During the “Red summer” of 1919, the skies bled terror as violent race riots gripped several major cities of America – Atlanta, Chicago, Washington DC and New Orleans to name a few. Death traveled fast in the dark night claiming at least 83 lives. While dreadful gloom stalked the Black nation, one professor of Harvard, Dr. Carter Woodson agonized over the cultural and historically deprived landscape of African Americans that robbed them of their pride and left them defenseless against withering scorn and vitriolic venom of their masters. He pondered deeply about the angst blacks faced surviving at a razor’s edge, and felt the need for a collective Black consciousness.
Born to former slaves and the second African American to receive a PhD from Harvard, he took a good look at their bleak lives and their frozen dreams. He saw the faded radiance of Africa on their marooned spirits. He saw their experience of invisibility and inequality fetter their ability to rise. And he saw a rudderless and parched people painfully disconnected from their past. Convinced that they had absorbed the victor’s narrative of their past, and their master’s misrepresentation of African culture and origins, he felt the need to research the neglected past of African Americans. As a result, Negro History Week was born in 1926, which eventually led to the celebration of “Black History Month” every February of the year. February was chosen because it coincided with the birth of two of the most daring men to break the corroding chains of slavery, the legendary Abraham Lincoln and the outspoken abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Woodson believed that the truth is out there – way out there lost in the tangle of oppression and half-truths. He also believed History is made by people, not just by great men or the rulers. Therefore, he set about connecting the many dots of the past to raise awareness of the ancient civilizations of the Nile and of Africa of which they were a part.
Rising like a phoenix Black History month provided the uprooted and liberated slaves a psychological ground to stand upon by shining a mirror to the cultural treasures of ancient Africa. In addition, it mapped the past with the victim’s version of History retrieved from the hazy mists of Time, and pointed to a future with freedom of the mind. Little did Dr. Woodson realize at that time, that the seeds of historical and cultural awareness created by Black History month would spawn a prolific catharsis of stories, ideas, legends, poetry, literature, folklore, theatre, music, movements, social-connectedness, and a sense of community which would eventually lay the grassroots groundwork for Martin Luther King’s transforming revolution, and Barack Obama to be elected as President. It was truly a life altering experience that not only changed the way a black man looked at himself, but also how America looked at the black man. The amazing confidence and tough grit that resulted can be symbolized by the electrifying poetry of Maya Angelou. “You may shoot me with your words, you may cut me with your eyes, you may kill me with your hatefulness, but still, like air, I’ll rise.”
Connecting the missing dots of History has been the emotional ammunition for all oppressed people to rise and claim their place. The inspiring human chain reaction – historical awareness spawns an awakened force which fosters ideology, identity and confidence has been recognized by other ethnic nationalities. Across the Southwest, Mexican Americans gather the faint threads of their battered confidence to create a distinctive musical known as the corrido. Just like the Black History month, the corridos or fast paced ballads tell rousing stories of myth-like heroes who stood up to the “anglos”. Sounds of guitar boom epic events and tell their tales not heard of in mainstream America, thus passing the narrative of their lands to their children, and satisfying their children’s most poignant yearning to be a part of something bigger.
Many in India are unaware of their History or have lost pride in anything Indian. The inheritance of Macaulay is seeped into their soul and the baggage of self-loathing continues. There is little to fight the serpent like fascination for everything foreign, except perhaps the institution of the Indian family. Even there, the last shaky bastion is swiftly eroding. The new generation is coming of age in a spiritual, social, historical and emotional vacuum. And the time seems ripe for an Indian version of Black History month.
A month long celebration endorsed and promoted with manifold themes will impact people’s world views, increase communication, spark creativity and foment real social change. An Indian version of Black History Month where Indian history is celebrated, Indian artists are promoted, Indian literature is admired, Indian poetry is eulogized, Indian heroes are honored and many Indian themes are researched, and widely distributed will generate a momentum for exploring India’s far flung historical and cultural borders. Moreover the rising tide of vitality will bring together Indians from different corners of India, broaden horizons and develop an appreciation and tolerance for different cultures. As the realization grows that for India to thrive, it needs the intellect of the South, the vigor of the North, the art of the East and the commerce of the West, cultural sensitivity and empathy will increase. Hopefully this would also avoid stereotyping as is routinely done in Bollywood regarding South Indians, Parsis, Sardars, Baniyas, Brahmins and the rural folk. Also, little known names boldfaced in History such as Subramanium Bharati, Ramanujam, V.V.S Aiyer, Shaitan Singh, Kartar Singh Sarabha, Bina Das, Usha Mehta would be as much in the common consciousness as Bhagat Singh or Subhash Chandra Bose.
When there is a common cause and a common link, there usually results a common empathy. For example the turmoil and pain in Kashmir would also be felt with the same intensity and shared by people in the rest of India, and vice versa. The resulting public conscience is much to be favored versus caste conscience, or the regional conscience. An all-inclusive public conscience always works well with the rule of law and justice, the bedrock of any democracy.
In the recent past, Hmong youth acquired cultural pride when a new California bill got passed that would ensure that the history of Southeast Asians would be included in the text book curriculum. A Hmong writer, Connie Vang wrote in the new American Media, “When people don’t know their cultural History, they don’t know a part of themselves. As a result, they may react negatively, even resenting their culture.” Also “when we know the war and atrocities that happened to our cultures in the past, we can prevent it from happening in the future.”
When Mahatma Gandhi walked to Dandi with the simple folk of India, he set in motion the timeless voice of a rising people. This inspired Martin Luther King to wrest civil rights for his people proving the old adage that “Truth has no color.” Neither does it recognize any borders. Just as Science, Philosophy, and knowledge in various forms have transcended the narrow confines of regions or nations, so can people’s movements be an inspiration to all mankind. In this the Black History month shines by example and can be a rousing ode to the world, just like Maya Angelou’s poetry:
“You may write me down in history,
with your bitter, twisted lies,
you may trod me in the very dirt,
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
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