So we’re celebrating Black History Month again. Like Valentine’s Day and Halloween, Black History Month is yet another commodity we’ve imported from the United States. As Saundrie-Kay, a graduate student in history at the University of the West Indies, Mona, puts it so passionately, “From Black History Month start, a pure Martin Luther King mi a si pan my TV, enuh. Mi nah si nuh Marcus Garvey. Mi wanda a wah a gwaan enuh.”
What is ‘gwaaning’ is that it’s much easier for Jamaican society to acknowledge black history at a distance than close up. If we were really serious about excavating our own history, we would start asking ourselves all kinds of difficult questions like, “How come Jamaica’s national motto is ‘Out of Many, One People’?” On the face of it, we’re a nation of black people with a small percentage of ethnic minorities. But not in the eyes of those who conceived the motto.
You see how ‘real-real’ Jamaican black history would get us ‘inna prekeh!’ Certain ‘Out of Many, One’ people might get vexed and start demanding to know if they are not genuine Jamaicans too. Of course, they are. But they are not all that many.
They Came Before Columbus
A single month of black history is certainly not an adequate substitute for what we really need: the integration of black people’s history into the official narratives of the societies in which we find ourselves all across the globe. Indeed, black history is not just for black people. It’s world history.
Many of us still don’t know, for example, that Africans came to the Americas before Columbus. Ivan Van Sertima, a linguist and anthropologist from Guyana, wrote a brilliant book on the subject, which was published in 1976. Its subtitle is ‘The African Presence in Ancient America’. In the introduction, he tells an exciting story:
“I came across three volumes in the private library of a Princeton professor. They had been published half a century ago and their title fascinated me – ‘Africa and the Discovery of the Americas’. They represented a lifetime of dedicated scholarship by Harvard linguist Leo Wiener. Professor Wiener had been working on a grammar of American languages in the early years of this century when he stumbled upon a body of linguistic phenomena that indicated clearly to him the presence of an African and Arabic influence on some medieval Mexican and South American languages before the European contact period.”
‘Whole heap a mix-up mix-up’
But it’s not only academics who contest the myth of European ‘discovery’ of the Americas. The singers and players of instruments also tell their musical version of the truth. This semester, I’m teaching an innovative course, ‘Reggae Poetry’, in which we analyse song lyrics as literary texts.
We go right back to the roots of poetry in song. The word ‘lyric’ comes from the Greek word ‘lyre’, which is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a stringed instrument of the harp kind, used by the Greeks for accompanying song and recitation”. Over time, the medium became the message and the name of the instrument was transferred to words of song.
One of the songwriters we’re studying is Winston ‘Burning Spear’ Rodney. A recurring theme in his repertoire is revisionist history. In ‘Columbus’, Spear rewrites the grand narrative of European conquest in a few vivid lines:
I and I all I know
I and I all I say
I and I reconsider
I and I see upfully that
Christopher Columbus is a damn blasted liar
Christopher Columbus is a damn blasted liar
Ah, yes, Jah, he’s a liar
He say that he is the first one
Who discover Jamaica
I and I say that
What about the Arawak Indians and the few black man
Who were down here, before him?
“A wat a whole heap a mix-up mix-up
A whole heap a ben-up, ben-up
Go ha fi straighten out!”
What difference could it make to African-Jamaican children to discover that their ancestors came to the Americas not only as enslaved beasts of burden but as mapmakers, explorers, engineers, architects, linguists, poets – the whole range of human capacities? Could it mean that they would no longer need to bleach their skin, vainly trying to erase the marks of servitude?
Last week, a talented young singer and songwriter, Cen’C Love, launched her first CD, Love Letters. She’s the daughter of Bunny Wailer and Afrocentric fashion designer Millie ‘Sequoia’ David. In the spirit of the black-heart man, Cen’C chants down the lies the media tell our children and she bewails the failure of parents to teach self-love:
The girl skin black and pretty ’til she reach sixteen
Find out bout the magic of the bleaching cream
Mama never teach her seh black is power
The system always show her seh black man lower
And the tell-lie-vision – pure light skin and horse hair
So she buy the weave and try fi get her skin more fair
You’re so much more than that.
Black history is so much more than a month of Martin Luther King. In Jamaica, it must mean emancipation from the twisted lies we tell ourselves about our society. And parents can’t leave it to the media to teach the children the truth. Our entire educational system must take on the responsibility of straightening out the ‘ben-up ben-up’ history we have inherited from our colonisers.