Exploring the under-explored history

Black History Month, also known as African-American History Month in America, is an annual observance in the United States for remembrance of important people and events in the history of African-Americans and the African diaspora. Initially, it was celebrated for one week as opposed to the current month-long celebration. In that regard, the second week of February was chosen to be "Negro History Week." This week was chosen because it coincided with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and of Frederick Douglass on February 14, both of which dates Black communities had celebrated together since the late 19th century. From the event's initial phase, primary emphasis was placed on encouraging the coordinated teaching of the history of American blacks in the nation's public schools. Eventually, Negro History Week was met with enthusiastic response; it prompted the creation of black history clubs, an increase in interest among teachers, and interest from progressive whites. Negro History Week grew in popularity throughout the following decades, with mayors across the United States endorsing it as a holiday. Bruh Yihunbelay of The Reporter sat with Learned Dees, cultural affairs officer at the US embassy Addis Ababa, to discuss Black History Month, why Ethiopians should care and other relevant issues. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Black History Month started in the 1920s and has been commemorated for almost close to a century now. Tell us what Black History Month is all about.

Learned Dees: You can't really understand American history without understanding the chapter that we now call Black History Month or African-American History Month. Because it's a particularly sensitive and telling part of our history. What happened to the Africans who came to the United States? That's really the genesis of this chapter of American history. Race and slavery are part of American history. So there is no way you can understand American history without delving into the consequences of the arrival of the majority of Africans who came to the United States. So, if you look at what happened in the 1920s, there was a renaissance in many ways in the African-American community. There was the Harlem Renaissance that started in 1920. In 1925 Carter G. Woodson essentially said, if I look at American history book, we have not come to grips with the arrival and consequences and circumstances of Africans in America.

The chapter of what happened to Africans who came to the United States was not included in the main history books. He believed that in some cases it was ignored and in some cases falsified. So he came up with this idea to focus on exploring the unexplored history of America. He called it “Negro History Week”. He challenged black historians and intellectuals to uncover that history, which up to that point wasn't part of mainstream America's history books. So that's basically the genesis and for almost a hundred years it's evolved.

African-American or Black History Month has given us the opportunity to explore those under-explored areas and sometimes sensitive areas of American history. And because of that we know a lot about the contributions of Africans who came to the United States. In most American schools – including the elementary schools – kids learn things I never learned 30 years ago. So it's an evolving month but the underlying premise of the month is that you can't understand American history without understanding this particular chapter and there are more unexplored elements to that history than one would normally know from mainstream sources.

There are some who criticize the concept of commemorating Black History Month. They say that the history of African-Americans should not be limited to one month. They also say that it is racist since there is no “White History Month” “Asian History Month” or what not. Would you reflect on that?

It goes back to the reason Black History Month is founded. It's not that this history is more important but the reason it was founded is that it was under-explored. So it highlights the under-explored element and that's what gave birth to it. What we see in today's sphere is that there is more opportunity to explore that history but there is also unwritten history that is yet to be explored. For example, I celebrated and organized my first Black History Month when I was in high school 30 years ago. As a young African-American it offered an opportunity to do research and find out things that I didn't know. But it wasn't until I came to Ethiopia that I heard for the first time about John Robinson. He was a pioneer and a hero who had a connection to Ethiopia 75 years ago. Why didn't I know about it? Why don't most Americans know about him? That's the rationale for having African-American History Month, which is to explore those things that we should know about.

In terms of why isn't there a White History Month, well, to be honest, the history of America has been written primarily about whites for whites and so most of the ground has been covered. Academia is full of historians who are exploring parts of American history but the same has not been true for African-American history. That's the rationale and because the central challenge in American history has been race it's a sensitive issue. You have various perspectives about how to explore that history of race, racism and race relations. There is a lot of ground to be covered.

Race has been challenging the American society ever since its inception. The tensions have always been there. In recent years we have seen protests including the one in Baltimore. What is the future in your perspective? Will race tensions keep on escalating?

We are at a period in American history that's full of irony. And that irony is that many African-Americans and probably many Caucasians and other Americans could never imagine 20 years ago that there would be an African-American president. But the irony of history is it came upon us and we've had not only an African-American president but one who is elected for a second-term. That in many ways is a new chapter in American history and African-American history and one that was not predicted.

So, when you ask me about the future, it is hard to predict because in a million years I would have not predicted that chapter. What we can say is that there are underlying tensions, racial tensions in America that are manifested in the last year in particular that have to do with police brutality and the underlying causes and the reaction to police brutality. That has been a recurring theme for 40 or 50 years particularly in urban areas and we have not come up with the solution in terms of alleviating that problem. As long as that problem is not alleviated the underlying tensions will remain there and yes the underlying friction related to that unresolved issue is likely to remain.

