution by enslaved Africans in the so-called New World, and which partly led to the abolition of the trafficking of Africans.

The Haitian link puts the focus on the activism of Africans. The other terminologies so easily lend themselves to Wilberfest type programming, where the focus is often on European abolitionists like Wilberforce, the ‘magnanimity’ of the British for abolishing chattel enslavement, whilst the Africans are usually seen as poor, pathetic enslaved people, and their determination in fighting for their own freedom seldom highlighted.

Using the International Day of African Resistance Against Enslavement terminology does not necessarily mean locating every event around the narrow focus of Haiti, August 23 and African resistance. What it offers is a great opportunity to highlight and re-tell African histories of resilience and overcoming against great odds across the diaspora and over the ages.

This can help empower Africans, particularly young people who are disconnected with their African roots, whilst also highlighting some of the less well-known histories and counter-balancing some of the mis-information about chattel enslavement and its abolition.

Personally, I have been using the oportunity to deliver programmes that use the Haitian revolution as a springboard to highlight a range of global African histories with a connection to August, which incidentally has been re-named by a Garveyite organisation as Mosiah month in honour of the great pan-Africanist icon, Marcus Garvey.

Garvey, who is one of the NARM role models (African British male role models spanning 1907-2007), was born 125 years ago on 17th August and his UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) organisation offers a number of historical markers in August.

This year, the guest speaker at one of the NLM/ISM events is Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of African-American civil rights leader Dr King. In addition to delivering a memorial speech, he will also unveil a plaque on one of the museum’s buildings to be named after his father.  Another talks programme is ‘We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For’, where the topic for discussion is not just on historical and contemporary African heroes and heroines, but crucially, it welcomes the inclusion of community grass roots heroes.

Talking about grass roots heroes, there is no doubt that next year being the 50th anniversary of Dr King’s ‘I Have A Dream Speech’, there will be a surfeit of King/‘I Have A Dream Speech’ related events.

But how many of the historians, programmers and organisers of those type of events will look at highlighting some of the local heroes I highlight in the NARM book? For example, Paul Stephenson, the leader of the Bristol Bus Boycott, which officially ended on August 28 1963, the same day Dr King made his famous speech.

If we don’t know of Stephenson or the Bristol Bus Boycott, we should take the opportunity to acquaint ourselves with what ought to be an important part of African British history, instead of forever harking back to the United States, as if we do not have  any African-driven civil rights activism in Britain.

Incidentally, if you decide to make the effort, please do not rely on the New York Times website, where there is a feature on the international influence of Dr King. It has an aside, which mentions Stephenson and the bus boycott. Sadly, in  spite of my pointing out an error to the editorial department and the author, who is an Oxford University history tutor, the esteemed newspaper’s website continues to declare “Mr. Stephenson’s bus boycott was actually a strike by drivers seeking better working conditions rather than a copy of Montgomery’s passenger boycott.”

Anyone who’s read anything about the Bristol Bus Boycott would know that it was a fight against the colour bar practised by the bus company and a trade union, which discriminated against non-Europeans by not allowing their employment as bus drivers or conductors.

Last year, I selected some NARM role models, like Asquith Xavier, CLR James, Dr Harold Moody, Henry Sylvester Williams, and Ladipo Solanke, to tell a range of AfricanBritish civil rights histories across London during African History Month (25 years after its introduction to Britain, it’s time to ditch the now meaningless Black History Month terminology).

Another NARM role model, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, is the subject of an August 23 event at London’s National Portrait Gallery, where his images are part of an on-going exhibition until March 2013. This is how the gallery’s website promotes the event highlighting the African British composer who died 100 years ago: “On Slavery Remembrance Day celebrate the remarkable life of a composer who rose from humble beginnings to international celebrity. With biographer Charles Elford.”

Upon first reading this blurb, I wondered about the relevance of linking this event to August 23. Coleridge-Taylor was born in London in 1875, well after the abolition of chattel enslavement. His father was a London-trained doctor who came from Sierra Leone’s middle class.

If this event was merely going to focus on the great achievements of one of Britain’s most famous composers of the early 1900s – his ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast’ was a major hit, which had numerous performances at prestigious venues such as the Royal Albert Hall, and whose fame was such that he went on three tours of the US, where he became the first African to conduct an all European orchestra and was feted at the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt – it could have been done any other day.

However, I know Elford is passionate about Coleridge-Taylor and as the author of the novelised biography ‘Black Mahler’, I expect he will also highlight Coleridge-Taylor’s activism as a pan-Africanist, the aplomb with which he dealt with racism, the challenges and the doors he opened as an African within the Western musical world and beyond in the late 19th/early 20th century. This is what would make August 23 relevant, as it highlights the spirit and connection to the global African histories of struggles and resistance.

Going back to the International Slavery Museum. I must confess I had never been keen on visiting it. Thankfully earlier this year, I took the opportunity offered by a guest speaker engagement at the Liverpool Institute For Performing Arts to pay a visit. The more I saw during my guided visit, the more I dropped off the baggage I had come in with.

