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
If you would like to use information, please cite To contact:
Kwaku is a history consultant and TAOBQ co-ordinator.


  1. Hubert Taylor's Feedback

    = Start of observations =
    Hubert Taylor's consideration of Kwaku's 16 August 2012 Web-article,
    'Thinking about language in teaching African history - the TAOBQ Primer'

    Our primary area of common concern, relates to the 'colour-branding of people (and social matters associated with them)'. I also take issue with the 'colour-branding of history' but this point need not concern us jointly; unless you will wish us also to confer upon 'colour-branding of history'.
    To assist our us, I sifted the article's sixteen points ― (a to d; and 1-12) ― into topic-groups (of my own lay-choosing) as in items [A] to [E] below. This way, we may agree more readily those of the article's points which seem directly related to our common-ground issue of 'colour-branding'.
    As we both question the 'colour-branding' of people, I believe points I have sifted to topic [C] (below) seems a reasonable basis for conferring upon the current 'colour-branding' of UK citizens, and, reflect upon matters accruing to such 'colour-branding' across UK governance; whether or not the citizen is African.

    An approach might be to formulate well-reasoned persuasive points as will press those who do (or wish to) adopt 'colour-branding' (including UK Government), to define their terminology examined for racial/Eurocentric slanting, and presented so even children in their formative years might understand and feel complimented. It seems reasonable to draw your originating TAOB-article's points 2 & 6, a clear inference that a speaker/author's 'black' cannot be taken to intend solely 'African' and so it may be inapt to assume that by the term 'black' (for example), a speaker or author intends solely 'African' person/people.

    Points by Topics
    Efficacy of written history and integrity of its authors 
Under this topic, I include the article-points sub-headed, 
"Caution, especially for African and Africanist historians"
    Point (a) - "History is not neutral ...."
    Point (b) - "Do not be fooled by the supposed notion of neutrality ...."
    Point (c) - "David Livingstone discovered Victoria Falls"
    Point (d) - ""Christopher Columbus discovered America
    General terminology requiring review or considered usage 
Under this topic, I include the article-points sub-headed, 
"Here are some terms that one needs to be mindful of:"
    Point (1) - "person of African descent...."
    Point (3) - "Caribbean" [as in "Caribbean ... person"]
    Point (4) - "West Indian" [as in "West Indian ... person"]
    Point (5) - "African Caribbean", "African" [point unclear]
    Point (10) - "slave"
    Point (11) - "slavery" [as of "trans-Atlantic trade"]
    Point (12) - "Africa" [in terms of geographical"continent"]
    'Colour-branding' terminology requiring review 
Under this topic, I include the article-points sub-headed,
    Point (2) - "black" [as in "black people"]
    Point (6) - "black", "BAME"
    Point (7) - "people of colour", "coloured" [as of "people"]
    'Colour-branded' history and/or other educational item 
Under this topic, I include
    Point (8) - "Black History Month ... ?"
    Titular terms for public institutions 
Under this topic, I include -
    Point (9) - "Slavery Memorial Day", "International Day for the
    Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition"
    =End of observations =

    1. Comment on feedback by Hubert Taylor re: 'Thinking about language in teaching African history - the TAOBQ Primer' at

      Whilst I appreciate effort made by Hubert Taylor, who tweets as @hgt0 (I do as @TAOBQ), I will reserve my only response to Point (5) - "African Caribbean", "African" [point unclear], as he notes that it's unclear.

      I believe a re-reading of section may be in order. I’ll however add that, for decades, Africans in Britain were simply described as "African Caribbean" often in reference to Africans with Caribbean antecedents, without reference or cognisance of continental Africans. Sometimes "African Caribbean" is also meant to refer to both continental and Caribbean Africans.

      My view, a highlighted in the original article, is that it's important that "African Caribbean" is used only where the focus is solely on those with Caribbean antecedents. Hopefully, this clarifies point 5.

      November 20 2013