Author, former Poet Laureate of Toronto and former Poet Laureate of the Canadian Parliament, George Elliott Clarke shares his thoughts on Black History Month.
By GEORGE ELLIOTT CLARKE
Every year when February returns, with its snowfall and Wiarton Willie, Family Day and Valentine’s Day followers blessing love with candy and flowers, some may wonder why Canadians should set aside this short and cold and dreary month – to focus on the achievements and historic presence of citizens of black African descent?
The question is not impertinent, but sensible, as the answers require engagement with the facts of our shared history. Indeed, “Black History Month” emphasizes history, because ours (I speak as an African – a native African-Nova Scotian) has been obscured for too long and decried.
The reason for this was the transatlantic slave trade, which began with Christopher Columbus’ gaff on the Caribbean (the “West Indies” for its geographically borderline wit) and only really ended when Brazil abolished the slavery in 1888 and a few dozen slaves, Slave countries signed the Brussels Conference Act of 1890.
The abduction of black people – around 11 million (and another 2 million lost at sea) – from sub-Saharan Africa, over 400 years, drove the economic development of the Americas at a time when the global economies were agriculture and resources. based, requiring a lot of hands and backs to plant and harvest, fish and hunt, log and mine, carry and lift, carpenter and smith, mint and distill, butcher and cook, clean and serve.
Thus, serfs and enslaved peasants in Europe and blacks became forced laborers in the Americas.
In fact, the European slave trade—which involved Genoese traders capturing Scandinavian children to sell to Arabs (1100-1500 CE)—did not end until the transatlantic slave trade began.
(The word slave derives from slave or captive, which referred to the serf status of Slavic peoples from the 9th century until the 19th, when serfdom was abolished.)
Blacks were forced to do the heavy lifting, sweating and bleeding to enrich “massa” and “missy”, because the European attempt to enslave indigenous peoples – in the Caribbean and from Mexico to Argentina – was a colossal genocide, says the Spanish Dominican. Brother Bartolomé de las Casas, whose report on the massacres of indigenous peoples by the conquistadors, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, appeared in 1542. (Note that de las Casas’ book was written within 50 years following the landing of Christopher Columbus on an island in the Bahamas. Las Casas personally witnessed the massacres and mass deaths of indigenous peoples.)
The atrocities committed by the European intruders, along with their communicable diseases, were so devastating to the indigenous peoples that las Casas proposed that the Africans be enslaved instead.
Yes, the transatlantic slave trade began – in part – as a humanitarian measure to prevent the extinction of the indigenous population of the southern Americas and the Caribbean. Las Casas believed that Africans—immune to many Old World diseases—could better withstand the rigors of gold, copper, silver, and iron mining; fish for cod, paddle fur trade canoes, and cultivate plantations of wheat, corn, beans, sugar, tobacco, cotton, and coffee.
Naturally, this slave labor prospered the Western European empires – British, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Spanish – and their “New World” colonies, helping to propel the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and then the Industrial Revolution. .
The first globalization resulted from the transatlantic slave trade, European imperialism and European powers competing for military and economic supremacy.
(Winner? The nation formerly known as “Britain” — until the United States replaced it.)
The dark force – and the theft and spoliation of indigenous lands and resources – was the basis for the expansion of the “West” – the West – and the enrichment of the “Northern” part of the Earth. (Thus, we hear the cry for reparations from the regions of the Global South and from certain formerly enslaved and/or colonized peoples.)
Colonization and slavery were so essential to ensuring a nation’s prosperity that these late plundering nations – Belgium, Italy, Germany and Japan, for example – ended up shooting for colonies in Africa. (which Belgium, Italy and Germany won), or in Asia (where Japan seized the territory, thus serving to start the Second World War).
However, to keep Africans, Asians and “Native Americans” submissive to Europeans, a vast system of Propaganda was launched which distorted all branches of knowledge. Theologians have invented a white Jesus; anthropologists have ranked white Anglo-Saxons and “Nordics” as the most “advanced” Homo sapiens; archaeologists claimed that Africa had no civilizations; biologists measured “native” skulls and genitalia to claim they were subhuman; geographers maintained that Egypt was not part of Africa, etc.
Yet all of this propaganda, intended to buttress white supremacy, continued to stumble over one stumbling block: examples of black excellence – in all areas of human endeavor.
Thus, Alexander Pushkin became the greatest Russian writer. Scientist George Washington Carver pioneered commercial uses of peanuts.
Elijah McCoy of Colchester, Ontario invented steam train machinery that was so vital that his surname came to be associated with the phrase “the real McCoy”.
Saint Augustine was an essential Catholic theologian.
Phillis Wheatley was the major poet of the American Revolution.
William Hall of Hantsport, Nova Scotia won the Battle of Lucknow, India, for Britain almost single-handedly.
Queen Nzinga crushes the Portuguese army in Angola in 1647, etc…
Enslaved, colonized or segregated Africans themselves were the primary articulators of Enlightenment ideals of equality, justice and freedom: from Martin Robinson Delany (who wrote his pivotal novel, Blake, while living in Chatham, Ontario) to Sojourner Truth; from Frederick Douglass to Harriet Jacobs.
Without forgetting Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nelson Mandela; Angela Davis or Howard McCurdy (from Windsor, Ontario).
Blacks who waged wars of liberation were also critical (see Toussaint L’Ouverture d’Haiti); or who waged guerrilla warfare against slaveholders (see Nanny-of-the-Maroons of Jamaica); or who has led insurgencies (see Nat Turner of the United States or Zeferina of Brazil).
To sum up: Black History Month (beginning with Black History Week in the United States in 1926) sets aside 28 (or 29) days to focus on our heritage in an attempt to counter 500 years negrophobic misinformation.
— George Elliott Clarke, an Upper Beach resident, teaches African-Canadian literature at the University of Toronto. Her latest book is Where Beauty Survived: An African Memoir (Knopf Canada).