I suppose many black families do this: after an evening of eating and bonding, the topic of discussion turns to black history and racism (and why Jamaicans are the greatest!). There are many theories thrown around by black families regarding our lack of presence in the history books, but my favourite is my aunt’s contribution to the endless amount of theories “if you want to hide something from a Black person, put it in a book”.
As a young black man growing up in the diaspora and the epicentre of the British empire, I was taught two lessons at home: the first by my grandmother which started every day before I would leave for school in the morning, she would say to me “nuh badda fala fashin”. I am in my late 20’s now, and I still live by those words. They gave me the tools to forge my path and to withstand any amount of social pressure I felt outside of the home.
The second lesson I received at home was from my eldest uncle at the age of 15. The lesson was simple: know your history. Know your history, know who you are, where you have come from, thus, ultimately shaping your destination in life. This message has resonated within me till this very day, and I suspect for the rest of my life. He taught me that the power of reading would open doors to me and instil a level of pride within me that my education in mainstream schooling could never install. It dictates my reading habits, the information I absorb, the conversations I have.
Contrary to popular belief, African history does not ‘begin’ with the transatlantic slave trade and nor does it ‘end’ with the death of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. African history has been given a great disservice over the last 500 years. Hidden, disputed, laughed at and met with great scrutiny and relegated to black-history-month(s) in the diaspora. Africa’s hidden history rebuts the presumption that European colonialists and the indoctrination of Christianity ‘saved us’ from ourselves and ‘helped’ civilise Africans, ironically, through some of the most inhuman and uncivilised actions in human history.
This destructive re-telling of African history cements the image of Africans as being barbaric uncivilised people that have not contributed to the history books outside of slavery. Whilst I speak of African history with such enthusiasm, I am also conscious of the trap many ‘conscious’ black people fall into, which is romanticizing history. All of us can’t be Kings and Queens (that’s just a matter of basic arithmetic). To imply that the continent did not have any social issues of its own would be a ludicrous assumption to form.
Whilst reading Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern, I was taken back by early African surgical tools used to deliver babies via cesarean, rulers, mathematical equations used to construct the pyramids of Egypt — right up to contemporary history, which showed African-Americans aiding in putting a man on the moon. The book was a revelation. At the time I did not understand the sheer magnitude of the book. Its reading comprehension was above mine — at the time — and it was quite text-rich. Nonetheless, it exposed me to the side of blackness that I have never interacted with.
The historical depiction of Africans is centred on the Eurocentric understanding of the continent, which is subsequently reaffirmed through various devices that suggest before colonialism, Africans were uneducated people running and jumping around fires barefooted in the dirt. It’s one of the greatest lies told about a group of people: ‘the dark continent’ a metaphor coined to further the ‘otherness’ of the continent, in a way that solidifies Western dominance, ultimately reasserting hostile and racist valuations of Africa and Africans.
It contradicted everything I was taught in my mainstream education. To reiterate the aforementioned — Contrary to popular belief, African history does not ‘begin’ with the transatlantic slavery, or does it ‘end’ with the death of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and this book was testimony to that contradiction.
Fast-forward to the 21st century the second book on my journey was Brainwashed: challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority. It explores the genesis of White Superiority/Black Inferiority as the result of slavery in North America. It was written from the perspective of Tom Burrell, a Marketing communications pioneer, credited with revolutionizing the use of positive and realistic images of African Americans in television advertising.
This book gave me an insight into the images that perpetuate the destructive representation of African-Americas. It covered many areas of African-American life, such as the relationship between European beauty standards and the consumption of European beauty standards demonstrated by the ‘coveting’ of light skin and straight hair, to the hyper-sexualisation of African-Americans and their conformity to sexual stereotypes.
This book made me consider the tenure of my childhood and the cultural practices that many black people share today, regardless of our location. With particular reference to that poignant moment, in the chapter entitled, Neo-Coons, I was confronted by something that was commonly practised, but never (openly) challenged. Burrell began with a quote from the late comedian, Berny Mac in which he said, “ I’m from the old school. I’ll kick a kid’s ass… if you are grown enough to talk back, you grown enough to get f***** up” in which Burrell responded by saying “ During writing this book, I can recall numerous instances of black children shaken to death”. I subsequently recalled many instances in which my friends and I would laugh and joke about what instruments are parents/grandparents would punish us. From hangers, and sticks, to the favourite instrument of choice — the belt. The power of his words shook me to my core. At no point did I ever consider when the beatings had gone too far; nor did I even question the process. In an open dialogue at St. Norbet College between Bell Hooks and Hari Kondabolu, Hooks illustrates that “the more you know, the less funny things become”.
The concealment of African history has a detrimental effect on the mental condition of black people. It aids in perpetuating the idea that we are ‘past-less’; unable to pinpoint our presence in the history books. Whilst we are living in an unprecedented era of digital information our history is still relegated to niche bookstores and ‘afro-centric’ circles. The constant onslaught of social-media desensitizes us from wanting to or even knowing how to access crucial pieces of information. Although, in some instances, social media can be an advantageous tool to promote, share and discuss our vibrant history.
The power of reading black literature can transform the mindset of anyone. It is the driving force of change, the catalyst of revolution. It enables us to form, challenge, and alter the reality around us. As black people, reading can enable us to make sense of the chaos around us. It is a tool that can help shape us and demystify our broad history. I, like most, feel inspired by our historical achievements outside of slavery, but equally, I feel a sharp prick when learning of our historical accomplishments, which forces me to the ask a broader political question, “who is benefiting from the concealment of African history?” Fortunately, our hidden history is slowly, but surely being unearthed by academics, both domestically and internationally.