February 8, 2008

History Isn’t Always Black & White

If it doesn’t relate, it doesn’t educate

By Andy Porras

The nation celebrates another Black History Month in February, and in the fall, it’s our turn. From Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, it’s Hispanic Heritage Month.

¿Y que? And so what?

You’d think this country would know blacks and Latinos better by now. Alas, U.S. history is still mostly a history of white America. And worse, most blacks and Latinos remain leery of each other!

Black History Month, an idea Dr. Carter G. Woodson took from the black fraternity Omega Psi Phi, was first Black History Week. Then in 1976 it became a full month.

Initially, our Hispanic presence was recognized for a week, too. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan extended the official celebration to a full month.

Both groups, particularly their youth, can benefit from a lesson on how much of their histories are interwoven.

Let’s start with Gaspar Yanga, unknown in both Latino and Afro-American communities. He has yet to make Black History Month’s ‘A-List.’ Fifty years after Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, Vicente Riva Palacio, a grandson of its Mexican president Vicente Guerrero, wrote about Yanga, setting off a binational brouhaha.

Palacio’s writings reminded Mexico that Guerrero’s grandfather was born into a family of mixed Spanish, Indian and African blood. Guerrero, Mexico’s second president was a revolutionary leader in the early 19th century. He was known for his response to his father who begged him to follow his own political path as a strong supporter of the Spanish Crown.

“The will of my father for me is sacred,” Guerrero is quoted. “But my Motherland is first!”

“Mi patria es primero” has become a hallowed motto for many in times of strife.

Before his abduction, torture and finally execution in 1831 at age 48, Guerrero ordered the emancipation of all slaves and immediate abolition of slavery.

Yanga was a Dinka from West Africa. He was captured, enslaved and brought to Veracruz in 1570. Yanga led a revolt and escaped with a band of slaves into the mountains of Veracruz where they harassed merchants and travelers, and fought a guerilla war against the Spanish militia for over thirty years.

Palacio had a longer life as a historian, novelist, short story writer, military general and mayor of Mexico City. From moldy Inquisition archives, Palacio wrote narratives of Yanga and the Spanish expedition against him. Palacio’s research culminated in an anthology in 1870 and as a separate pamphlet in 1873. In 1997 a reprint was published.

Other scholars have written about Yanga, but none have matched Palacio’s flair in capturing the image of proud fugitives who proved their superiority in repulsing the Spanish attacks and lived to see another day in what is now the state of Veracruz.

Mexico’s lack of awareness about its black roots is gradually changing, say today’s scholars like Makeda “Dread” Cheatom, director of the World Beat Center, a cultural organization located in San Diego’s Balboa Park. Recently, the Center hosted a “Bob Marley Day Festival” across the border in Tijuana to celebrate the richness of Afro-Mexican heritage

“Mexicans should not only be proud of their indigenous and Spanish blood. They must learn about their black history as well,” says Dread in recounting the important black presence in Mexico. By extension, so should their kin in the United States. “In fact,” punctuates Dread, “it was there where the first African slaves were freed.”

The Museo de las Culturas Afromestizas, south of Acapulco, is a museum honoring Guerrero and Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán, a noted Mexican anthropologist who estimated there were six African slaves who took part in the conquest of Mexico. There is a similar museum in the city of Yanga.

Ivan Van Sertima, in his book, “They Came Before Columbus,” writes that the first civilization of the ancient Americas was called Olmec, along the Mexican Gulf Coast, which began more than 3,000 years ago. It was near Veracruz that the Olmecs sculpted the most significant and widely acknowledged sculptural representations of Africa in the Western Hemisphere. Often, when you ask Mexicans about daily life, they answer, “Working like blacks to live like whites!”

Even today, life can be difficult for black Mexicans, because they are assumed to be illegally in the country from Latin America. Mexican police officers treat their black paisanos quite harshly. Perhaps they are reminded of their third root.

As a teacher at an alternative high school, I once subdued an unruly mixed group of students who knew practically nothing about each other’s achievements. On a daily basis, I’d make the class aware of pleasing and practical actualities about their individual peoples. It wasn’t too long before the kids looked at each other in a new light.

They even came up with their own catchy phrase, “If it doesn’t relate, it doesn’t educate.”

Andy Porras, a former educator in Texas and California, publishes a monthly bilingual, CAlifas in the Sacramento area. Reprinted from LatinoLA.com

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