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March 11th, 2014

Incorporating African History in Black History Month

Aib event

On Wednesday February 26, the West African Research Association co-organized with Africans in Boston (AiB) a discussion entitled “Incorporating African History in Black History Month.” The event featured three panelists:  University of Massachusetts-Boston Professor Jemadari Kamara, Boston University Professor Zoliswa Mali, and West African Research Association Director Dr. Jennifer Yanco.

Dr. Jennifer Yanco was the first panelist to address the audience. She noted that Black History Month was originally established in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.  In light of the increasingly diverse population of Black Americans,  Dr. Yanco urged that we re-evaluate the purpose and effectiveness of Black History Month.  In particular, she cautioned against the practice of celebrating the contributions of exceptional individuals to the exclusion of examining  the systems that made and continue to make Black History Month necessary—continuing systems of racial oppression and general ignorance about Black history, be it in Africa, the US, or elsewhere in the diaspora.

Zoliswa Mali, Professor of Southern African languages at Boston University, highlighted some key dates in the history of the struggle of Black South Africans against the oppressive apartheid system. Professor Mali called attention to key parallel dates in African American history. In particular, she noted that while African Americans were fighting for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, the black South Africans too were fighting against the Jim Crow-like system in Apartheid South Africa. She noted that while figures like Nelson Mandela and others have been iconized, it is important to remember the masses carried out demonstrations and resistance campaigns on the ground while Mandela was incarcerated. She highlighted the important role young people played both in South Africa and in the United States to challenge the harsh racist conditions under which they lived. Overall her message was that all African born and non-African born black people need to learn each other’s stories and work together to continue to challenge the structures that disempower all black people.

UMass Boston Professor Jemadari Kamara was the final panelist and served as an inspirational anchor to the crowd. He began by listing the birthdates and deaths of key African, African American, and Afro-Caribbean leaders who have influenced collective black history. The overall message of his address was that all of our histories are inextricably linked. Black people all over the world have an obligation to themselves and the collective to know their history. The struggle exists for all black people who need to know each other’s stories to keep them alive. Professor Kamara mentioned how important the diaspora is to the future of the African continent. He noted that Cape Verde was the first African country to give the diaspora a legislative seat in the government. Also, the African Union has created a sixth region; it is the region of the diaspora. He noted however, that since nothing of the sort has ever existed, there needs to be a conversation about what it means to have the diaspora represented and about the goals and intentions of the African diaspora in the future of the continent.

The presentations were followed by questions and comments to the speakers and by a lively discussion among the 30+ people present.

WARA is grateful to Africans in Boston, and in particular, to AiB Event Coordinator Joycelina Imafidon for her work in organizing the event and to AiB President Voury Ignegongba for his role as a moderator.  Special thanks also go to the Addis Red Sea Ethiopian restaurant in Boston for hosting the event.