My last Open Letter in 2009 was entitled ‘African (Black) History Month Aim Not Achieved/African History Is Wider Than Enslavement’. In it, I advocated that our history was much wider than just the enslavement period, which was what the Government had managed to get into the school’s history curriculum starting in 2008. It also advocated using the International Day of African Resistance Against Enslavement terminology, and that the August 23 date “must be used to focus on the resistance led by Africans.”

I had imagined that the ISM was simply a Wilberfest time capsule. Looking at the exhibits, reading the captions and engaging with the various audio-visual resources, I was amazed at the fair representation of the issues in terms of language and focus, and there was no over-emphasis of the European abolitionists.

Also, surprisingly, it was not as its name might have implied, focused on just enslavement, rebellions and the abolition – it actually covered a much wider area, and in language that showed respect and sensitivity. Issues that link to contemporary times, such as racism, colonialism, African nationalism, civil rights, reparations, and popular culture have some prominence. This includes a highly recommended video show that tells centuries of global African history within a few minutes.

I later discovered the museum’s stance is in part due to its having input from clued up people from Liverpool’s African community throughout the process, from its inception, to acquisitions, installations and its on-going programming.

My only issue, which I pointed out to staff was one caption which stated that in 1772, Lord Mansfield declared enslavement illegal. Lord Mansfield’s judgment in the Somersett case did not definitively pronounce on the legality or illegality of enslavement.

Which leads me to one last point. Among the museum’s facilities is the Campaign Zone, where organisations like Liverpool’s anti-human trafficking group Stop The Traffik (STT) use for meetings. The STT cause is of course laudable, and deserves all the support and publicity it can get. However, my view is that modern day slavery and chattel enslavement must not be mentioned in the same breadth, as if the former is simply a continuation of the latter.

It is not. Whilst they both keep people in servitude, today’s slavery or human trafficking is illegal. The victims have human rights, and when the traffickers are caught, they do face the law. In the case of chattel enslavement, victims were deemed to be “property”, and had no rights whatsoever. This perverse notion meant that an enslaver could torture or kill an enslaved African, without facing criminal prosecution.

This is shown in the Zong massacre, which involved 132 Africans being thrown overboard during the Middle Passage on the orders of the ship’s captain, and the subsequent insurance claim for loss of property (chattel). Lord Chief Justice Mansfield in his 1783 summing up of the jury's verdict, echoed the prevalent view of the time, which was that what happened to those Africans was “the same as if horses had been thrown over board.” None of the Zong’s crew were charged for the killing of over 100 people!

This is why the kind of servitude I’ve just illustrated should be distinguished from other forms of servitude and be described as “chattel enslavement” – language is very important in dealing with these matters.

In 1937, William Prescott, a former enslaved African in the United States said: “They will remember that we were sold. But they won’t remember that we were strong. They will remember that we were bought. But not that we were brave.” This is what terminologies like “Slavery Memorial Day” and “Slavery Remembrance Day” invariably leave us with.

No to “SlaveryMemorial Day and "Slavery Remembrance Day”, yes to International Day Of African Resistance Against Enslavement!

© 2012 Kwaku

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Thinking about language in teaching African history - the TAOBQ Primer

By Kwaku
TAOBQ co-ordinator

As we are in August (also known by Africanists as Mosiah month), and before the so-called Slavery Memorial Day and Black History Month comes upon us, I thought I’d post this piece, which hopefully should engender some (re-)thinking or discussion on the way we use language to tell, teach or perpetuate history.

Caution, especially for African and Africanist historians:
a) History is not neutral, no matter how much some academics may pretend that it is
We ALL have baggage and an agenda, which impacts to some degree upon the way we interpret, teach (or regurgitate) history. This African proverb underscores the point: “Until the lions tell their tale, history shall always glorify the hunter.”

b) Do not be fooled by the supposed notion of neutrality in telling history.
Or else, you will in the main be regurgitating a Western view of African history. Do tell the truth, including uncomfortable truths. However, be guided by an Africanist eye or viewpoint

c) David Livingstone discovered Victoria Falls
So until Livingstone came along, there were no Africans living around that region in present day Zambia and Zimbabwe, and did they not know of the falls they call Mosi-oa-Tunya?

d) Christopher Columbus discovered America
Does that mean the Native Americans and all who came before Columbus to the Americas (such as the African Olmec civilisation, which pre-dated the Columbus “discovery” by thousands of years) had no idea where they were?

Here are some terms that one needs to be mindful of:
1) Who is a person of African descent?
If it’s accepted that Africa is the cradle of civilisation, then every human -  European, Asian, etc is of African descent! Hence, the best terminology ought to be African, African people, or people of African heritage (the present evolution of the human race shows various distinct heritages).

2) Black or African?
African, European, Asian – these represent groups of people linked to a land mass of their “recent anthropological development”. If you can find a land mass known as Black, Blackland, Blackistan, etc, then you are welcome to describe its people as Blacks. Until then, the terminology ought to be African, African people, or people of African heritage
. See the TAOBQ blog for further arguments and resources.

