Sunday, March 9, 2014


Saturday March 8 will be celebrated throughout Canada as International Women’s Day (IWD.) IWD has been official in this country since 1977 following a United Nations (UN) resolution calling for member states to proclaim a day for women’s rights and international peace. The idea of IWD began two years before in 1975 during International Women's Year when the UN began celebrating International Women's Day on March 8. In adopting its resolution, the General Assembly recognized the role of women in peace efforts and development and urged an end to discrimination and an increase of support for women's full and equal participation. In 2014 the theme for IWD is “Inspiring Change.”
Usually during this time the women who are celebrated are White women. We read and hear about the history of White women. There might be one or two racialized women who are mentioned but it a celebration of White women. Even reading about the history of IWD it supposedly began with White women in Europe (1911) or in the USA (1908.) The stories abound of these White women fighting for the right to work shorter hours, receive better pay and the right to vote. Ironically at the same time White women were living on the African continent and other areas where racialized women were forced to work as domestic help for little or no pay. This women’s struggle for equal rights with men did not include those racialized women. In America in 1908 while 15,000 White women “marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights” African American women were on their hands and knees cleaning the homes of White women. Slavery had only been abolished (1865) in the USA 43 years before. Not much had changed in the lives of African American women many of whom just exchanged the unpaid drudgery and brutality of chattel slavery for a life of drudgery with hardly any financial compensation for their labour as “free” women. The exploitation of African American women in New York was exposed in 1935 when African American Civil Rights activists Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke wrote an expose of the “Bronx Slave Markets,” which was published in the November 1935 issue of the magazine “The Crisis.” The magazine had been founded by W.E.B. DuBois in 1910 as the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP.)
The five part series documented the experience of African-American women (between 17 and 70 years old) in New York who worked as domestic servants. These African American women desperately seeking paid employment “would stand on a two-block stretch as White housewives from the suburbs drove by in their cars and negotiated to hire them for domestic service.” The area on 170th Street between Jerome and Walton Avenues was the area considered advertised as the “Bronx Slave Market” and this is where the African American women stood in good or bad weather waiting for some White housewife to drive through and choose them for a day’s work cleaning house. In her first article of the series Cooke wrote: “I was part of the “paper bag brigade,” waiting patiently in front of Woolworth’s on 170th St., between Jerome and Walton Aves., for someone to “buy” me for an hour or two, or, if I were lucky, for a day. That is The Bronx Slave Market, where Negro women wait, in rain or shine, in bitter cold or under broiling Sun, to be hired by local housewives looking for bargains in human labor. It has its counterparts in Brighton Beach, Brownsville and other areas of the city.”
Following in-depth interviews and hours of research, Baker and Cooke observed: “Rain or shine, hot or cold, you will find them there, Negro women old and young sometimes bedraggled sometimes neatly dressed waiting expectantly for Bronx housewives to buy their strength and energy for an hour, two hours or even for a day at the munificent rate of fifteen, twenty-five or, if luck be with them, thirty cents.” The African American women who waited patiently and anxiously to be “picked” for work were also known as the “paper bag brigade” because they carried their “work clothes” in paper bags. In their groundbreaking expose, Baker and Cooke also discussed the backbreaking work and the sexual assault the women often encountered on the job from the male relatives and friends of the White women who employed them as domestic workers. Describing her experience as a member of the “paper bag brigade” Cooke wrote: “I took up my stand in front of Woolworth’s in the early chill of a December morning. Other women began to gather shortly afterwards. Backs pressed to the store window, paper bags clutched in their hands, they stared bleakly, blankly, into the street. I lost my identity entirely. I was a member of the “paper bag brigade.” Local housewives stalked the line we had unconsciously formed, picked out the most likely “slaves,” bargained with them and led them off down the street.”
We owe women like Baker and Cooke who documented the abuse of African American women in New York during the 1930s a debt of gratitude because without their work this history would not be available for us to read today. IWD is also supposed to address the absence of women from the history books. While White women’s history may have been relegated to the margins of the history books, African women’s history is usually in the footnotes or entirely absent.
