By Charles Quist-Adade, Ph.D.
Introduction: Next month is Black History Month. In commemoration of the event, In this three-part commentary, I share my thoughts on the history, relevance, and the reasons why Black History Month or what I prefer to call Africa Heritage Month matters, not only to people of African descent, but also for all Canadians.
The history of African descended people in Canada is the history of heart wrenching struggle for survival, but also the history of hope and promise. But this history has been marginalized at best or treated as footnotes to "mainstream" Canadian history.
But we must turn adversity to opportunity. Opportunity to educate ourselves and others about the contribution of people of African origin to world civilization and the stock of human knowledge, a contribution which has been buried under a pile of lies, distortions, and disinformation by our detractors.
We must tell our own stories, write our own history, for no one will do it for us; no one but us must blow our horn of achievements and contributions to the world’s stock of knowledge in fields ranging from astronomy to mathematics, metallurgy to medicine, engineering to the art of writing.
I will attempt to make the case for global African unity in countering the continued deformation of the image of people of our people and the distortion of our history.
Two incidents, which occurred to my family in 2006, barely one year after moving to the Province of British Columbia after a brief sojourn in the United States, underscore the enormity of the hurdles ahead. A few days before the Black History Month celebrations in February, my wife asked the teachers and principal of our kids’ school what activities they had planned for Black History Month. The responses she got unsettled her, to say the least. The first teacher’s response was: “What’s that? When is it? … I am interested in that.” The second teacher said: “Is Black month an award show? What should people do about Black month? …Oh, yea! I watch PBS, the Detroit channel, every night.” The principal’s response was: “How do you celebrate it? When is it?”
My wife then offered to help organize a school event to mark Black History Month. I was then invited to give a presentation to the students. I began with a question. I asked them to name any black scientists, engineers, or politicians they know. No hands went up; there was complete silence in the classroom. Then I asked them to name black sports figures and entertainers. Not surprisingly, there was no shortage of willing respondents. The names of Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, 50 cents, etc. effortlessly rolled off the lips of the now animated students.
I bet if I had asked them to name black criminals, I would probably have received an equally enthusiastic response.
The second incident happened in our church. Our small church is 99.9 % African Canadian. On one occasion, my wife sat in the Sunday class for the little ones, because she wanted to keep an eye on our then three-year old daughter who was not feeling well. The Sunday school was conducted by one of the few white members of the church. A professional Sunday school teacher, she is very well organized and doubtlessly knows what she’s doing. Her lesson on this Sunday was on colour symbolism, although she did not call it so. She was using a colour book she said she had prepared herself.
My wife said she was stunned and rendered speechless as this woman told the children, ranging in ages from three to twelve, that the white pages and the Biblical characters therein represented purity, happiness, holiness, salvation, and Godliness, but the black pages and characters stood for sin, evil, and the devil. She went on to say that it was necessary for the characters in the black pages to seek God’s salvation so they could move to the white pages, so that they could become as white as snow.
Debate with God
After church service, my wife told me what had transpired and we decided to inform our pastor. Upon our pastor’s advice, we called this woman by phone to discuss our concerns and to offer our suggestions, but she instantly became defensive. She snapped: “I am not a racist, there’s no racism in Canada…” and on, and on she went. Her line of argument was that she was merely teaching what is written in the Bible, and that we should debate the issue with God, not with her.
All this should point to the terrain ahead.
The enormity of the task is compounded by several factors. First, the methods of miscasting and deforming the image of people of African descent have mutated from crude, grotesque, and gut-wrenching forms to more subtle, more insidious ones. Second, the knowledge industry—the educational system, and the mass media in particular—is still controlled by middle- and upper-class white males whose frame of reference about people of African descent is still informed by Tarzan images of Africa. Third, people of African descent have yet to work out any effective counter-strategy.
You have seen it over and over again: Emaciated children with protruding eyes, flies feasting in the gaping mouths; frail, barefoot mothers barely able to look after their dying children. And a Westerner, well-fed, rosy cheeked, well-dressed and apparently driven by compassion, helping out the poor African victims of one of Africa’s many scourges—AIDS, and now Ebola, famine or drought. This is the only Africa most Europeans and North Americans know.
