I am honored and grateful to stand before you all gathered within these hallowed portals of Westminster Palace.
This is probably one of the best places to reflect on and celebrate our past, our present and our future. I am in awe of these surroundings but not overawed by them. As I share my thoughts with you, please be mindful that these are simply the musings, opinions and ponderings of a black man proud of his past, upset about his present but hopeful for the future.
I do not intend to speak with eloquence, sophisticated logic or with political correctness. Rather, I will speak from the heart, and we all know the heart can be passionate, emotional, humorous, erratic and irrational at times; but the heart is true – always!!!
If memory serves me well, I believe there is a wise character in one of my children’s cartoons who captured this best for me with the quote, “when the mouth speaks, it forgets the head, when the head speaks it forgets the heart, but when the heart speaks, it forgets everything”. Today, I intend to forget everything and speak to you.
My talk is titled: Yes, It’s Black History Month: So What?
One or two of us here gathered might want to modify this slightly by placing “Bloody” between “So” and “What”. If you’re so inspired, please be my guest.
First, though, my tuppence on the recent clamour for the renaming of Black History Month as ‘Diversity History Month’ by different sections of the public here in Britain. I think this a question that will be a good test for the rich tradition of deliberation and intelligent discussion in this country. I for one can already perceive the great difficulty that might be encountered in trying to showcase all of Britain’s diversity in just one month.
Part of that perception comes from the difficulty I had in reflecting on what to say here. I originally chose the topic “Calabar and the New World”. As I addressed that topic and sought to trace the line that links Calabar, my hometown in Nigeria, to the ‘New World’ in the context of Black History, I realised how much of an enormous task it was. Finally, I came round, having nearly completed my original paper, to the topic Yes, It’s Black History Month: So What?
I now commence my part in this celebration of our history as people of Sub-Saharan African descent by craving your indulgence to state a few of my own beliefs.
Contrary to the impression my caption may convey, I do revere and cherish the I deeply respect history and I have no desire whatsoever to join the sorry ranks of those who forget the past and are therefore doomed to repeat its mistakes.
I am singularly proud, in the most boisterous sense of the word to be a Black African –and here please think of vuvuzelas, talking drums, colourful, gyrating masquerades and even raucous church services.
I am, however, plunged into deep, sorrowful introspection each time I contemplate this subject matter through the lens of our current realities as a race.
Yet I strongly believe that whatever our realities are today, the final chapters are yet to be written and the opportunities still lie before us to write those chapters in glowing terms.
Thus, my choice of this title today.
In my quiet moments, I often find myself pondering on the word – Black! What does that really mean? Is it the presence of eumelanin, our dark pigmented variant of melanin, in the epidermal layer of skin? Is it an attitude? A mindset? Does it denote any human group having dark-colored skin, due to their ancestry? Is it just a word? Are there connotations to the notion we have not even stumbled on yet? Does it mean poor governance? Severe dependency and debt? Broken governance systems? Is being black all these and more?
“If I had a thousand tongues and each tongue were a thousand thunderbolts and each thunderbolt had a thousand voices, I would use them all today to help you understand a loyal and misrepresented and misjudged people.” These were the words of Joseph C. Price, founder and President of Livingston College in North Carolina, who in 1890 delivered an address to the National Education Association annual convention, in Minneapolis, USA. Today, these words are as apt and true as they were when they were uttered. The black man is still misunderstood – by his local community, by society, his friends and neighbors, by government and institutions, but probably misunderstood above all…by himself!
Many scholars have been inclined to construe the call by Socrates, the Athenian moral philosopher, to “man know thyself”, from a banal perspective. Others see this as an admonition for knowledge of self as the basis for self-awareness, true personal responsibility and, ultimately,as the basis for mastery of self and the development of society for the overall benefit of all. I see it as a direct challenge to each of us, to know who we are, and whose we are.
Who are we as blacks? The story of our existence as a species – Homo Sapiens – cannot be considered to be complete without acknowledging the fact that this species originated from Africa, the distinct geographic and geological enclave native to “black men”. It is also a well known, time worn truism corroborated with archeological evidence that the Fertile Crescent, that is, the regions between Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq) and Ancient Egypt (in Africa) is one of the earliest cradles of civilization. This Fertile Crescent is a region where agriculture and early human civilizations like the Sumer and Ancient Egypt flourished due to inundations from the surrounding Nile, Euphrates and Tigris Rivers.
