Black Lives Matter
By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
February 21, 2022
It is gratifying to see the United States Embassy in Port of Spain flying its flag atop its building together with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) flag in honour of Black History Month.
It has taken the US a long time to recognise the important role blacks have played in the making of its country. An accompanying statement to this event noted: "Raising BLM flags on US embassy and consulate flagpoles throughout the world calls attention to efforts to advance racial equity and access to justice in the US and worldwide." (Express, February 16.)
These gestures are an important recognition of the long struggle that black people have had to get the US to recognise their contributions in making the US "a more perfect union as articulated in our [US] Constitution". When I used that phrase ("a more perfect union") some time ago, few people understood what I meant.
America has come a long way although it seems to be reverting to a reactionary past that kept its black citizens enslaved and alienated from its central goal of freedom and the pursuit of happiness. On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass, that quintessential Black American, addressed the citizens of his hometown on the 76th anniversary of his nation's birth. He refused to celebrate this milestone with white Americans.
In his address, "What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July", Douglass asked rhetorically: "What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?"
He answered: "Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine."
It took much courage for an enslaved man to speak these truths to power 13 years before he was freed and acknowledged to be a man. BLM is a culmination of the original moment.
Carter G Woodson, who founded the Journal of Negro History in 1916, launched the celebration of Negro History Week in 1926. It was the precursor to Black History Month. Woodson did so when he recognised that African American contributions "were overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed" by writers of American history books.
This absence of the black experience from American history books led Woodson to conclude that blacks were mis-educated, which allowed them to occupy an inferior place in the society. Such a trajectory suggested that black people would always be subservient to white people.
Such reasoning led Woodson to observe in his book, The Mis-Education of the Negro: "When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place' and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary."
The US Embassy acknowledges that "Black History is American history, and we honour the profound impact of African diaspora culture and the immeasurable contributions of Black Americans to the world". This is a valuable admission on the part of white America.
It also says that the slogan Black Lives Matter "seeks to raise awareness of and respond to ongoing racism in the US and abroad. It also draws attention to the need to end systemic racism and inequalities experienced by communities of colour, and most acutely, people of African descent".
In his closing remarks, US Charge d'Affaires Shante Moore encouraged Trinbagonians to reflect upon "how black history and culture have influenced our lives through music, art, literature, politics, science, business and sports, and their roles in our strong bilateral relationships between the US and Trinidad and Tobago".
Countless Trinbagonians have contributed to our understanding of the areas that Moore listed. However, it has been a two-way street; they drawing on us and we drawing on them. In 1849, The Trinidadian serialised Douglass's narrative to demonstrate the social and political prowess of Trinidadians.
In 1854, Maxwell Philip wrote Emmanuel Appadocca, the first Trinidadian novel, in solidarity with the struggle of his African American brothers and sisters. This mutual admiration has continued. Today, Wayne Frederick, a Trinidadian, is the president of Howard University, one of the US' most outstanding universities, where my eldest grandson now attends.
I started teaching African American literature at Fordham University in New York in 1969, when black students were demanding that US colleges and universities include the multifarious experiences of black people in their curricula. In 1979, I gave my rationale for teaching African American literature in the Harvard Educational Review: "I teach Afro-American literature because... it is the literature of my people. When one speaks of African American literature, one speaks about the literary expressions of the emotional experiences of one of the most oppressed people in the world today. Our oppression has led to our profound alienation and involved the malicious attempt to reduce us to beings concerned only with the satisfaction of our animal desires." (August 1980.)
It's admirable that the Biden administration recognises that it must do everything to ensure that black people enjoy "the freedom of life and limb, the freedom to work and think, and the freedom to love and aspire" that WEB Du Bois clamoured for 120 years ago.
Prof Cudjoe's e-mail address is email@example.com. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe
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The Slave Master of Trinidad by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe