Opinion Columns & Blogs

Alva James-Johnson: A broader view of black history

Sometimes when Black History Month rolls around, I ask this simple question. "What percentage of African slaves actually landed in North America?"

Some people guess 20, 30, 40, 50 percent. When I tell them the answer is closer to 5 percent, they look puzzled. "If 5 percent landed in North America, what happened to the other 95 percent?" they ask.

That's when I inform them that 40 percent of the slaves went to the Caribbean islands, 40 percent went to Brazil and the rest ended up in other South and Central American countries.

It's always a fascinating exchange that leaves everyone wondering why we never learned that in school. That's because the black history taught in the United States is so narrow and limited in scope that it minimizes the true impact of a brutal system that snatched millions of people from their native land and shipped them to the Western Hemisphere.

"Over the course of more than three and a half centuries, the forcible transportation in bondage of at least 12 million men, women, and children from their African homelands to the Americas changed forever the face and character of the modern world," according to an African-American migration project written by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture located in Harlem, N.Y. "The slave trade was brutal and horrific, and the enslavement of Africans was cruel, exploitative, and dehumanizing. Together, they represent one of the longest and most sustained assaults on the very life, integrity, and dignity of human beings in history."

Pieces of that history can be found on the white sandy shores of the Caribbean, as well as towns and villages of Central and South America. It can be seen in the customs and rituals of people of various nationalities who share a common experience rooted in African soil.

The African diaspora is also very well represented in the United States, where the number of black immigrants -- from the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa -- continues to increase.

"Since 1980, the number of black immigrants has more than quadrupled, reaching a record 3.8 million living in the U.S. today," according to a black consumers report published by the Nielsen Corporation. "Black immigrants now account for 8.7 percent of the nation's black population, or one in every 11 blacks, which is nearly triple their 3.1 percent share in 1980."

Some black immigrants and/or their children have had a significant impact on U.S. history. They include Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the founder of Chicago, born in Haiti; Marcus Garvey, the black nationalist leader, born in Jamaica; Stokley Carmichael, the black power activist, born in Trinidad; James Weldon Johnson, the Harlem Renaissance poet, whose father was born in the Bahamas; Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam spokesman, whose mother was born in Grenada; and Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president, whose parents were from Barbados and British Guiana.

So when we talk about black history let's include the full breadth of the transatlantic slave trade, because there's so much more to learn.

Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.

  Comments