Despite the generally chilly temperatures that accompany February, for many African Americans, this little month is our moment in the sun--Black History Month, a time when we combine celebration of past achievements with remembrance of bygone suffering and sacrifice. The spirit of "didja know?" is palpable, particularly for those unexposed to the now-mythic exploits of our collective heroes and sheroes. For those of us into our history, February means that those who ain't are at least more inclined to listen, having been conditioned to annual James Earl Jones-intoned commercial voiceovers: "This Has Been A Black History Moment." Oh, the wonders February brings, as we fancy ourselves kings and queens from the Anheuser-Busch poster series: Mansa Musa, Thutmoses, Hatshepsut, Nzinga. ... And yet I am troubled. Perhaps it's a natural, forward-looking response to all of the recent millenial madness, but this year, instead of looking back on black history, I find myself contemplating a black future, one which is decidedly dim if the black present is any indication.
The crux of the whole Afrocentric idea is for black people to see ourselves as subjects of history, rather than objects. It takes a quantum leap for a colonized mind to imagine a time that is pre-colonial, pre-enslavement. Still, there's liberation in history, and therein lies the fascination with the ancient, the primordial and pristine. If we look back far enough, we can remember a time when we controlled our own collective destinies--those past glories standing in stark relief to a troubling present and an uncertain future. I guess that's why many of us would rather read about what happened 3,000 years ago than what transpired 300 years ago. Even the titles of tomes such as Lerone Bennett Jr.'s Before The Mayflower, or Ivan Van Sertima's They Came Before Columbus provide an affirmation that Africans were around before Jamestown, that our history and contributions to the human story exist independent of conquest and subjugation.
My penchant for the real old school notwithstanding, I'm also intrigued, captivated, by the turbulent '50s and '60s, a time of champions and martyrs who sacrificed everything for the sake of a tantalizing future just outside their reach but surely to be enjoyed by their families and compatriots. For Martin Luther King Jr., this ideal future was The Promised Land. Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba and countless others may have called it something different, but they all knew what it was. "It" was that divine state that reverberates in a gospel or blues chord, lives in the deep subconscious resonance from the hollows of talking drums, beckoning: freedom, justice, equality. The late singer Donny Hathaway hinted at "it" in the haunting, plaintive, lyric, "take it from me ... someday, we'll all be free".
Here in the black present, now several decades removed from those more dramatic times of struggle, the trappings of formalized oppression have certainly faded. The "white" and "colored" signs are relegated to the museums now. England, France, Belgium and Portugal have "lost" possession of their former colonies. South Africa's apartheid regime has fallen. So why is it that the dreams of our leaders seem even more distant now--years after their respective assassinations--than when they were first conceived?
Things fall apart. A common evil, a common enemy, can galvanize a people, fuse them together in the heat of opposition. But when the victory is won, or seemingly won, what holds them together? What sustains them as they forge a new future? That's the burning question that begs an answer before we can truly move forward.
Africans, worldwide, are at a crossroads. Black minds divided-and-conquered over the span of centuries have had, at most, a couple of decades to get it together. We ain't there yet. And sadly we seem to be losing ground. While African Americans marched under the heavy yoke of Jim Crow, Malcolm X made an appeal to the victorious, newly decolonized nations on the continent to lend us a hand, to give voice to our plight in the world community. But the years since those desperate-yet-hopeful days have been particularly hard on the motherland. Years of East vs. West fighting by proxy have led to a proliferation of engorged militaries--dictatorships-in-waiting--which threaten the democracies of their own countries and those of neighboring states. Congo, formerly known as Zaire, faces mounting tensions with Rwanda and Uganda. Liberia has yet to recover from civil war. Religious and ethnic strife plague the Sudan. Ethiopia and Eritrea remain in conflict. Sierra Leone is in the grip of a horrific, brutal rebellion. Its people are enduring suffering far worse than that inflicted upon Kosovo by the Serbs, as their formerly prosperous and stable nation crumbles around them.
AIDS has exploded on the continent like the biological equivalent of the neutron bomb, a viral holocaust that threatens to depopulate the motherland while leaving the real estate and natural resources intact. Fourteen million people have died from AIDS worldwide; 11 million of them have died in Africa. The dire consequences defy human comprehension. By the end of this year, as declared on the cover of Newsweek, AIDS will be responsible for more than 10 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile, usurious international monetary policies as well as destabilizing "First World politics" have choked growth in the region, weighing down the people of sub-Saharan Africa under $220 billion of international debt. Impoverished nations buckle under IMF and World Bank "restructuring" programs that mandate draconian public policy and set the stage for civil catastrophe.
The legacy of colonialism has proven hard to shake. The imperial powers have long since given up the direct reins of power, but the relationships remain much the same, as when slavery in the United States was supplanted by sharecropping. Africa is rich in natural resources like precious metals and oil but lacks the means to mass-produce finished goods; so she cannot dictate the terms of trade with her "First World" partners. And she pays a dear price because the status quo virtually ensures that ambitious, ruthless "leaders"--men willing to sell out their countrymen for a cut off the top--will be well taken care of. They need merely bide their time until the next coup, slip out of the country, and live happily ever after in exile with billions in their Swiss bank accounts.
If there is to be a black future, Africans throughout the diaspora will have to make that future. This is particularly true of African Americans due to our relative economic power and the fact that we live in the United States, the country which virtually dictates international policy. But we've got our work cut out for us, especially considering the many problems we face. Sure, we're materially better off than we've ever been, but our hold on success is tenuous: The United States is riding a wave of unprecedented economic prosperity and we only have one foot in the boat. But there are things we can do. We can join groups like Jubilee 2000, which are pressuring nations to provide debt relief for the developing world. We can also fight to influence U.S. policy toward Africa. Recently, for example, the Congressional Black Caucus, in coalition with AIDS activists, forced Vice President Gore to soften his position on pharmaceutical companies' intellectual property rights, allowing poor nations to manufacture generic versions of costly, life-saving drugs for their suffering citizens.
What we really need, though, is a cohesive vision, something to rally around--a focal point not as immediate or "black and white" as segregation or colonial occupation, yet with more substance than the Confederate flag. We need to get people thinking of Africa in all tenses. What it was, what it is, and what it will be. Maybe we can make March the Black Future month. No, it doesn't have to be sponsored by Burger King, there doesn't need to be a TV special hosted by Tiger Woods and we don't need commemorative postage stamps. We can keep it grassroots. Instead of having our children memorize Dr. King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech (and paying royalties to the King family), we can encourage them to write their own speeches, dream their own dreams. We can gather our best minds and have them try to find real solutions to the great problems that loom over us nationally and internationally.
Folks like me can put as much effort into learning the current map of Africa as we do studying the trade routes of the Malian Empire or the temples of pre-dynastic Kemet. With the increasingly globalized economy, we can actually meet and interact with the many brothers and sisters who have immigrated to the United States from the continent and share experiences with them. With the aid of the Internet, we can dialogue across the diaspora and figure out mutually how we can best help each other.
Perhaps then we'll ensure our collective future, disprove all the sci-fi movies that show only one token black face on those huge spaceships in the 23rd century. Beyond that we must recognize that what we do now for ourselves globally will determine how our generation is viewed when it becomes a part of black history.