3) Caribbean or African Caribbean?
A Caribbean is a person whose antecedents are located in the Caribbean. As such a person can be of Carib, European, Asian or African heritage. The word Caribbean should not be assumed to refer to a person of African heritage. The correct terminology ought to be African Caribbean (or African, where geo-specificity is not important).

4) African Caribbean or West Indian?
It seems older folks, especially those steeped in the colonial era, are used to the West Indian terminology. Whilst the younger generation, particularly conscious Africanists, prefer the African Caribbean terminology. Some don’t relate to the West Indian terminology firstly because that area got its name from Columbus’ mistaken belief that he had reached the Indies, and secondly as one African Caribbean remarked: Do I look Indian? In spite of institutions such as the University of the West Indies or the West Indies cricket team, West Indian is today not the best terminology to describe an African Caribbean.

5) African Caribbean, African or African/African Caribbean
There is no doubt that the African presence in Britain has in the last few decades been dominated by the African Caribbeans, be it in numbers within the country’s population, music or sports. However within the last few years, the profile of those of continental African backgrounds has risen as they have made great strides across population size, music and sports. Hence there’s now a need to use the correct terminology to identify the precise grouping: African Caribbean represents only Africans with Caribbean antecedents; African represents all peoples of African heritage, irrespective of whether they were born in Britain, the Caribbean or Africa; African/African Caribbean highlights, especially where cultural inclusiveness needs emphasis, continental Africans, and Africans with Caribbean antecedents.

6) Black And Asian, BAME etc or African And Asian?
There was a time when every non-European was described as “black”. For example the first 3 “black” MPs were not those elected in 1987, but rather those who straddled the late 19th to early 20th century, who were all of Asian heritage! In the 1960s/70s, “black” was adopted as an all-embracing political term mainly for non-Europeans (and some marginalised or discriminated peoples of European heritage). Since the 1990s, we’ve seen terminology such as Black And Asian, Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic (BAME) etc creep into our vocabulary. Who does the “Black” represent, besides Africans? Hence, if one can’t use the singular political “black” to include Africans and Asians, then one should be more precise by using the African And Asian terminology.

7) Who are "people of colour" or "coloured"?
No one! These meaningless colour-focused terminologies presuppose that some people are different because either they are "not of colour" or superior. When you go to the paint shop, you have the choice of numerous colours, such as white, black, yellow, red, brown, green - so who then is or isn't a person of colour? Is white not also a colour?

8) Black History Month or African History Month?
When Black History Month (BHM) was first introduced in Britain in 1987, it was in a climate of heightened anti-racism activism, Leftist politics, and pride and solidarity in embracing the political term “black”. Although it was championed by European, Asian and African politicians, BHM was premised on the African Jubilee Year Declaration. The Jubilee year run from August 1987, marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great pan-Africanist icon Marcus Garvey, who was born on August 17 1887, right through to 1988, marking the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Organisation Of African Unity on May 25, and the 150th anniversary of the end of chattel enslavement in the British Caribbean, which was on August 1 1838. The Declaration aimed to combat racism towards Africans by enjoining statutory bodies such as Councils to promote programmes that highlighted the contributions of Africa(ns) to the economic, cultural and political life of London and Britain. Sections of the 1976 Race Relations Act were used to buttress the demands. However 25 years on, with most Councils and other statutory bodies either having abandoned or reduced support for BHM, it is now time for individuals and community organisations to take the lead in funding programmes and giving them a global African history focus. Hence, the legacy of BHM ought to be the adoption of the unambiguous terminology: African History Month (AHM).

9) Slavery Memorial Day, International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition or International Day of African Resistance Against Enslavement?
Some Africans object to the colloquial term Slavery Memorial Day and UNESCO’s International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, because both terms focus negatively on enslaved Africans (constantly labelling them as ‘slaves’) and not highlighting their fight for their own freedom. The preferred term is International Day of African Resistance Against Enslavement, because it underscores the significance of August 23 (1791), which heralded the start of the Haitian Revolution
, the first successful revolution by enslaved Africans in the so-called New World, which directly led to the abolition of the trafficking of Africans.

10) Slave or Enslaved?
The preference is for enslaved, simply because it conjures up a connection of someone else, the enslaver, who put the victim into the state of enslavement.

11) Slavery or Chattel Enslavement (Slavery)?
All human groupings over the ages have had some form of servitude within their societies, with varying degrees of brutality and lack of human rights. However what is popularly referred to as the "trans-Atlantic trade", or the trafficking of Africans, was the most extreme, in that Africans were reduced in the eyes of European enslavers and sympathisers to non-human beings, equal to inanimate property.  They had no human rights whatsoever - check the Zong massacre. This form of servitude is incomparable to most forms, and certainly should not be linked to "modern day slavery". Which is why one needs to make the distinction by using either "chattel enslavement" or "chattel slavery".

12) Africa Is A Continent not a Country!
Africa is a continent with over fifty countries. So it's not proper to make statements like I went to Germany, India and Africa. It begs the question, where in Africa?  Ditto: They do x in Africa. Better state the country or countries, or else the impression left is that x takes places across all parts of Africa.
© 2012 Kwaku
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Kwaku is a history consultant and TAOBQ co-ordinator.