In the midst of the celebrations commemorating Black History Month at a Miami public school, a student asked a teacher, “Why is it Black History focus only on the history of Black Americans and not black people from other places like the Caribbean, for example?”
Why Indeed? This isn’t an unusual question asked in an American school, or elsewhere in America. In fact, over the years, suggestions have been made to rename Black History month, “Black American History Month” because of the focus on Black American history.
American black history was original concept
To be fair, it was the intent of American historian Carter G. Woodson to highlight Black American History when he founded Negro History Week in 1926. The week later evolved into Black History Month, but the focus remained the Black American history.
However, in many instances the history of black people in the Caribbean and the USA is intricately woven.
Black history originated in the Caribbean
While African American history is usually traced back to the arrival of the first African slaves in 1619, slaves were brought from Africa to Spanish occupied West Indian Islands before then. As the British seized ownership of the islands and focused on the development of sugar plantations the Africa-to-West Indies slave trade intensified. Some of these slaves, notably in Barbados, obtained freedom quickly and migrated to regions in Virginia and Massachusetts in the US to create the initial nucleus of free blacks in America.
While black slaves in America, particularly the southern states struggled with the atrocities of slavery, spawning a civil war between the northern and southern states, blacks in Caribbean were seizing their freedom.
After a thirteen-year rebellion, slaves led by Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines completed the Haitian Revolution against the French to create the first western black independent nation in 1804. And, in Jamaica Blacks like Sam Sharp, Paul Bogle and Nanny of the Maroons strived to ensure the British emancipated slavery in Jamaica, and the rest of the Caribbean, by the 1860s.
Influence on American slaves
News of successful slave revolutions and emancipated slaves in the Caribbean served to influence similar revolutions and, ultimately, emancipation in the US.
While blacks suffered humiliation from racial segregation and suppression in the post- slavery era, Blacks in the Caribbean were establishing themselves in their respective countries, and gradually seizing power from the British.
In the early 1940’s several charismatic and intellectual leaders like Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley in Jamaica, and Eric Williams in Trinidad and Tobago, formed political parties, which represented the rights of the people against British rule This led to local self-government in the 1950s, the establishment of a West Indies Federation in 1959, and after the break up that federation, the birth of political independent nations in the 1960s onwards.
The solidification as Blacks in the Caribbean as their own political and economic leaders did not deter Caribbean nationals from migrating to the US. While these migrants shunned the segregated south, they were attracted by opportunities presented in places like New York, where they perpetuated the Caribbean influence.
Caribbean influence in New York
From the mid-1930s Caribbean nationals like Marcus Garvey played a pivotal role in sowing the seeds of the Negro Advancement, later Black Power movement in America; and cultural icons like Jamaican author Claude Mckay was instrumental in the Black cultural revolution taking place in New York and other cities. Today the Caribbean through music and other cultural forms continue to have a strong influence on aspects of American culture, generally.
America’s fear of Caribbean bred ideology
It’s a fascinating aspect of Caribbean History that as regional nations asserted their independence new ideologies were spawned which sparked fear among the American establishment. Today, the US still hasn’t found means to stem the communist ideology that Fidel Castro introduced in Cuba in 1960. The success of Castro’s brand of communism in Cuba, made the US destabilize the Michael Manley administration in Jamaica in the 1970s when Manley, influenced by Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, boldly introduced Democratic Socialism. America also quickly snuffed out attempts at socialist regimes in places like Grenada in the 1980s.
There are many other historical instances of the close relations between Black Caribbean and Black America, and the influence each had on the other. Moreover, the influence of the Caribbean on the general history of America continues. Today, Caribbean Americans form the largest foreign black population in the US. It’s commendable this population was successful in gaining national recognition with Caribbean-American Heritage Month commemorated in June, annually,
Organize celebration of Caribbean history
But, notwithstanding, Black History Month, at least as it’s commemorated in America, doesn’t sufficiently highlight the rich, eclectic history of the Caribbean and its people. Since it’s unrealistic to expect the Americanization of Black History Month to change, it’s therefore incumbent on the Caribbean community to collaborate on finding a unique format to periodically commemorate this unique history.