As I read the theme for this year’s IWD celebration “Inspiring Change” I could not help thinking about the numerous African women who have inspired change. The history of those women has been researched and documented by our historians including Dr. Afua Cooper who published a book about Marie Joseph Angelique (The Hanging of Angelique 2006) and Natasha Henry who has written an article about Chloe Cooley ( Books about other African Canadian women who inspired change have also been written including “Sister to Courage” about the life of Viola Desmond published in 2010 by her younger sister Wanda Robinson, the 1998 published “Mary Ann Shadd Cary: The Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century” by Jane Rhodes and “Sylvia Stark: A Pioneer” by Alfred Ernest Jones, Torie Scott and Karen Lewis published in 1991. There are many more African Canadian women who inspired change and who we remember for their unstinting work to bring about change. Some of those names are Rosemary Brown, Sherona Hall, Peggy Pompadour, Lucie Blackburn, Carrie Best, Rose Fortune and Portia White. African women from elsewhere in the Diaspora and from the continent have also contributed to “inspiring change” and some of the names include, Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana, Nana Yaa Asantewa, Queen Nzingha, Rosa Parks, Fanny Mae Hamer, Ida Bell Wells-Barnett and Sojourner Truth.
On March 8, International Women’s Day let us ensure that ourstory is included in women’s history and the names of our sheroes are recognized as having contributed to “inspiring change” internationally.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014


In the eleventh century the Moslems found in the west the far advanced kingdom of Ghana, which they conquered after much resistance of the natives, who had an army of two hundred thousand men and sufficient wealth to support it. When this kingdom declined in the thirteenth century, Melle superseded it and added greatly to its wealth by the expansion of its commerce through welcoming the Mohammedan traders. They found evidence of advanced civilizations even in the Congo, and learned that the Zulu chiefs, whose armies swept south eastern Africa, exhibited unusual power of military organization.
From the 1922 published book “The Negro in Our History” by Carter Godwin Woodson
Carter Godwin Woodson who is recognized as the man who launched what is now widely recognized as African History Month in North America and elsewhere also wrote and published several books including “The Negro in Our History.” At a time when the history of Africans from the Continent and of the Diaspora was sadly neglected and even distorted “The Negro in Our History” was a ground-breaking publication. In “The Negro in Our History” Woodson documents the history of African communities before any European set foot on the continent. He wrote about the ancient African kingdoms including, Ashanti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana and Mali. Writing of the advanced civilizations of these ancient African kingdoms Woodson states: “Among the cities where this exceptional culture was discovered was that of Jenne, from which the modern name Guinea has been obtained. This city experienced, as usual, migrations and movements frequent in other parts of Africa, destroying many of the evidences of civilization. But according to Frobenius, the traveler observed an advanced culture in their terra-cotta industry, in their achievements in clay and stone and iron, in their glass beads, earthen and glassware, and in the dexterity of their weaving. This civilization shows the city group like that around Timbuctu and Hausa. These cities had a government largely like that of an autonomy of modern times what we would call the social and industrial state, but of an essentially democratic order. These achievements so impressed the world that in keeping with other claims based on prejudice, white men have undertaken to accredit whites with this culture.”
Because of Woodson’s initiative coupled with his passion for “digging up the past” today there are hundreds of books published about the achievements and history of Africans and their contributions to Eastern and Western civilizations and cultures. In his 1933 published book “The Mis-education of the Negro” Woodson wrote: “"Truth must be dug up from the past and presented to the circle of scholastics in scientific form and then through stories and dramatizations that will permeate our educational system.” Although Woodson was not the first person to write about the ancient African civilizations and their advanced science, he did take it to another level and because of his efforts many others have been inspired to follow his example.
Today the names Ivan Van Sertima, Walter Rodney, Jan Carew, Marcus Garvey, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Molefi Kete Asante, Runoko Rashidi and Yosef Ben-Jochannan are known beyond the African continent and Diaspora. The diligent work of African historians has helped to educate us about the history of many ancient African civilizations including the Dogon of Mali, the Sankore University at Timbuktu, Mali, the Nok Culture of Nigeria, the Ashanti of Ghana, the ancient Kingdom of Kongo, the people of ancient Zimbabwe who built the structure today known as “The Great Zimbabwe” and the Aksumite Empire of Ethiopia.
