I’m a Nigerian British woman, so why is American Black History Month important to me? I was born in the UK to Nigerian parents, and spent my early years and primary education in the UK, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. African-American History wasn’t really on my radar in any sense of the word. My parents did love the Cosby Show though, and that was my first exposure to American popular culture.
I did my secondary education as well as university in the US, and it wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I really had my first deep dive into Black history in the US. I had an amazing African American history teacher that year, who taught a significantly more holistic view of American history than I (or most of my classmates) had been exposed to. There was a multi-disciplinary project we had to do that year, which spanned multiple subjects, and I chose the Harlem Renaissance. It was beautiful baptism into a world of jazz, poetry, literature and so much more. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Marcus Garvey, WEB Dubois. I felt like I had come across a treasure trove that was new to me, but somehow I felt connected to. The art component of my project was heavily inspired by the top right corner of Lois Mailou Jones’ painting The Ascent of Ethiopia.
The Ascent of Ethiopia - Lois Mailou Jones
As someone who is Yoruba, and I am very aware of my own heritage, culture and language, and history and culture for me were very tied to my own history and culture, so it took longer for me to understand “blackness” in general and outside of my own experience. That year and that project was a watershed moment for me gaining an appreciation and starting to scratch the surface of understanding more about the African American experience.
A very good friend of mine from my first days of university has gone on to become a professor of African American history. Our first semester we took a history class together and she was a fountain of knowledge. Her passion and understanding of the history of her family and African American people more broadly gave me such an amazing insight into African American history.
The impact, the struggles, the fight, the work that the African American community has had and done over the years has moved mountains for black people (and other minorities) in general in the US regardless of their origins. And, I have to acknowledge the support the African American community played in supporting the independence of African states and against Apartheid.
African American history is one of betrayal, trial, perseverance, triumph and joy. It’s complicated, painful and soulful. The culture continues to define culture today, and its story is woven with mine.