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Black History Month: When the stories of true heroes are taught at schools, celebrations can start

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Picture: Jacques Naude/African News Agency (ANA) – Dr Yaa Ashante Waa Archer Ngidi from the Institute of Afrikology speaking at the 1st annual Black History Month at Freedom Park, Pretoria, South Africa, February 26, 2022.

By Edwin Naidu

Black History Month has been celebrated annually for the past five decades between February 1 and March 1. Although rooted in the observance of liberation from slavery in the United States (US), it has evolved to celebrate the excellence of Black citizens worldwide.

Without a doubt, there is much to celebrate. However, one is increasingly saddened that throughout Africa, the celebrations are limited to social media, which only some have access to, with only 570 million people using the internet out of a population of 1.2 billion.

School textbooks must feature the contributions of those who fought against slavery, apartheid, colonialism, and democracy and should be heroes in history textbooks worldwide. Curriculum transformation has been slow despite the speed of the information highway.

Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration from the teaching of biography and history,” says Carter G Woodson, dubbed the father of Black history.

Woodson created Negro History Week in 1926 as a homage to the experience of African Americans who had overcome slavery. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) is the oldest organisation promoting the Black experience. But do you hear his name?

Growing up in Africa, some may be mistaken for invoking the name of Nelson Mandela as the unifying force across the continent – and the world. But Africa has spawned the likes of Steve Biko, Emperor Haile Selassie, Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara and Robert Sobukwe, among many others. Indeed, this list must include Liberia’s former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (2006 – 2018); current Namibian Prime Minister, Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila; former Prime Minister of Mozambique, Luísa Dias Diogo; current President of Ethiopia Sahle-Work Zewde, and internationally respected scientist, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, the former President of Mauritius.

In South Africa, what about Chris Hani, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, David Webster, Solomon Mahlangu, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Charlotte Maxeke and Billy Nair? The list is endless. But do you read about them in history textbooks?

The United States has given us Martin Luther King, Junior, Rosa Parks, Barack Obama, and Frederick Douglass, and she may not be a politician, still the resilience and success of Oprah Winfrey certainly warrant her inclusion on the list. Of course, with Muhammad Ali, any list is complete.

Picture: EPA/ Mike Theiler/ Pool – President Barack Obama departs the stage after addressing a reception for Black History Month, in the East Room of the White House, in Washington.

If you are British, this list would include actor Idris Elba, who would be James Bond without debate if the franchise owners remove their blinkers, racing champion Sir Lewis Hamilton, and brilliant poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. Some may disagree with fashion model Naomi Campbell on the list, but she has done her bit to champion diversity worldwide.

Yet, school textbooks throughout Africa are still stuck in a colonial mindset. Celebrating the past means paying attention to the contributions of those who are more than a footnote in history.

One can argue that celebrating Black excellence is not only about Beyonce and her arsenal of Grammy awards. Like the Oscars, the Awards is steeped in racism, perpetuating the old habits to which the world remains tied. Undoubtedly, Beyonce deserves her seat at the table. But she and her husband, Jay-Z, should do more with their voices than become part of the red-carpet gallery.

Ironically, in the land of milk and honey during Black History Month, it is the image of Tyre Nichols being laid to rest after being beaten by police in the United States that remains. What is there to celebrate when acts of violence such as this are a regular occurrence in America?

One of his attackers allegedly took photos of Nichols and shared them with several people, reported the New York Times. Five of the police officers charged with the murder of Nichols are of African-American origin.

In South Africa, of late, social media has been abuzz since Stellenbosch University’s Professor of Education, Jonathan Jansen, posed the question of whether people’s lives are better now than under apartheid. This is a contentious question that Prof Jansen is right to ask, though he adds that people are better off politically. Still, problems remain. The Prof says he has never seen so many poor and desperate people. “Tell me they are better off than in 1994.” His detractors came fast and thick. But at least half the country survives on social grants. Is it a sign of progress when a corrupt government keeps its citizens beholden to handouts?

Many associate the apartheid regime, rightfully so, with some of the worst brutality seen, mainly when it was unveiled before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A particular unit under the National Prosecuting Authority still searches for the remains of some people missing under apartheid.

Therefore, one could not understand the brutality of the post-apartheid South Africa National Defence Force (SANDF) shown during the Covid-19 lockdown in Alexandria Township in 2020, when Collins Khoza was violently killed while having a beer on his property. The soldiers allegedly held his hands behind his back, choked, beat, and slammed him against the wall. At least a dozen more citizens succumbed to similar brutality. This was reminiscent of the apartheid atrocities we should be reading about in school textbooks to ensure that our children don’t behave in the same barbaric manner. That we do not is indicative of why soldiers would behave the same way as those we complain about. One has not heard about convictions in this regard or other instances.

A former colleague and friend, Tshegofatso Selahle, lost his life at 35 after allegedly being beaten up by JMPD officers in August 2019. Almost four years later, the family still wait for justice while the officers continue life as usual. The autopsy report confirmed his death was a result of the beating received. “I can’t breathe. I need air,” were his last words. It sounds too familiar to what happened in the US. Nine months later, on May 25, 2020, Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd by kneeling on the back of his neck for about nine minutes. Police footage showed Floyd said he couldn’t breathe while pinned under Chauvin’s knee. On July, 7, 2022, Chauvin was sentenced to 21 years.

By the time Black History Month next comes around, the killers of Tyre Nichols should be behind bars. Sadly, one has a different hope for the wheels of justice in South Africa. NPA boss Shamilla Batohi inspires much hope as a tortoise beating a hare at the July Handicap. In its 2021/2022 annual report, the SAPS promised to focus on creating safer communities through the reduction of levels of contact crimes, informed by the requirement in the June 2019 SONA that violent crime will be reduced by 50 percent in a decade. Pardon me if that sounds like a joke.

The same police force has yet to succeed in arresting any individual implicated in the July 2021 civil unrest, which cost the country R1 billion. Instead, the perpetrators’ were celebrated as role models on social media. Police inefficiency and failure to act against those loud mouth twitteratti who inflame tensions when there are laws to work against them allow them to continue their toxic behaviour.

What hopes for Black History Month when we continue to celebrate lousy behaviour and not genuine heroes?

In an article by Dr Sophie King-Hill, Senior Fellow, Health Services Management Centre and David Russell, Community Safety & Justice Manager, both from the University of Birmingham, they say that the toxic influence of the likes of Andrew Tate has failed a generation of young men and boys.

Tate is an online influencer who was recently in the news. He claims to support males in negotiating society and bettering themselves; his ideologies are underpinned by dangerous and extreme misogyny. Yet scratch the surface, King-Hill and Russell say the issues with Tate and his negative influence are evident. “Previously, he has stated that women are the ‘property of a man’ when married, that they should stay home and that women are inferior to men. This is against his recent arrest for human trafficking and rape.”

With role models like Tate, what hope for Black History Month?

According to King-Hill and Russell, these issues must be addressed by starting to listen to boys and not shutting them out of the conversations on gender and equality. Schools should not shoulder this burden alone. Resources and education for parents/carers must be available, and a joined-up approach focusing on boys is required.

It’s also critical to hold up genuine role models, not the likes of Tate or, closer to home, those red-clad politicians who were in diapers during apartheid but masquerade as revolutionaries.

Only when the stories of true African heroes are taught at schools can we inspire change. Then Black History Month would stop being an annual event, like Valentine’s Day.

After all, what is love when humanity’s dead to genuine change?

Edwin Naidu heads up Higher Education Media Services – a social enterprise start-up involved in education in South Africa and the African Continent.

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