As I listen to the news and read the words of talking heads, I sigh deeply. Ah, the DuBoisian problem of the color line! I am overcome with a stronger than usual feeling of cynicism. I thinking back to Malcolm’s declaration, “No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the twenty-two million black people who are victims of Americanism.” In light of Ferguson, the racialization of Ebola, and many other events during this so-called post-racial era, I perceive the on-going truth of his declaration and the layered reality of his words for all in the African Diaspora.
Poverty, disease, and corruption. These are the descriptions too often used in the description of the African continent as well as in describing African-descended people whether in Africa or the Diaspora. The recent narratives about Ebola painfully highlight this perception. Africa is an alien space, isolated apart from the real world.
The philosopher, Georg Hegel, is famously paraphrased as saying that Africa exists outside of history. he was not alone in his time in expressing such a view of Africa. Sadly, this view persists even in the 21st century. Africa is still a continent of the novel and the exotic. Her nations and her people are still perceived as unknown and somehow unknowable.
The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) came into existence as the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in the early years of the twentieth century as an act of resistance against a dominant narrative that persisted in misrepresenting Black life and history. Its founder, Carter Woodson, the second African American to receive a PhD from Harvard, had a vision for African-descended cultural memory, which would expand that memory beyond slavery in the United States. In 1926, Woodson established the celebration of Negro History Week during the month of February. By 1976, the celebration became Black History Month.
A few weeks ago, ASALH held its annual meeting in Memphis, TN. It was wonderful to fellowship in an African-descended intellectual space sharing our stories, our knowledges, and our interiority without fear. Our voices were strong and vibrant. Our historical memory was well articulated and disseminated. In that space, we were far from impoverished, diseased, or corrupted. We could drop our guard and be ourselves in all of the vibrant, rich, and diverse ways that we are. We were known and quite knowable.
It’s sad really just how isolated (and isolating), alienated (alienating), and stereotypically tribal America and its dominant paradigm are. Hers is a wilfully ignorant way far from exceptional. Her fire is not to create a melting pot, but to refine and distill reality to an elusive purity which excludes much and fears all that is other. It is because of such paradigms, we must tell our story by any and all means necessary.
The African proverb warns that “Until the Lion learns to speak, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” We who have an ear, let us hear. We of sable hue have always known the importance and power of preserving and passing on cultural memory. To tell our story is to speak life – our life. Otherwise, fear-mongers wreak havoc and oppressors continue to relegate Africa to the margins and off the page.