What If?

Black History Month by Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D.

When I turned fourteen, something happened that tormented me until my late teens. I began to be attracted to girls. I was what is known as a walking hormone. I was attracted to Elizabeth who lived in a nearby village. She had a nice smooth chocolate skin and twinkling white eyes. Her voice was a joy to listen to. I longed to meet and pour my heart to her.

One afternoon I met her on a path outside her village. I stopped. She stopped, smiled, and shyly chewed at a piece of grass as she fired little sweet glances at me. I greeted her. She half whispered: “I’m alright Mwizenge. And how are you?” I became so ecstatic that it must have been my first high with just being alive. Before I could regain my composure, she walked away giggling. That night I did not sleep. I blamed myself for not saying what I wanted to say right there and then. I began to think: “What if I had said ‘I love you, and would you go with me to the dance on Saturday?’” What if she had said: “Yes”. This was the pattern; always “What ifing” up to my teens.

When I first read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” during my freshman in college at the University of Zambia in 1972, no book had ever had such an emotional impact on me about the plight of the African American in the US. Indeed the story of Malcolm X gave me ample opportunity for “What if.” For example, what if Malcolm X had never left Mason outside Lansing for New York? What if Columbus had never discovered America, may be the slave trade would not have been there and we would not have had lynchings, racism, and the KKK. What if the legendary Southern African King Shaka of the Zulu had conquered the Europeans completely and driven them out, Mandela would perhaps not have been behind bars in white South African jail for the last 27 years for conspiracy to overthrow the racist regime. What if during the height of the slave trade powerful African Kings from Nigeria and Ghana had crossed the Atlantic Ocean and in revolutionary battles fought and freed all African American slaves and had taken them back to Africa? How thrilling!

This is fantasy and has no real or practical place or use in real life. It is well and good to teach about the great achievements of blacks in history. To weigh and ponder about our failures and successes. Black history as much as possible should be learnt in its totality as opposed to pieces. Because when it is learnt in pieces, people come up with stereotypic statements like: “Africans sold each other into slavery.” “Africans and African Americans have failed to improve their neighborhoods or countries.” Quite often these are half truths because a bigger picture will show a more clear and balanced perspective and explanation. One of the few books that provide a more complete picture of the African historical experience is Walter Rodney in “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.”

Black history teaches people of African heritage about their ancestors, kin, family, achievements and where they came from, who they were, and what kind of culture they had. A human being is perhaps the only creature that is aware and curious about his past (ancestors), present (family), and the future. However troubled, shameful, decrepit, and deprived an individual’s past may be, a crucial aspect of understanding the human self is knowing about his or her history.

Understanding black history restores self confidence and human dignity for any person of African heritage everywhere as their history has always been a victim of Western racism. European interpretation of black history often portrays blacks as passive, or worse still barbarous and merely reacting to significant events initiated by Europeans. For example, before European colonialism was introduced in Africa in 1885, Africans were adventurous. They traveled, migrated, and fought wars among themselves for control of land, trade, and other resources. But reading European biased history, one gets the impression that Africans were either dormant or warring barbarians until Europeans arrived. This portrayal perhaps still hurts even young Africans today as many of them rarely take initiative to try something really new, fresh, or adventurous. This has been partly responsible for Africans in contemporary times always looking to the West for solutions to economic and social problems. The West have also nourished this by the consistent and suffocating dramatization of African failure in Western books and the media.

As we learn more about the black experience and contribution in history during this month, we should not forget the more urgent and crucial problems of “Now”. Africa is experiencing economic crises. As hunger, war, poverty, economic collapse devastate many parts of Africa, many Africans who are young, educated, and skilled are fleeing the continent for the more comfortable Western world and else where. While opportunities for blacks in the US have tremendously improved since the mid 1960s, drugs and crime continue to ravage African American neighborhoods. Racism is still here. The black male has continued to be decimated through homicides, crime, and imprisonment. Families headed by single impoverished African American women is the norm. Old solutions will not solve these problems. There is a need to find new solutions to these problems both in the African continent and among African Americans.

Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D. obtained his Ph. D at Michigan State University in 1987 and was Research Fellow at the Institute of African Studies of the University of Zambia and a frequent contributor to the Sunday Times of Zambia.