Why America's Black History month is important for Africans
- Bob Wekesa
Since its 1926 inception, Black History Month every February has been a celebration of "Africanness" beyond the confines of US borders.
The famous African Americans who shaped history's course include Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Muhammed Ali, abolitionist Harriet Tubman and brilliant mathematician Benjamin Banneker. In Black History Month, celebrated each February, the global community is encouraged to honour those in the "historical and contemporary African diaspora" who meaningfully contribute to their communities.
If there are about 140 million Africans (whose ancestors were forced into slavery) around the world, it makes sense to mark the achievement and travails of African heritage, not as a pithy "hero's journey" or about overcoming adversity, but indeed as a way to illuminate the everyday lives of those of African descent – past and present. The Black History Month (BHM) founders may have conceived of it as a United States initiative and one that would find expression mostly within the country. Ninety-six years, since its 1926 inception, every February has become a celebration of "Africanness" beyond the confines of US borders. It is an idea so powerful it has transcended the epoch of its origin and the bounds of geography to become a truly global phenomenon.
While the level of connection between African and American and continental Africans around BHM could do with a boost on the "African continental" end of things, a glance at African media shows Black History Month celebrations have grown in African countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. Several factors make Black History Month attractive in Africa, and its celebration should be more pronounced.
Resurgence of interest
Firstly, since 1976 (when President Gerald Ford made the first national proclamation of Black History Month), the US government has supported the initiative. It has been recognised by both Republicans and Democrats. Significantly, this manifests as an acknowledgement by US institutions of Black ancestral trauma. This recognition has formed remarkable connections and dialogue between Africa and the US.
In the past few years, the number of African Americans living in places like Johannesburg, Lagos, Accra, Addis Ababa, and Nairobi has increased. Already sensitised to the importance of Black History Month, African Americans have served as ambassadors for the phenomenon in Africa. We'd say this is a show of "soft power" or "non-State public diplomacy" in diplomatic language. The resurgence of interest in Africa by historical African diaspora was emblematically evident during and after the commemorations in 2019 of the 600th anniversary of the arrival of African slaves in Jamestown, Virginia, USA, in 1619. Ghana was particularly strategic in mounting the anniversary.
African agenda elevated
Prominent African Americans have played a crucial role in promoting BHM, not just in the US but also in Africa. Since the 2022 BHM season begun on February 1, the BHM narrative has been closely tied to the notion that the Biden administration has been good to African American communities, particularly regarding the many high-level Black appointments that Biden has made. Indeed, on the elective front, the US now has its first African American-cum-South Asian Vice President, Kamala Harris. In addition, New York Congressman Gregory Meeks is chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; US representative from California Karen Bass is chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa; and congresswoman Barbara Lee, also from California, is the chair of the powerful House Appropriations subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations.
From the executive end, the Biden administration appointed Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a former assistant secretary on African affairs, as US ambassador to the United Nations; Dana Banks as Special Assistant to the President and National Security Council Senior Director for Africa; Akunna Cook as Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs; Travis Adkins as president and CEO of the US African Development Foundation; Cynthia Griffin as minister counsellor for US commercial affairs in sub-Saharan Africa, among others.
This implies that the African continent will be elevated on the US agenda, assuming that African American appointees take African interests seriously and with a sense of duty and responsibility.
Bob Wekesa is Deputy Director, African Centre for the Study of the US, University of the Witwatersrand.