Technological advances in the region at the time include the development of writing, algebra, our current numbering system, the wheel, advanced agricultural practices and engineering and architectural marvels that, today many millenia later, still take our breath away.
I grew up learning that the Efik people, whose blood runs proudly through my veins (etymology: the people of Uruan, in today’s Cross River Basin, were said to have given us the name “Efik” deriving from a verb meaning to press or oppress, since we were alleged to be aggressive, conquering adventurers in our early days as a people) were cultured, educated, enlightened, business minded, distinguished people who thrived in proximity to the Cross River and the Atlantic and had ambitious aspirations. King Antera Duke, to name one of our ancient monarchs is famous for his desire of uniting the Efik and English thrones that he even sent a love letter in 1895 to Queen Victoria [of the House of Hanover] asking for her hand in marriage and for the commencement of trade and information exchange between both kingdom. We even had our own unique ciphers and codes as far back as 170AD called NSIBIDI which is perhaps, the earliest known signifier of an attempt at keeping written records in ciphers and codes.
Where, how and why did we get it wrong?
How can we reverse the current malaise? It all starts with a conscious effort at self-reawakening, impacting the individual self and then our group consciousness as a race. We have a local proverb back home in Niger, “you are not what you are called, you are what you answer to”. It is high time, we as “blacks” decide on what we choose to answer to. Individually we are achieving excellence in various fields of endeavour; but as a people, we are yet to deliberately make a mark save for that which we have already made in ages past, and this affects how we are seen and how we are called. Sadly, a lot of our people demonstrate these false perceptions, i.e., “what we are called”, as we can observe in the typical social tendencies that too many of my people back home in Africa demonstrate (gangster mentality, prison culture, poor state of infrastructure in almost all of our African States, leadership crises across these countries, to mention a few. We consciously as a people change what we answer to
The solution I believe lies in what we do individually from this moment on. We cannot ignore the threat of systemic failure staring us in the face as a people. We must reach out and work towards enhancing our black nations to achieve a level of respectability globally (self-sufficiency, eradication of basic challenges that still plague third world countries, etc.). Despite the unmistakable influence of Yoruba and Ibo culture across Latin America and the Caribbean and the enduring contributions by people of Black African descent right across the world going back over the centuries and more apparently in the modern era, the focus on Africa in current narratives is often confined to underdevelopment and misgovernment.
While these things are, themselves, topical, I do think it important that a greater effort be made to write our histories in bolder relief. There is an ongoing effort to confirm parts of Calabar as UNESCO World Heritage sites. This effort should be seen as only the start. For example, slave ports across West and Southern Africa should be memorialised and the habits and practices of the day studied more closely to better understand the effect of the slave trade on the New World.
That would enable a much more complete understanding of the relationship between cities like Calabar and the New World.
My friends, today, I ask you, to paraphrase the famous words of one of America’s great presidents– John Fitzgerald Kennedy – “Let us deliberate on what we can do for our people”. Knowing that right here in this auditorium, we have in our hands, the power to perpetuate this cycle of answering to whatever the world calls us, or to make that change and take us back to our former glory. Therefore, we cannot in good conscience leave this task in the hands of our brethren alone – the road for them has been long and the desired end seemingly blurred. We must take up the responsibility to initiate, gestate and guide this change.
I believe it is our duty to bridge that divide, reach out especially to our brethren back home and handhold them, even as we gently nudge them towards achieving defined milestones in our journey towards proper nation building, whether they be in terms of investments in human capital development, basic poverty eradication initiatives and subtle government influence to help push our “nation leaders” towards the right agenda.
Ultimately, I believe that the discussion of ourselves, our roots, our challenges and our future should not, dare I say it, be erased and dissolved into the huge medley of unique colours that would be a Diversity History Month; but is in reality a sinkhole for the disappearance of various unique and historic identities. There is no upper limit to earthly perfection and so we must continue to celebrate a Black History Month that enables us to focus on ourselves as a richly blessed, albeit deeply troubled, people still searching for the way to embark on the journey to that “Zion” spoken of by the great Marcus Garvey.
Let me end by expressing my gratitude to the organisers of this event and my wish that Black History Month, and particularly this event organised by Tony Fernandez, will continue to afford Black people the opportunity to know themselves in that profound, subliminal way intended by Socrates.
Eyo. O. Ekpo
London, 26th October 2018
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