A Look at Who Gets Left Out of Black History Month

We have come a long way 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.

Vicente Guerrero, Afro-Indio 2nd president of Mexico, who abolished slavery in 1829.
Photo Credit: Eduardo Baez

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).  

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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

Then there is the story of Jose Nieto Gil, the first black president of Colombia (1861), who was left out of history books, until sociologist Orlando Fals Borda spent years documenting his history and the whitewashing of his legacy. See: The black president Colombia forgot

Part of the problem is the acceptance of "the West Indies" (those parts of the Caribbean which were formerly British colonies) and Haiti as "black." Yet on the same island with Haiti, the next door neighbor the Dominican Republic is "Hispanic or Latino." We include historic political figures like Marcus Garvey or cultural icons like Bob Marley (both Jamaican) but do not do the same for latino revolutionary leaders like Don Pedro Albizu Campos (whose mother was black) and who served in the all-Black 375th Regiment.  

So rarely does our Black History Month cross borders, and artificial boundaries (and yes "race" is itself one of those) but the huge segment of African diasporic history in the New World fails to embrace Afro-Latinos, or Afro-Brazilians.  

Anthropologist Sidney Mintz has designated the entire Caribbean basin region as the Afro-Caribbean, a culture area linked by roots in the transatlantic slave trade and plantation slavery, whose cultures are rooted in blackness, no matter the current phenotype of the citizenry.  

Thankfully, some ol this is changing. a major breakthrough in the media was Henry Louis Gates' series Black in Latin America was first aired on PBS in 2011.

Latin America is often associated with music, monuments and sun, but each of the six countries featured in Black in Latin America including the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, and Peru, has a secret history. On his journey, Professor Gates discovers, behind a shared legacy of colonialism and slavery, vivid stories and people marked by African roots. Latin America and the Caribbean have the largest concentration of people with African ancestry outside Africa — up to 70 percent of the population in some countries. The region imported over ten times as many slaves as the United States, and kept them in bondage far longer. On this series of journeys, Professor Gates celebrates the massive influence of millions of people of African descent on the history and culture of Latin America and the Caribbean, and considers why and how their contribution is often forgotten or ignored.
Gates speaks about how his eyes were opened to this history of the "other Americans":
It wasn't until my sophomore year at Yale, as a student auditing Robert Farris Thompson's art-history class, the Trans-Atlantic Tradition: From Africa to the Black Americas, that I began to understand how "black" the New World really was. Professor Thompson used a methodology that he called the "tri-continental approach" -- complete with three slide projectors -- to trace visual leitmotifs that recurred among African, African-American and Afro-descended artistic traditions and artifacts in the Caribbean and Latin America, to show, à la Melville Herskovits, the retention of what he called "Africanisms" in the New World. So in a very real sense, I would have to say that my fascination with Afro-descendants in this hemisphere, south of the United States, began in 1969, in Professor Thompson's very popular -- and extremely entertaining and rich -- art-history lecture course.

In addition, Sidney Mintz's anthropology courses and his brilliant scholarly work on the history of the role of sugar in plantation slavery in the Caribbean and Latin America also served to awaken my curiosity about another Black World, a world both similar to and different from ours, south of our borders. And Roy Bryce-Laporte, the courageous chair of the program in Afro-American studies, introduced me to black culture from his native Panama. I owe so much of what I know about African-American culture in the New World to these three wise and generous professors.

But the full weight of the African presence in the Caribbean and Latin America didn't hit me until I became familiar with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, conceived by the great historians David Eltis and David Richardson and based now at Emory University. Between 1502 and 1866, 11.2 million Africans survived the dreadful Middle Passage and landed as slaves in the New World.

I am using segments of his series in my classes, along with other resources available online, many of which are discussed in this clip:

Afro-Latinos: The untaught story, a documentary that is still in the works, has a wealth of resources on their website.

High school and college age students have appreciated these contemporary actors sharing their stories about dealing with being Black and Latino.

I admire the work and activism of my friend Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, an Afro-Boricua, one of the founders of El Museo del Barrio, and the Caribbean Cultural Center in New York, who has worked tirelessly over the years to bring these histories to the forefront.

There are also blogs like Afro-MexicoAfroCubaWeb and projects like LatiNegr@s

This award-winning project started as the formal US focus on Black History Month (February 1-28/9) was upon us. Please know that our goal to celebrate all of the peoples who have influence and history via the African Diasporas. Expanding the inclusively of Blackness is not just during Black History Month but all year round for several of us, self-identified LatiNeg@s, Afro-Latin@s and Afro-Caribeños.

This site is 365 days a year 24 hours a day 7 days a week! As people who recognize and claim the African heritage and history, we have often been excluded from US History, whether it be Black history, Womyn's Herstory (March) or Latino history (September 15-October 15) (to name a few).

As we move forward, forging new and stronger progressive political coalitions for the future, we need to have a clearer understanding of how to build stronger bridges between people in the artificial demographic divides used for our voting analyses.

Though much has been written about immigration reform, and how that will affect the voting choices of "Latino/Hispanic" communities, let us not forget that the virulent racism of the Republican Party does not play well in Afro-Latino households.

Does that mean that there is no prejudice between ethnic groups? No. But one of the ways to combat racism and bigotry is to broaden our understanding of the depth and importance of the black historical and contemporary experience for all of us.