What is positive is that we can have open discussions about the challenges. The great thing about America is not that it's a perfect nation. It's a nation where the problems that exist can be debated and discussed. People can mobilize to find solutions and that challenge will be ongoing probably over the course of my lifetime and my children's lifetime.

But as long as there is possibility to discuss and organize there is the hope that those problems can be resolved. It's a serious issue but I believe that every serious issue with work can be resolved eventually. It's hopeful but the existing reality is a serious challenge.

Conservative political commentators constantly say that it is not police brutality per se that is the root cause of the problem. They rather argue that it is black on black crime. And there is a major debate on that issue. They say that it's not white cops against black youth that is the root cause of the problem. What is your response to that?

I would agree that there is often a divided approach as to how you analyze the core of the problem. You have given the two camps clearly. Is the problem black on black crime or police brutality; often white cops against black civilians? Those are two sort of schools of thought. My own personal view is that we see these problems through political lenses rather than sociological lenses. Often the problem is not clear-cut. Crime is a problem and the response to crime is also a problem.

It's more of a sociological issue as opposed to a political issue. But in American politics, if you take the political lens and look then it then it becomes very clear-cut – it's one or the other. Crime in the African-American community is a problem. The response to crime – particularly brutality and unaccountability in some cases – is a problem. At the end of the day we have a problem; the issue is not which one supersedes the other.

Do you like movies? 

I do.

The Oscars are coming up, and for two years in a row the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has been criticized for lacking diversity when it comes to selecting nominees in the different categories. For instance, commentators are saying that African-American films like “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton” deserve accolades. So is the Academy really lacking diversity since it's not honoring black movies?

I am actually not an expert on that but from my observation I can say a couple of things. First of all, the head of the Academy is an African-American woman and I think when she was asked that question she said, yes in fact the Academy does lack diversity. So I don't think that's a controversial point. These are long-established membership organizations that are probably not reflective of the demographics of the United States and their preferences are often reflected on the choices and selections for the Academy Awards.

I think one of the challenges in America is that we are a society that's changing fast and it's often hard for our institutions to change as fast as the demographics and other factors in our society. And I think the Academy is probably reflective of that issue. The preferences are probably connected to that lack of representative diversity. For instance, if you are a young person, you may like a whole set of different movies than your father. There are probably not many young people and too many fathers.

Earlier you talked about John Robinson. An individual who happens to have an interesting history. It is a fact that Robinson and the Ford family have a special connection to Ethiopia. How do you describe the effectiveness of the link created by Robinson between Ethiopia and America, particularly African-Americans?

This is a fascinating part of American history, which focuses on African-American actors. So if you think about it Woodson founded Negro history in 1925/26. The Harlem Renaissance was going on at that time. So, in a sense, if you look at what was happening in the African-American community, we were finding our place in the world. We were looking at ourselves – both culturally and historically – to see how we fit in a larger narrative. That narrative led us to think about Africa and this also happened in the UK and the Caribbean.

This awakening and awareness was happening at the same time. So you had African-Americans – in particular – looking at Africa. If you look at Africa of the 1920s and the 1930s, there was only one independent African country – Ethiopia. So Ethiopism, which was just looking at where black people fit into history, pointed us to Ethiopia.

Ethiopia was mentioned in the Bible, Ethiopia was an independent country and Ethiopia had a functioning monarchy. So, if we looked at the world at that time, Ethiopia was a beacon in many ways. Thus, you had the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, which is quite an institution, and Pan-Africanism, which was looking at Africa as a whole. So when folks looked at Ethiopia they thought of it as a specific place where you can embrace a positive image. When the Italians attacked Ethiopia, there was a great sympathy because Ethiopia was the beacon of the African Diaspora and everybody of African descent. At the time there was a law in the United States called the Neutrality Act, which forbids Americans to fight in wars in other countries. Even though there was great sympathy for Ethiopia, there was a law that says we couldn't go join the fight.

Nonetheless, some African-Americans found a way to essentially break the law to demonstrate their commitment to this ideal which made Ethiopia the beacon for Africans in the diaspora. So John Robinson recruited a whole bunch of people to come with him to fight against the Italians. It was in this context of world view and finding out where we fit in – as African-Americans – in the greater narrative that brought African-Americans like Mignon Inniss Ford who came and started a school. But it is this whole concept of helping at the moment of crisis that made his efforts so extraordinary. He came to Ethiopia and could do something he couldn't do in the United States, which is heading an air force and being a pilot who had access to everything. Not only was he able to do that; he did that for a political reason. And that political reason is really connected to a stream of history, which is African consciousness. That specifically pointed to Ethiopia at that time.

He precedes Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and has an awe-inspiring story especially when considering his fight for the black cause. However, his story has not been told when compared to both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Do you think that he has been given the recognition he deserves?

