Where’s the expected hiatus in the anti-Black cultural war?
Usually, most of us visualize war as bombs, fire, massive armament, and many agonizing deaths. That’s not an inaccurate picture, whether the war is a unilateral invasion, as our involvement in Iraq is, or a provoked engagement as our Pearl Harbor-induced involvement in WW II was.
There are, however, other types of wars that do not fit that profile—wars of the psychological and insidious kind. These are the ones that take their toll over time. They effectively devastate an opponent’s will to do battle, and can crush one’s self esteem.
These are cultural wars, and they are waged on the infrastructural, educational and political landscape of engagement. These are the wars won convincingly by European colonialists, who were very successful at subduing African, Caribbean and Asian populations in the 15th through 20th centuries. One common result in these victories, regardless of the geography, was the relentless establishment and perpetration of the view that all that was good and valuable in the world was a product of the Europeans. Colonialists not only replaced the cultural paradigms they found in these indigenous areas with Eurocentric methods, perspectives and value judgments, they were generally very efficient in training at least two to three succeeding generations of youth in those areas to see worth and success as an imitation, as close as possible, to being European.
This was a “if you’re White, you’re right” sort of thing. This corollary to colonialism came to be called neo-colonialism and was very aptly described and analyzed by Dr. Kwame Nkrumah in Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism.
In order to pull off and sustain that psychological victory, Europeans (and American neo-Europeans) consistently assaulted the cultural traditions of people they colonized. Whatever provided positive feedback and confidence-building within those traditions was subverted, distorted, declared illegal or nonsensical. Thus, whatever beliefs in God preceded European colonization were attacked by Europeans and their imitators as superstition, animalistic fetishes or witchdoctory. Africa was the jungle, it was primitive and backwards, and anything coming out of that morass was not to be taken seriously, according to this view. Europeans even invented a special academic discipline—Anthropology—to give that view long-lasting scholastic credibility.
But fortunately, many, many bright areas of light escaped the European muzzle. Whether people were colonized and enslaved in their own homes and territories, or they were transported across the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, cultural warriors kept popping up. No matter what approach Europeans used to contain, constrain and destroy them, they just kept coming. The Europeans have fired full-bore into crowds, killing thousands; they have assassinated individuals who were thought to have the “wrong” kind of leadership potential; they have jailed with or without legal justification all manner of African oppositionists. But no matter what techniques they tried, from waterboarding to faked suicides, from ex-communication to public ridicule and scandal, the cultural warriors to defend and re-claim the dignity of their ancestors just kept coming. They still do.
As Eurocentrists kept telling them they were Black and ugly, among many other perjoratives, and that certainly convinced a large number of the colonized, there remained the birth and re-birth of those who said no, that was not the case. Black, yes; ugly no. Black was beautiful. The war was on.
There were many permutations and guises of this cultural opposition to Eurocentrism in every society in which Africans were oppressed. The Garifuna (Garinagu) in Central America, the Maroons in Jamaica, the Palmares in Brazil, slave revolts everywhere, and the establishment of African-oriented religious processes wherever Black folk resided, are prominent examples.
In this country, cultural opposition was through music (Ring Shouts, Spirituals, Ragtime, Blues, Jazz, R & B, etc.), drama, free colored conventions, David Walker’s pamphlets, fiery sermons of resistance by numerous Black preachers and lecturers, newspaper writings, and any other ways through which Blacks could find a voice to say no. In the face of continued hostile Eurocentric thought and world views, cultural surrender was simply not a viable option for these race men and women. Being Black was a positive and worthwhile value, and nothing to be ashamed of, and they refused to be silenced in saying so.
In the 1920s and ‘30s, the Harlem Renaissance well represented this cultural opposition and simultaneous explosion of Black cultural creativity. It was not the first period of such activity, nor would it be the last. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Black Arts Movement evolved parallel to the Civil Rights Movement, and “I’m Black and I’m Proud” became a mantra for the cultural oppositionists.
Another important outgrowth of this effort was the establishment of Black Studies departments and programs within the inner sanctums of this country’s finest colleges and universities. So at Harvard, Cornell, Princeton, Stanford, Howard, UCLA, UMass, etc., and at least 700 other schools during the heyday of these Black Studies entities, the cultural war was carried to the heart of the Eurocentric enemy. This was the citadel that had declared in the 1970s that “...Africa was only darkness, and darkness could not be the subject of history or any other civilized discipline.”
This year, 2009, is the 40-year anniversary of the birth of degree-granting Black Studies departments and programs at predominately White American colleges and universities, although the first acknowledged one, California State University at San Francisco, popularly known as San Francisco State, was established in 1968. (Howard University had one before then, but was and is predominately Black.) While those who either remember the headlines or who have done the research know that student protests, chaining president’s offices closed, massive park rallies, and even armed take-overs of buildings, characterized the establishment of many of these academic endeavors, there were clearly other things going on. Those overt acts reflected the political dimension of the situation. There was also the cultural perspective.
That is, the Black Studies Movement was as much about cultural survival, renaissance and seeking cultural respect as it was about achieving political victories within the White citadel called academia. The Black Studies Movement, like the Black Arts Movement out of which it came, was greatly about young Black folk finding their respectful and respected voices within the body politic. This was a major theater of battle for the cultural wars.
And how has it gone these 40-odd years, recently culminated by the election of President Barack Obama, African American? Has the Black Studies Movement been able to save, expand and sustain Black culture in America and in the Diaspora? Is the generation spawned by Black Studies more cognizant and more proud of their own culture, and, in fact, are they less ignorant of the breadth and depth of Black culture than were many of their parents?
That is the discussion in next week’s article. Stay tuned. It’s about to get deep.
- David Horne, Ph.D., is executive director of the California African American Political Economic Institute (CAAPEI) located at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
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