Black History Month has a different meaning to everyone depending on who they are, what country they’re from or which box they check on an employment form.
“Black History Month focuses on African-American history in America and our plight, our journey, our contributions to the country,” Michelle McDow, senior Pan-African studies and Communications major said. “A lot of people are just not aware of what we’re doing and what we have done for this country.”
McDow is African-American, born in the U.S. She sees Black History Month as a time to celebrate black American history. McDow said Black History Month is an opportunity to distinguish and honor what African American leaders have done for American history, not just black history.
“It is to celebrate our contributions to America because we weren’t being taught in American history, so we had to separate ourselves and say no listen, there’s black history too,” McDow said.
Although McDow said the true meaning of Black History Month is to celebrate the achievements of black people in America she said she does not agree with overlooking other black leaders, like Nelson Mandela, in the month’s festivities.
Some members of the black student population of African descent have expressed discontent with the lack of acknowledgment of African leaders.
“I definitely feel that we should celebrate all of our history together,” said Marvin Boateng, vice president of the African Student Organization. “We all have contributed to the world and civilization in general.”
Boateng, who is originally from Ghana, said he celebrates Black History Month every day of the year by reading books of overlooked African-American scholars and listening to recorded lectures by Malcolm X, Amos Wilson and Ashra Kwesi. While growing up, the black history Boateng was educated on was Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, civil rights, Brown v. Board of Education and slavery, “but nothing that made me proud of being a descendent of Africans,” Boateng said.
He said there was no mention of what Africans have contributed, such as one of the world’s first universities in the world, Timbuktu, or the great kingdoms of ancient Africa. Boateng had not even heard of Malcolm X until his freshman year in college when he decided to read his autobiography.
There are differences between Africans and African-Americans that can be seen culturally. Boateng blames it on colonialism and slave owners who would do everything they could to separate slaves from their roots.
“They did everything possible to disconnect the Africans from their African identity,” he said.
Boateng said even though most African-Americans see him as one of them, there are always some who do not.
“In certain forms (African-Americans) do things differently, but I think at the root we all have the same culture,” Boateng said.
He said the same thing is visible among Africans themselves. The Ashantis in Ghana do some things differently than the Zulus in South Africa, but at the core there are similarities.
“Our culture is more a hybrid between African culture and African American culture, post slavery,” McDow said. “American culture and African culture has sort of morphed into a new culture and that’s African-American, or black culture.”
Babatunde Ola, senior electrical engineering major, is a native of Nigeria and agrees with Boateng’s sentiments that Africans and African-Americans share the same roots.
“We’re brothers and sisters after all,” he said. “Whether you are black or if you’re mixed, you have that African blood in you. You might be American, but your roots still trace back to Africa somehow.”
Ola said that African-Americans who do not accept their African heritage are saying they are OK with their ancestors having been sold as slaves over 500 years ago.
“Just because something was stolen from you doesn’t mean you can’t retrieve it,” Ola said. “If you don’t embrace what was yours before, then you’re not any better than the slave owners. It’s like saying yes, I’m happy that you sold us away and I’m not interested in finding out where I belong.”
Boateng said there are African-Americans who want to know about where they came from and go to Africa to visit their roots. He said in his native Ghana there are a large number of African-Americans that have come to visit the old slave dungeons and end up liking the country and the people so much that they either buy property, maintain contact with families there or stay in the country permanently.
“That’s saying that Ghana has accepted African-Americans as brothers and sisters, as a family, and that’s how we should be, one family,” Boateng said. “There is a historical link that we all have together as African people.”
For Alicia Burch, freshman CTVA major, Black History Month is about celebrating the accomplishments and rights that African-Americans have gained.
“It’s celebrating the freedom and all the people who went through the struggles to gain freedom,” Burch said.
Burch is the daughter of two biracial parents; her mother is Irish and African-American and her father is French and African-American. She said Black History Month is a reminder for people because some tend to forget about black history.
“Some people don’t realize what our people went through,” Burch said.
When it comes to Africans, Burch said she believes they worry more about their morals compared to African-Americans.
McDow said what makes African-Americans different from Africans is more complex than that. She said African-Americans are different because of the ordeals they went through as a people during slavery and other hard times in American history, which shaped them as a people.
“We are subject to other psychological factors stemming from being in America, dealing with racial oppression (here), which is different from racial oppression in Africa,” McDow said.
When it comes to using a term to define herself, McDow said she personally uses the term “black” over “African-American” in loose conversations because “it was a term that we gave ourselves and we adapted it during the 1960s and I think we should honor that,” she said.
Africans put a lot of weight on the importance of having a closely-knit family, something McDow said exist within the African-American community as well, but it varies from region to region.
“If you go down south you’ll find that the black family is still very much intact and strong,” McDow said, who is a Texas native.
She said in big cities like Los Angeles or New York, it’s tougher to keep the family close together. The overall breakdown of America’s family structure in general is not helping either, and during slavery the African-American family was broken down as well, McDow said.
McDow said she has heard different arguments from Africans regarding how they view African Americans.
“I’ve heard the bourgeoisie attitude that Africans are better than black people because they have money and their kids have better morals, (black people) are the gangbangers and drug pushers and we are lazy, I’ve heard those arguments,” McDow said. “Then I’ve heard that black people in America have made it easier for minorities to come to America.”
McDow said the reason why people now go to integrated schools and learn about African -American history is because of the adversities they went through to get to where they are today.
“Some Africans probably think they are different and some don’t, it all depends on whom you’re talking to.”
Johan Mengesha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org