Why Black History Month Is Important to Me
By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
November 10, 2016
This message was read to the children of the Robert Clark School, Dagenham, Essex (part of greater London) England, on Wednesday, November 9, 2016, in celebration of Black History Month. I thank Lara Akinn for offering me the opportunity to contribute this message to their celebration.
I grew up in Trinidad, West Indies, which possesses a large multicultural population. There are Blacks (Africans), Indians, Portuguese, Chinese, and people of different racial stock. People practice different religions such as Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and so on. In my case, there were elements of Shouter Baptists and Orishas who maintained elements of African religions even though the society as a whole looked down on (or looked askance) at those practices. Some Africans also practiced Islam which they brought with them from Africa, but that was a small group. Later on, in the 1960s, many other Africans converted into the Islamic religion.
While growing up, I was aware of specific racial/ethnic differences among the groups but only in a sort of intellectual sense. They existed. I knew they existed, but it did not really mean very much to me. We did our thing and they did theirs. I was aware that the Indians had their own ceremonies (such as Ramlelas and Hosay) which we, as Africans, enjoyed and participated in. We as Africans had our own festivals and practices (such as Shango and Carnival). All the other ethnic groups participated in Carnival. It became and is a national festival. Although the Indians tended to keep to themselves, we simply saw this as their way of behavior, and that was that.
There was perhaps one tiny difference in all of this. My name is Cudjoe. My uncle, a cricket enthusiast, always reminded me about the African origin of my name. When I played cricket, each time I walked into bat he would say: "Give dem bat. Yo' don't have a slave name. Yo name is Cudjoe. It's an African name. Always remember that." So, from a very early age I realized that I had a connection with Africa, but all of that did not mean a lot to me until I arrived in the United States in 1964. There, in that country, I was confronted with my blackness for the first time.
When I arrived in the United States, the country was in the midst of the 1964 presidential elections between Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, and Barry Goldwater, a Republican. The central bone of contention centered on the civil rights of blacks in the United States. The black people in the country had gone through centuries in which they were relegated to being second-class citizens. But at this historic moment, after the assassination of President John Kennedy, President Johnson was promising to make African Americans full citizens. In that year, the first Civil Rights Act was passed. It outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origins.
In 1965, another important event happened in the lives of black people in America: Malcolm X was assassinated in Harlem, New York. The black world was shocked. In 1968, Martin Luther King, that warrior for peace, was also killed and, more than ever, my consciousness about being black and the travails that black people endured kept haunting my heart.
Meanwhile, I was attending Fordham University in New York where I was doing my first degree in English. But, the school was woefully underrepresented when it came to black students. Out of the two or three thousand students, there were only about twenty of us black people there. We demanded that the school enroll more black students and that the curriculum include more subjects about the black experience worldwide.
Because of such agitation, the school began to enroll more black students and in 1969, started a Black Studies Program. I was among the first lecturers in the program. I taught a course on African American literature. I had never studied the field officially while I was a student, but then I had to teach a course on the subject. In a way, that is when my interest in Black Studies began to take a more structured approach. In 1971, I wrote my first academic article, "Criticism and the Neo-African Writer," published in Black World, formerly the Negro Digest that was owned by John Johnson. He also published of Ebony and Jet magazines. Since then, I have written for other publications and published many books, but the responses I received from that first article told me that folks were interested in what I had to say and that it was important to transmit information about black people's lives. It was important to know where we had come from and where we were going.
And this is where Black History Month came in. Initially, it was Black History Week and then it was expanded to a month. In that week, we were able to think about how black people shaped the contemporary world and the enormous contributions we had made to science and the humanities. In this context, the works of Carter G. Woodson, the person responsible for creating an interest in black history, became an important beacon for all black scholars. The works of Cheikh Anta Diop, John Henry Clark, and Brother Ben-Jochannan were important conduits through which to examine our contributions to the world.
For me, Black History Month is a time when we reflect on the tremendous contributions that blacks have made to the world and the power of ideas in the making of this new world. When I think of Black History Month I think of Walter Rodney, C. L. R. James, Paul Gilroy, Paul Robeson, Alice Walker, Mary Seacole, and Claudia Jones. When I think of Black History Month I think of the challenges that face us as a people and the power of ideas in helping us to fight against the forces that would want to downpress us.
When I think of Black History Month I think of how hard our forefathers and foremothers fought to make us who we are. They prepared the way for us. Our task is to continue to work they have begun; to clear the pathway toward a deeper involvement with our people's mental and intellectual liberation; each one teaching one, seeking to realize the truth of the African proverb: I am because you are. Because you are, I am.
Black History Month is a way of realizing how far we have come but also acknowledging how much farther we have to go. May God, Allah, Jah, or whatever the powers to whom they pay homage give us the faith to carry on the struggle, always acting with dignity and seeking to find the truth. As one wise man once said, "The truth shall set us free."
This is what Black History Month means to me and why I am so happy that the students at the Robert Clark School in London wish to honor those who have gone before and pave the way for the realization of their own dreams as they grow into strong black and worthy people.
As the people in FRELIMO say: A luta continua (in English, "The Struggle Continues.")
Professor Cudjoe is a professor in the Africana Studies Department at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, the school where Hillary Clinton was educated.
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