Not that these things do not happen in Africa. However, let’s look at the facts: Africa is a huge continent—three-and-a-half times the size of the USA—with 55 countries and over one billion people. In any given year, no more than seven out of the 55 countries are in a civil or social strife. The remaining countries are relatively peaceful, with people going about their daily activities like anywhere else in the world. And yet what do we see in the western media? The answer can be expressed in these two simple aphorisms: “Eyes see what eyes want to see” and “Old habits die hard.”
The horrific, demonizing and dehumanizing stereotypes of “darkest” and “unknown” Africa remain unbroken in the collective Western psyche, in spite of Africa’s entrance into the world political arena after African countries gained independence in the 1960s. There is a “treasure trove” of history behind this. European explorers and Christian missionaries created the image of a “Dark Continent” populated by ignoble savages, bestial, cannibalistic, ape-like men and women. The picture was that of the “fallen brethren” and the White man whose burden was to save the heathenish African through Western civilizing missions.
The African was presented as in need of European salvation. The purpose of the original story was to prepare the minds of the Western public, and indeed of Africans themselves, for the slave trade, for the colonization, and for the partition of Africa.
Colour-Coded and Colour-Sensitive Eyes of Western Reporters
As the late African American historian John Henrik Clarke astutely noted, Europe’s greatest achievement during the age of empire was not the enslavement and military conquest of most of the world, it was the conquest of the minds of most of the people of the world. European conquest of the non-European world was achieved not by mere “brawn power” but largely by “brain power.”
Clarke wrote: “By the end of the 19th century, Europe effectively controlled or influenced most of the geography and people of the earth. In spite of the military advantage, the Europeans mainly having guns and their victims mainly without guns, there still were not enough Europeans in the world to have effectively taken over most of the world. What they did not achieve militarily, they achieved through propaganda. He called this achievement the manifestation of the “evil genius of Europe.”
When Europeans shook off the lethargy of the Middle Ages, after the disaster of the Crusades, they began to propagate certain basically untrue concepts that reverberate to this day. The most damaging of these concepts, according to Dr. Clarke are:
· That the world was waiting in darkness for the Europeans to bring the light of culture and civilization. As a matter of fact, in most cases, the truth was the contrary. The Europeans put out more light and destroyed more civilizations and cultures than they built.
· Another concept that is still doing its maximum damage is that the European concept of God is the only concept worthy of serous religious attention. In most of the world where the Europeans expanded, especially in Africa, they deprived the people of the right to call on God in a language of their creation and to look at God through their own imaginations. They inferred or said outright that no figure that did not resemble a European could be God or the representative of God.
· The next European concept is that the invader and conqueror is a civilizer. Yet conquerors are never benevolent. In nearly all cases they spread their way of life at the expense of the conquered.
· The myth of the European as discoverer is still with us more than 500 years after Christopher Columbus’s alleged discovery of America. This is one of the most prevailing myths in history, because Columbus discovered absolutely nothing. Conversely, he did help to set in motion a pattern of European expansion, slavery and exploitation that left its scar on most of mankind. [i]
What you see today in the Western media about Africa is the continuation of tradition, of an old habit, an old wine in a new bottle. Today Africans and their continent are interpreted through the self-same colour-coded and colour-sensitive eyes of Western reporters. Although they have revised and fine-tuned the image over the years, they have maintained the original “African story” as told by the early explorers, colonial masters and missionaries.
The current preoccupation of the western media with negative occurrences to the exclusion of achievements on the continent suggests that the media has two motives: to drive home the message that Africans cannot govern themselves, that the continent “is still stuck in its primitive, bloodthirsty past”; and that African nations squandered their “golden opportunity” to build civilized states after they attained political independence.[ii] To be continued.
About the Author: Dr. Charles Quist-Adade is a faculty member and former chair of the Sociology Department at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. His research and teaching interests are: social justice, globalization, racialization and anti-racism, media and society, and social theory. His other areas of teaching and research interest revolve around Global South issues and sociology of religion.
[i] Clarke, J.H. (1990). Can African People Save Themselves? New York: Alkebulanian, Inc
[ii] Nkrumah, K., (1973). Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare, London: PANAF Books