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Editorial

If Black lives are to matter, we must start valuing Black history

As October drifts into November, the clocks go back, the nights arrive early and any memories that lingered of a now distant summer seem to fade away. As October ends, so too ends Black History Month, which by its very nature somewhat absurdly suggests that the entire history of Africa and its descendants can be compiled into one month a year.

This is not to say, however, that we should do away with Black History Month — as one month is certainly better than no months — but if we are to be serious as a society about placing greater value on Black lives, I would argue there are few better ways to do this than to start studying Black history in a more serious manner. To outline where we should go, though, it is necessary to first go back in order to understand how the study of Black history has arrived at its current paltry state.

Racism, ultimately, is predicated on hierarchies. Thus, in order to justify the transatlantic slave trade and the later subjugation of the entire African continent, it was necessary to dehumanise the inhabitants of said continent. One could only countenance treating people in this manner if one didn’t consider them to be of the same species as oneself. A key weapon in this dehumanisation was the denial of any African history, and the promotion of the idea that African people merely sat in mud huts and waited for Europeans to bring them “civilisation”. (Notwithstanding, of course, the fact that African civilisations flourished two millennia before anything comparable appeared in Europe.) So successful, ultimately, was this dehumanisation that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century century, European capitals literally had human zoos where Black people were gawked at like animals.

Even though you may think that this is all pretty ancient history, our educational system is unfortunately still suffering a hangover from this attitude. There is not a single Black individual who I learnt about in any depth whatsoever throughout my entire time at school. This experience, I’m sure, will also be true for many readers too. This is inherently problematic as if our education system informs us from a very young age that Black individuals from history are not worth focusing on, is it any surprise that the same ambivalence toward Black individuals today is occurring in our policing, justice and health systems too? This is not just detrimental to society for the way it frames our understanding of Black people today, it is also just simply bad scholarship and detrimental to our understanding of human history as a whole.

Take the theme of revolutions, for example. The French and American Revolutions of the late eighteenth-century — both of which are rightly on the British curriculum — were cataclysmic events that in many ways ushered in the modern world, fundamentally shifting our understanding of a people’s ability to reject oppressive regimes and govern themselves democratically. Missing, though, from our common knowledge and curriculum is another seismic revolution from the late eighteenth-century: the Haitian Revolution.

The Haitian Revolution — beginning in 1791 and inspired by developments in France — saw the enslaved Africans in Haiti overthrow their domestic colonial oppressors, defeat the Spanish and French Empires in battle and form only the second independent state in the Americas.

Throughout the millennia-long institution of slavery, that existed in some form in virtually every empire in human history, the Haitian Revolution is the only example where slaves were able to successfully overthrow the imperial regime and establish their own government. The leader of the revolution, Toussaint L’Ouverture, has often been referred to as the Black Spartacus but considering his unique successes one could make the case for Spartacus being called the White Toussaint. The revolution also directly led to the Louisiana purchase and the end of Napoleon’s imperial ambitions in the new world. The fact that a story such as this is not taught in our schools is a travesty and shows how Black history, no matter how fascinating and relevant, is deliberately overlooked.

Having said this, the Haitian Revolution is just one example of many captivating episodes in Black history. I could easily have instead detailed the stupendous wealth of fourteenth-century Mali Emperor Mansa Musa (estimated by some as the richest person to have ever lived), the long and transitional reign of Queen Tiye in Egypt, or the artistic and cultural flourishing of the Nubians. Unfortunately, though, it is not possible for me to detail in a mere editorial the fascinating history of Africa and its descendants, much in the same way it is ridiculous to suggest that this history can and should be taught for only one month every year.

If, then, we are committed to building a society that is more equal, more fair and more just, a good place to start would be to include these histories in our curriculum and to start studying them all year round. Black history is a fundamental part of the greatest story of them all, the human story, and to build a more equal future, we must start telling that story in its entirety.

Image: Joekilil via Wikimedia Commons