In a 1999 published article entitled “The Lost Science of Africa: An Overview” Van Sertima wrote: “In 1978 anthropology professor, Peter Schmidt, and professor of engineering, Donald Avery, both of Brown University, announced to the world that, between 1,500-2,00 years ago, Africans living on the western shores of Lake Victoria, in Tanzania, had produced carbon steel.” Van Sertima who wrote about the history of Africans arriving in the Americas before Columbus in “They Came Before Columbus” also educated us about the scientific achievements of the Africans who lived centuries before Europeans arrived on the African continent. In “The Lost Science of Africa” Van Sertima notes that: “In the same year that the African steel-smelting machine was discovered, another team of American scientists -- Lynch and Robbins of Michigan State -- uncovered an astronomical observatory in Kenya. It was dated 300 years before Christ and was found on the edge of Lake Turkana. It was the ruins of an African Stonehenge, with huge pillars of basalt like the stumps of petrified trees lying at right angles in the ground. The place had an awesome-sounding name, Na-mo-ra-tu-nga, which, in the Turkana language, means "the stone people." Taking observations at various points of this ancient African observatory, they found that each stone was aligned with a star as it rose in 300 B.C. "This evidence," the team concluded "attests to the complexity of prehistoric cultural developments in sub-Saharan Africa. It strongly suggests that an accurate and complex calendar system based on astronomical reckoning was developed by the first millennium in B.C. in eastern Africa."”
The advanced scientific knowledge of the Dogon of Mali so surprised Europeans when they first encountered the Dogon that they tried to attribute that knowledge to the presence of space aliens in the Dogon history. Since 1931 when French anthropologist Marcel Griaule went to “study” the Dogon, White people have been desperately trying to find an alternative reason for the scientific knowledge of the Dogon; anything except that these African people were scientifically more advanced than any Europeans. Labelling the scientific knowledge of the Dogon legend and myth at first, some White scientists now say their knowledge was a hoax. The fact remains that the Dogon knew about the Sirius stars when Marcel Griaule went to Mali (Sirius B cannot be seen with the naked eye) and Europeans could not see the Sirius B until the development of very powerful telescopes. From the “The Lost Science of Africa” we learn from Van Sertima that: “Far more remarkable than the megalith observatory found in Kenya before Christ is the discovery of extremely complex knowledge of astronomy among a people in West Africa known as the Dogon. These people live in a mountainous area in the Republic of Mali, about 200 miles from where the legendary University of Timbucktoo once lay. The astronomer-priests of the Dogon had for centuries, it seems, a very modern view of our solar system and of the universe. They knew also of things far in advance of their time, intricate details about a star which no one can see except with the most powerful telescopes. They not only saw it. They observed or intuited it mass and nature. They plotted its orbit almost up until the year 2000. And they did all this between five and seven hundred years ago.” The Africans were skilled in architecture and engineering and built structures that stand today including the pyramids of Egypt and Sudan and the massive stone structure known as the Great Zimbabwe. The late Nigerian historian Chinua Achebe famously quoted that: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Fortunately our historians have done their job and Van Sertima wrote: “Great Zimbabwe is a massive stone complex -- perhaps we should call it a stone city -- found seventeen miles south of Nyanda, a city in today's Zimbabwe. It is more than 800 years old. The ancient plan of this city is in two parts. The king's part, the Royal Enclosure, is on the top of the hill. The other building -- nine separate stone sites -- are down in a valley. Among the buildings in the valley is the Great Enclosure where the king really lived although he spent a lot of time up on the hill. From that hill he could view the coming and going of traders and warriors along that valley for a distance of about 30 miles. The Royal Enclosure on the hill is a fascinating and mysterious place. Secret winding passageways and stone steps approach it from the south and within the hill-top castle there are vast rooms, among these one for ritual, one for smelting, one for iron-keeping. The king kept his ironsmiths and copper craftsmen there. There was also a royal treasure cove made by a huge granite rock. Down in the valley, where the rest of the ancient city lies, is the largest of all the buildings, the Great Enclosure. The wall around this palace is 250 meters long. It is composed of 15,000,000 tons of granite blocks. It is estimated that 10,000 people lived in that city, making it one of the largest cities of its day.” This is fascinating African history that was hidden for many years until it was “dug up” by our historians and shared with us. Although February is recognized as African History Month we are African all our lives and need to continue educating ourselves about our history every day.