Black History Month: A tribute to the intersections between African American and Africana political thought
Black History Month (BHM), celebrated in February each year, has become a recognised phenomenon in many parts of the world, and Africa is no exception.
With its origins in Negro History Week, which was established by historian, author and journalist Carter G Woodson in 1926, BHM grew into a month-long observation of African American history following its recognition by several mayors as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. BHM was formally recognised by then-president Gerald Ford in 1976 and has since been celebrated in the United States and other parts of the world, including Canada, the UK, and Ireland.
As the progenitor of BHM and the oldest society charged with promoting African American history, The Association for the Study of African American Life and History is responsible for setting annual themes. This year’s theme is “Black Health and Wellness”, which looks to advance the significance of black health by recognising black scholars and their legacies, throughout the African diaspora. African American intellectuals, particularly the progenitors and advocates of African American political thought, have had a significant influence on global political thought, Africa’s included.
Scholars and activists like Frederick Douglas, WEB Du Bois, Phillis Wheatley, Marcus Garvey, Toni Morrison, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Ida B Wells, to name a few, have had a significant influence on both US and African political thought. Their intersections are seen across major movements, such as the Abolitionists, the Negritude and Civil Rights movements, the Pan-African and Black Power movements, the Harlem Renaissance, Back to Africa, Anti-Imperialism and Anti-Colonialism, not to mention the current Black Lives Matter.
By taking an overarching view of prominent figures, we can consider the intersectionality of the pan-African and Afrocentric rhetoric. For example, the political works of Douglas were mostly on resistance to oppression and the quest for freedom through conscious awakening and awareness of the slave condition. Douglas was a Reformer and Abolitionist who used the power of the pen to argue against slave laws and racial prejudice. More importantly, by emphasising the spirit of resistance, Douglas believed that there was no freedom for African Americans without it. This inspired scholars like Du Bois and others. The politics of freedom through resistance fostered agency among African Americans and can be seen as a precursor to the black-led movements against racial injustice and prejudice in the US.
There are visible intersections between freedom through resistance and consciousness of identity politics conceived in the slave era. Martin Robison Delaney wrote on the resistance to white paternalism; Douglas on freedom through resistance; Du Bois on double consciousness and; Garvey on Afrocentrism and the African diaspora.
Similarly, Anna Julia Cooper argued for the recognition of African American womanhood with rights as the end goal; Alain Locke on the role and responsibility of artists, ethnicity and race, as well as political theory on the Harlem Renaissance; Malcom X and Black Nationalism, Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, Stokely Carmichael and the Black Power Movement on promoting black solidarity.
African American political thought was imported into the Negritude Movement and advanced by scholars like Aime Cesaire and Sedar Senghor on black self-affirmation and Negro pride. The pan-African political thought of George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, Robert Sobukwe, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, Frantz Fanon, and Steve Biko, with emphasis on African unity, socialism, self-reliance, solidarity, promotion of African humanism, anti-racism and colonialism, as well as African actionality and black consciousness.
The African political school of thought has often perceived African American thought as its own, even when acknowledging the different emphases and expressions between them. Black consciousness follows a long line of activism and philosophical tradition, stretching from the advent of anti-American slavery, anti-racism, and anti-colonialism in Africa and the modern world, which as Enrique Dussel describes it is the ‘underside of modernity’.
At other times, the Africana political school of thought has underscored the transnational and diasporic consciousness shared by associated schools of thought, including African American political thought. African political thought is informed by political theory and ideology extracted from writings, autobiographies, and policy statements from intellectuals, leaders and political elites. Six distinctions arise from African political thought and practice, including indigenous Africa, imperial Africa, colonial Africa, as well as modern and post-modern Africa.
In all these traditions and periods, the focus remained on the politics of freedom through resistance and consciousness. Thus, black resistance to white racism and supremacy; black racial solidarity; group self-reliance; black pride in African heritage and ancestry; black self-love; de-alienation and decolonisation of the black mind and; black cultural and racial identity were the main expressions of African American and African scholars.
Following the ascension of Barack Obama as the first African American president and Kamala Harris as the first female and African American Vice President of the United States of America, BHM is becoming more popular internationally. Consequently, it is now more crucial than ever for the inquiry and celebration of US-Africa intersections in the intellectual realms and schools of thought in the broader Africa-US context.