To use myself as an example, I have never heard of his name. I am a pretty informed person on American and African-American history but have never heard of him. It's not just me, my mother has never heard of him. In fact no one in my family until I heard of him and bought a book had ever heard of him. By the way, they are very well-read people and are conversant with African-American history. So he is a forgotten individual in American history. It's only in the last five or six years that some three books have come out about him. There is a footnote in history because when he went back to Chicago he got a ticker-tape and got a hero's welcome in New York. During that time, he was well-known but somehow that history was never written and it hasn't been transmitted. I would say 99.9 percent of Americans have never heard of John Robinson.

So what do you think should be done?

One of the things is to come to Ethiopia and to learn this fantastic history of this very interesting and adventurous guy and share the story with as many people who are interested in American and African-American history, Ethio-American relations and the relations between Ethiopia and African-Americans. It hits all those chapters which happened during an important time in history. Everybody knows about our fight against Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Japan. And every American school kid learns different components of that history. The bravery, the adventurous nature and courage are all being taught. But John Robinson's has been forgotten. This goes back to the original question: why do we celebrate African-American history? It is to uncover chapters that are important but are forgotten and not universally available. John Robinson's story is a perfect example.

Why should Ethiopians care about Black History Month. What meaning does it have to Ethiopians?  

It is one of the questions I often get. The US embassy has built a program around education. It is exploring some of the chapters of American history that might not be so well-known. This year for example, we're doing events all over Ethiopia aiming at a young crowd. We are doing outreach to eight different cities outside of Addis Ababa focusing on university students and the general population. The medium that we are using is film. It is a popular a powerful medium. We've chosen films not so much about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, which is the usual program, but about more obscure parts of American history.

One of our feature films talks about Muhammad Ali. What was his role in American culture and politics? Many young people who are less than 30 or 35 have heard the name Muhammad Ali but they have no idea what he represents and what role he played in American history. We have a wonderful documentary about that. We've also incorporated in our program – perhaps the newest chapter in African-American history – which is the chapter of African immigration since 1965 to the United States. So there have been as many Africans who immigrated to the United States since 1965 as came in slave trade in the 16th and 17th century. This is a new chapter in African-American history that we are exploring as part of our program.

We are taking a number of films that were made by Ethiopian or Ethiopian-American directors about the Ethiopian experience in the United States. So we have two films about life in the United States by recent Ethiopian immigrants. We also have a popular movie entitled “Sost Ma'ezen” which is about illegal migration to the United States. These are things that connect us to our Ethiopian audience. We've talked about the history of John Robinson coming to Ethiopia. We can also talk about the history of Ethiopians going to the United States, the impact they are having on American culture and the opportunities and challenges they face. This year we've combined the two by bringing more obscure parts of American history focused on African-Americans to a larger audience and also making the connection to the newest chapter of African-American history, which is specifically the history of Ethiopian immigration the the United States.

So what does African-American history have to do with Ethiopians? Well it has to do with the hidden chapters that you don't know about that connect the two countries and it also has to do with the newest chapter, which is there are millions of Ethiopians who are African-Americans as  part of the mosaic of the new America. This is a whole chapter that is being written now. So what we try to do with our program is to promote discussion about history. We offer four free movies including two Amharic movies about the American experience. The idea is the share this under-explored area. Would you learn this in school in Ethiopia? Probably not. But it's history for us to explore. So far the response we got has been fantastically rewarding.

Let's talk about identity. You hear people say African-Americans but you don't hear them say Kenyan-Americans or Nigerian-Americans. However, you don't hear people say Asian-Americans; they say, for example, Korean-Americans or Vietnamese-Americans. Why is that the case? Is it because they believe that Africa is one entity?

That's one of the questions I get asked a lot. It's all about identity. If you go back in American history over the last 100 years, we were colored, then we called ourselves Negro, then we called ourselves black, now we call ourselves African-American. It's the same group of people but we have an identity that's evolving. How do we perceive ourselves positively? If you call somebody an African in 1920 that was probably an insult. If you call somebody black in 1920 that was an insult but in 1960 it wasn't an insult.

We've progressed to the point where President [Barack] Obama didn't call himself black; he called himself an African-American. His father was from Kenya so he could have called himself a Kenyan-American but preferred to call himself an African-American. So what you are seeing is a struggle to identify ourselves in a positive way.

Now you have two concurrent thoughts. Some people call it Black History Month while others call it African-American History Month. What we can say is both are positive. Some people prefer the black while some prefer the African-American. The African-American is becoming more popular because the demographics of the black community are changing. Much higher percentage of African immigrants from Nigeria, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia etc are coming to the United States. So the interesting question you can ask Ethiopian-Americans is how do they refer the themselves.

We did a program this week at the embassy where we had Dagmawi Woubshet – a professor at Cornell University of Ethiopian origin. Someone asked him how do you refer to yourself? As an American who has grown up in the United States he said that he prefers to call himself African-American. If you ask my 12-year-old daughter that question, she might answer differently than I do. All have to grapple with that question of identity. And many people answer that question differently so there is no one answer.

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