Teach African history, teach it right
There is a need for Barbadian educators to revamp the way African history is taught in schools, with a focus on the many outstanding achievements of ancestors.
And, says Pan-Africanist and president of the Clement Payne Movement Pan David Comissiong, it should be compulsory across the education system.
During the first weekend of Black History Month, Comissiong voiced his concern about the state of education on African history. He was speaking on Saturday at a seminar on African history at the Crumpton Street, St Michael headquarters of his organization, where Islamic scholar David Muhammad was the guest speaker.
Comissiong said a few school teachers told him they had discontinued African history classes, because “some of the students were coming away from the Black History Month sessions with feelings of shame about our history, about slavery”.
But, he countered, “maybe part of it has to do with how the material is being delivered to the students, because you could think you’re doing something good but if the history is being taught in a way that inspires feelings of shame or negativity in the students, then you can actually end up doing more harm than good”.
“The teaching of our history, of our black studies, is something that has to be done very expertly and sensitively and with a proper perspective. In the hands of unskillful teachers, or using works that are not well-designed, you could end up doing more harm than good,” Comissiong advised.
“We have to give our young people their history, their culture, their heritage. And we have to give them it in a way that makes sense. . . . When we tell them about Bussa and the rebellion, we must be telling them not a story of defeat; we must be telling them a story of heroic resistance and courage and bravery. We must give them our story as one of tremendous resistance and creativity and transcending horrors that wiped out other races.”
Comissiong said Barbadian history must have a link back to classical African civilizations.
“You can’t tell the history of Barbados properly unless you have a conception of our African civilization and its glories, and how the history of Barbados is connected, is rooted in that. The educator who tells the story of Barbadian history without a foundation in the classical history of Africa, will end up doing damage to those students,” he added.
At the seminar, Muhammad, the Trinidad and Eastern Caribbean representative of the Nation of Islam and its leader Louis Farrakhan, also presented his newly published book, Black History, in which he gives a Caribbean perspective on African history.
Muhammad is a University of the West Indies graduate with double Bachelor’s degrees in Education and Sociology, and is deeply involved with helping young people, especially in Trinidad where he has been manager of the senior national football team, Soca Warriors, and also did stints managing the Under-23 and Under-17 sides.
Describing Muhammad as a person “well-versed” in Caribbean-African history, Comissiong commended the book, stating: “It is so important that an educator like a David Muhammad, . . . who has decades of experience working with young people, being involved in developmental work with young people, a man grounded in the philosophy in the teachings of Louis Farrakhan and Elijah Muhammad, comes very well equipped to make this kind of contribution to our society, our young people in particular.”
“This is something that we in Barbados have been very concerned about for some time now,” Comissiong added.
He recalled that during the 1990s, the then Minister of Education Mia Mottley, who is now Opposition Leader, had approached him, Myrna Belgrave and Thelma Gill-Barnett “to work on producing a Black Studies programme for the Barbadian school system”.
“We did put our hands to the task and we did produce material to be used in the school . . . but it was never made mandatory in the school system, so there was a situation where some schools would use it, some teachers had the interest and the motivation, but there were many schools that didn’t make use of the material,” Comissiong said.
“Unfortunately, the material never made its way into one comprehensive document.”
He described Muhammad’s book, however, as one such comprehensive document and also spoke of another compete publication, Caribbean History from Pre-colonial Origins to the Present by Tony Martin, as “easily the best single history volume on the history of the Caribbean”.
He said that Martin, an African historian who hailed from Trinidad, and official historian of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, did tremendous work on telling the story of the Marcus Garvey movement. Just before his untimely death, Comissiong noted, he produced “this wonderful history text on the Caribbean”.
Martin’s book covers the entire Caribbean, accounting for history of the French, Dutch, and Spanish-speaking African descendants along with those who now speak English.
“He was telling the story of the Caribbean from the bottom up, from the perspective of the masses of people of the Caribbean,” the Barbadian Pan-Africanist said. “But it is not in the school system of Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, the University of the West Indies. It is not in any bookshop, not even in the University bookshop.”
Comissiong described the publications of Muhammad and the existing volume of Martin as “critical work”.