Two apparently unrelated events hit my mind as I prepared to start celebrating Black History Month. One was the tragic helicopter accident death of legendary basketballer Kobe Bryant last Sunday. In the days when he delighted us on courts, I called the player “Mzee Kobe” (tortoise) after the invincible, plodding hero of African folktales, although he had nicknamed himself “Black Mamba”. My epitaph for Kobe: “He gave us joy, departed to glory and left us in sorrow.”
The other event involved Vanessa Nakate, an African, indeed a Ugandan, young woman, who is an environmental activist. In an apparently racist “editorial” act, a major press and media service “cropped” her out of a photo taken with her fellow climate change activists, including the feisty Greta Thunberg, at the Davos Economic Summit in Switzerland. But the press service was caught red-handed, and it was reduced to offering grovelling apologies to an unamused Nakate for the “unintended” omission.
The story went viral and resulted in turning Nakate into an instant online sensation. It curiously reminded me of “Ushindi wa Nakate” (Nakate’s Triumph), a young-readers story about a Ugandan girl, by my friend and former colleague Prof Clara Momanyi. But real-life Nakate’s story launched me into my ruminations about Black History.
Black History Month 2020 starts today, February 1, and runs through 29. Incidentally, I had forgotten to tell you that one of the bonuses of this year, a leap year, is that we have an extra full day to fix all those little things we had not been able to do in the previous four years. Back to the moment, how are you going to celebrate this momentous month?
That may sound like a far-fetched question to us in East Africa, struggling with such grave matters as Al-Shabaab, locust invasions, building bridges initiatives and even that delicate Chinese connection. Still, I will celebrate Black History Month by learning as much as I can about the centuries of accumulated experiences of Black people all over the world and reflecting on their significance for me and other Black people today.
We Africans at home often make two mistakes about the universal Black experience. The first is to assume that we “know” a lot about it, when in fact we know next to nothing. We do not even realise that even the little we have heard about it is mostly from those who were responsible for our people’s predicament in the first place.
Our second mistake is to regard the Black people’s struggle as the business of “those people out there” (the diaspora), to which we of the “Homeland” can be only sympathetic observers, at best. This attitude is wrong on many counts, as historians, like my Dar Mwalimu, Walter Rodney, author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, tell us.
First, the events that forced our relatives into the hostile diaspora had and still have a direct impact on our continent. The capture and exportation of the strongest and healthiest of our people depleted and weakened our societies, rendering them defenceless against the ravages of colonialism, from which we are still struggling to fully liberate ourselves. The Black diaspora’s struggle against racism, exclusion and supremacist violence is thus directly related to the homeland Africans’ struggle for full emancipation from colonial and neocolonial structures and strictures, bad governance and the curtailing of their basic human rights.
Secondly, the Black diaspora derives a great deal of inspiration and pride from our successes in Africa. The African independence movements, for example, strengthened the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Our achievements in governance, the economy, technology or culture and the arts directly impact the self-confidence of Black people everywhere.
Moreover, our good performance dispels the oft-repeated lie that we are inherently incompetent, we never contributed to civilisation and we “had no history, no beauty and no philosophy”, as Chinua Achebe points out in Morning Yet on Creation Day. So, we should not just watch Black History Month roll by without making our own contribution to the struggle. Every effort we make to put and keep our African house in order, ensuring just rule, rooting out corruption, promoting a caring, “shenzi-free” communicative and creative environment, every such effort is a contribution to Black history and Black identity.
Equally obvious in this rapidly globalising and globalised world, the distinctions between diaspora and homeland are becoming increasingly untenable. It is quite possible to have an early breakfast in Kogelo, a late lunch in London and dinner in New York, all within the span of one day (which is no longer necessarily 24 hours). With these constant goings-and-comings among us, it is futile to try to describe the “hood” or the “boma” in narrow traditional terms.
We go, we come from and we live everywhere on the globe. Our identity and acceptance in our communities should depend on our generous, flexible and well-informed self-definition. We, with our beloved Lupita, Obama, Mwende Mwinzi and my own grandchildren, should be in the forefront of defining the new African and Black history, identity and future. Ghana, a perennial leader in continental initiatives, may already be showing us a new way with its transatlantic “come home” policy.
Back to our Black identity, I no longer believe that race and colour do not matter. I now know and believe that there are people who hate others and would even hurt them just because they are not of their race or colour. This has been happening to Black people for centuries, it is still happening, and it may continue happening.
We need not hate or hurt anyone, but we must be prepared and determined to fight for our rightful place in humanity. We must also fight against those who would even go to the extent of denying our existence, as in the case of Vanessa Nakate, despite incontrovertible photographic evidence. Incidentally, Kobe’s wife is also called Vanessa.
Have a well-informed, purposeful Black History Month.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]