By GEORGE ELLIOTT CLARKE
Annually, when February rolls around again, with its bevy of snow and Wiarton Willie and Family Day and Saint Valentine’s disciples blessing love with candy and flowers, some may ask, why do—why should—Canadians set aside this month—short and cold and dreary—for focussing on the achievements and historical presence of citizens of Black African heritage?
The question is not impertinent, but sensible, for the answers demand engagement with the facts of our common history. Indeed, the emphasis in “Black History Month” is on history, because ours (I speak as an Africadian—an African-Nova Scotian de souche) has been too long obscured and disparaged.
The reason for that was the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which began with Columbus’s blundering upon the Caribbean (the “West Indies” to his geography-challenged mind) and didn’t really end until Brazil abolished slavery in 1888 and a couple of dozen slaveholding, slave-trading nations signed the Brussels Conference Act of 1890.
The kidnapping of Black persons—some 11-million (with another 2 million lost at sea)—from sub-Saharan Africa, over 400 years, drove the economic development of the Americas in an epoch when economies world-wide were agriculture and resource-based, requiring many hands and backs to plant and harvest, fish and hunt, log and mine, tote and lift, carpenter and forge, mint and distil, butcher and cook, clean and serve.
Thus, serfs and peasants slaved in Europe and Black people became forced labour in the Americas.
In fact, the European Slave Trade—which involved Genoese traders capturing Scandinavian children to sell to Arabs (1100-1500 C.E.)—only ended once the Transatlantic Slave Trade began.
(The word slave derives from Slavonic or captive, which referred to the serf status of Slavic peoples, from the 9th century until well into the 19th, when serfdom was abolished.)
Blacks were forced to do the heavy lifting, to sweat and bleed to make ‘massa’ and ‘missy’ rich, because the European attempt to enslave Indigenous peoples—in the Caribbean and from Mexico to Argentina—was colossally genocidal, sayeth the Spanish Dominican Friar Bartolomé de las Casas, whose report on the massacres of Indigenous peoples by conquistadors, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, appeared in 1542. (Note that las Casas’s book was written within 50 years of Columbus’s landing on a Bahamian island. Las Casas witnessed personally the kill-offs and mass die-offs of Indigenous peoples.)
The atrocities committed by the European interlopers, plus their communicable diseases, were so devastating to Indigenous peoples that las Casas proposed that Africans be enslaved instead.
Yes, the Transatlantic Slave Trade began—in part—as a humanitarian measure to prevent the extinction of the Indigenous population of the southern Americas and the Caribbean. Las Casas thought that Africans—immune to many Old World diseases—could best withstand the rigours of mining gold, copper, silver, and iron; fishing cod, paddling fur-trade canoes, and working plantations of wheat, corn, beans, sugar, tobacco, cotton, and coffee.
Naturally, this slave-labour prospered Western European empires—British, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Spanish—and their “New World” colonies, thus helping to propel the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and then the Industrial Revolution.
The first globalization resulted from the Transatlantic Slave Trade, European imperialism, and European powers competing for military and economic supemacy.
(The victor? The nation formerly known as “Great Britain”—until the U.S. displaced it.)
Black brawn—and the theft and despoliation of Indigenous lands and resources—was the base for the expansion of the “West”—the Occident—and the enrichment of the “North” portion of the Earth. (Thus, one hears the cry for Reparations from regions of the global South and from some formerly enslaved and/or colonized peoples.)
So essential were colonization and enslavement for guaranteeing a nation’s prosperity that those nations late to the looting—Belgium, Italy, Germany, and Japan, for instance—ended up gunning for colonies in Africa (which Belgium, Italy, and Germany did gain), or in Asia (where Japan seized territory, thus serving to trigger the Second World War).
However, to keep Africans, Asians, and “Amerindians” subservient to Europeans, a vast system of Propaganda was initiated that deformed every branch of knowledge. Theologians invented a white Jesus; anthropologists classified White Anglo-Saxons and “Nordics” as the most “advanced” homo sapiens; archaeologists claimed that Africa had no civilizations; biologists measured “Native” skulls and genitalia, to argue that the they were subhuman; geographers held that Egypt was not part of Africa, etc…
Yet, all that Propaganda, meant to buttress white supremacy, kept tripping over a stumbling block: Examples of Black Excellence—in every arena of human endeavour.
So, Alexander Pushkin became Russia’s greatest writer. Scientist George Washington Carver pioneered commercial uses of peanuts.
Elijah McCoy—of Colchester, Ontario—invented steam-train machinery that was so vital that his surname came to be connected with the phrase, “the real McCoy.”
Saint Augustine was a pivotal Catholic theologian.
Phillis Wheatley was the major poet of the American Revolution.
William Hall—of Hantsport, Nova Scotia—won the Battle of Lucknow, India, for Britain, almost single-handedly.
Queen Nzinga crushed the Portuguese Army in Angola in 1647, etc…
Enslaved or colonized or segregated Africans themselves were principal articulators of Enlightenment ideals of equality, justice, and liberty: From Martin Robinson Delany (who wrote his crucial novel, Blake, while living in Chatham, Ontario) to Sojourner Truth; from Frederick Douglass to Harriet Jacobs.
Not to mention Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nelson Mandela; Angela Davis or Howard McCurdy (of Windsor, Ontario).
Also critical were those Black people who waged wars of liberation (see Toussaint L’Ouverture of Haiti); or who conducted guerrilla warfare against slaveholders (see Nanny-of-the-Maroons of Jamaica); or who led insurrections (see Nat Turner of the U.S. or Zeferina of Brazil).
To sum up: Black History Month (beginning as Negro History Week in the U.S. in 1926) sets aside 28 (or 29) days to concentrate on our heritage to try to counter 500 years of Negrophobic disinformation.
— Upper Beach resident George Elliott Clarke teaches African-Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto. His latest book is Where Beauty Survived: An Africadian Memoir (Knopf Canada).