A Look at Who Gets Left Out of Black History Month
Vicente Guerrero, Afro-Indio 2nd president of Mexico, who abolished slavery in 1829.
Photo Credit: Eduardo Baez
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Once again, the month of February is here, marked as Black History Month on calendars in the United States and Canada (October in Great Britan).
Schools, community groups and bloggers will focus attention on the historical contributions of blacks to our culture. When I was growing up it was called "Negro History Week."
Back History Month had its beginnings in 1926 in the United States, when historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the second week of February to be "Negro History Week". This week was chosen because it marked the birthday of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Woodson created the holiday with the hope that it eventually be eliminated when black history became fundamental to American history. Negro History Week was met with enthusiastic response; it prompted the creation of black history clubs, an increase in interest among teachers, and interest from progressive whites. Negro History Week grew in popularity throughout the following decades, with mayors across the United States endorsing it as a holiday.
In 1976, the federal government acknowledged the expansion of Black History Week to Black History Month by the leaders of the Black United Students at Kent State University in February of 1969. The first celebration of Black History Month occurred at Kent State in February of 1970. Six years later during the bicentennial, the expansion of Negro History Week to Black History Month was recognized by the U.S. government.
We have come a long way since 1926, in addressing the whitewashing of history, but perhaps we should address some of the almost artificial borders and boundaries we have set on that history, and examine peoples and histories who are not usually part of the package.
We have just celebrated the reelection of our first black president, Barack Hussein Obama. Yet my students have been unable to answer the question, "Who was the first black President in North America?"
None thought to mention Jean-Jacques Dessalines, as first head of state of a liberated Haiti. But if we are defining North America as Canada, the U.S. and Mexico (excluding the Caribbean), there is little excuse to be ignorant of the historic figure of Vicente Guerrero, who became Mexico's second president on April 1, 1829. His father, Pedro Guerrero, was an Afro-Mexican and his mother Guadalupe Saldaña, was indigenous.
Disparagingly nicknamed "el Negro Guerrero"by his political enemies, Guerrero would in the United States have been classified as a mulatto. According to one of his biographers, Theodore G. Vincent, Guerrero was of mixed African, Spanish and Native American ancestry, and his African ancestry most probably derived from his father, Juan Pedro, whose profession "was in the almost entirely Afro-Mexican profession of mule driver." Some scholars speculate that his paternal grandfather was either a slave, or a descendant of African slaves.
Guerrero was born in 1783 in a town near Acapulco called Tixtla, which is now located in the state that bears his name. It is the only state named after a former Mexican head of state, and it is the location of the Costa Chica, the traditional home of the Afro-Mexican community in Mexico.
If we are to obfuscate his heritage under the term "mulatto or mestizo," how is this not true for Barack Obama? What we also know about Guerrero was that he was kept from attending school because of his mixed caste.
Portraits of Guerrero were "whitened" over time
In 2011, a research investigation about Vicente Guerrero’s African ethnicity won an award from the Scientific Committee on the Slave Route Project of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). Researcher, Maria Dolores Ballesteros from the Mora Institute, was recognized for her analysis of the representations of Vicente Guerrero in Mexico pictorial iconography...Guerrero, was represented more and more white in the paintings of the time, as prejudices developed about Africans and African descendants.
De castas y esclavos a ciudadanos. Las representaciones visuales de la población capitalina de origen africano. Del periodo virreinal a las primeras décadas del México Independiente