Black History Month
By Breege Whiten, on 26 October 2015
October is Black History Month and UCL has been celebrating with a number of events, with the last few taking place this week:
As a tribute to this our very own Sarah Circus (Evening & Saturday Main and Science Supervisor) has kindly sent in an abridged piece of research she has been working on about black librarianship and library origins in Africa. This research includes profiles of Joseph B Danquah and Ladipo Solanke, who both studied at UCL.
‘Libraries preserve a society’s cultural heritage’: Black History Month, Librarianship and Knowledge
With this quote, Kathleen E. Bethel and African American librarian, expressed the sense of cultural dislocation felt by people of African descent in a Eurocentric world.
Librarians are responsible for the collection of specialised and technical information or materials, and their cataloguing facilitates their access to a wider audience.
As a tribute to Black History Month, I am concentrating a brief resume of a piece of research I have recently been undertaking about oral pedagogy and library origins in Africa, and black librarianship in the diaspora.
In my research, I explain the origins of ‘Black History Month’ and identify some significant African American librarians who worked for cultural heritage and integration, as well as the greater societal good. Their ability to positively inspire others and promote social change is of paramount importance for librarianship and those in the African diaspora equally.
In terms of Africa, there is a tradition of librarianship albeit different from the western model and African libraries are relevant to Black History Month as a source of information about a pre – European continent.
Lastly, I comment on the colonial impact on African history and culture and the efforts to counteract misinformation and reinforce Africa’s contribution to world civilization.
Black History Month
Carter G. Woodson, a founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life is acknowledged as the architect of what has been known since 1976 as ‘Black History Month’.
Woodson received his doctorate from Harvard in 1912 and sought through his scholarship to contradict the racist and negative image of African Americans and Africa that proliferated in education at that time. He believed that African Americans had to see positive depictions of them and of African history to counteract what was being imposed upon them. His 1933 work ‘The Mis-education of the Negro’ lays out the detail of this.
At its inception in 1926, it was only a week to focus on the contribution African Americans made to the United States.
Significant Black Librarians
Dorothy Porter Wesley (1905–1995), Dorothy Porter was the first African American woman to earn an advanced degree in library science (MLS), from Columbia University in 1932 whilst working as a librarian at Howard University in charge of the Negro Collection. She enlarged the collection and significantly, incorporated the Dewey Classification scheme into the cataloguing of materials linked to African American life.
Edward Christopher Williams (1871-1929), the first professional African American librarian in America. He was an expert in national bibliography and also taught and authored a number of articles and papers including ‘Latin Again’ for Howard University Record, where he stressed the importance of Latin for the study of Romance languages as a means of understanding the records related to Africa contained in the records of the Spanish and Portuguese Conquistadors.
Dr. Sadie Peterson Delaney (1889-1958) pioneered ‘bibliotherapy’, defining it as ‘the treatment of a patient through selected reading’; for this she was recognised internationally and received awards. She also founded the Disabled Veterans’ Literary Society to raise reading standards in veterans and foster cultural awareness.
Ruby Stutts Lyles opened Jackson Mississippi’s first branch library for African Americans in 1950 and was also politically active in the issues of the day, notably segregation. She negotiated, as part of a group, with Governor White and the Mississippi’s Legal Educational Advisory Committee regarding the desegregation of the state’s public school system.
Preserving a Cultural Heritage
Africa has been disparaged by colonial scholars as having made no contribution to world civilization, in part because of the belief that the continent had no written history. As recently as 1963 historian Hugh Trevor – Roper stated African had no history prior to contact with the Europeans and described Africans as ‘barbarous’.
Generally in pre-literate societies, culture is recorded to be passed on to future generations by means of rituals, ceremonies, legends and poems. In Malian tradition there are professional bard historians who memorise a group’s history and pass it down to the next generation. Indeed, in ancient Greece ‘rhapsodes’ were bards who sang about historical events, politics and current affairs at a time when the oral tradition was revered until Peisistratus had ‘songs’ committed to paper (either by him or using scribes). Icelandic sagas are also based on oral traditions, Knut Liestøl, noted Norwegian folklorist stated that oral traditions could serve as a form of record keeping distinct from written historical accounts.
In pre-western colonial African societies story tellers, bards and oral pedagogues were the traditional custodians of history and culture for society and with respect to the latter, the principal pedagogical technique was rote learning. These custodians were effectively living books forming a type of library. In terms of a western library model, the sweep of Islam westward a thousand years ago, across northern and central Africa, incorporating the modern day states of Niger, Mali and Senegal as well as the northern regions of modern day states Nigeria and Ghana led to the establishment of informal libraries, collections of huts containing books of both local and north African origin. These books were in Arabic and A’jami, a script devised to transcribe information from local African languages into a script that could be understood by others locally in Africa. ‘A’jami’ is derived from the Arabic word for foreigner. Throughout western and northern Africa there are manuscripts dating from before the 8th century AD, however these tend to survive in private hands. As a result of previous colonial destruction they are not readily accessible to researchers.
Education as a Weapon
European nations used African colonies a resource to be exploited; very little positive development took place, ending the slave trade and civilizing the continent were used as pretexts for the occupation. Efforts to provide western education and literacy were limited to providing indigenous colonial administrators.
And thus in the 1920’s Joseph B. Danquah and Ladipo Solanke came to Britain from Ghana and Nigeria respectively to study at UCL, Danquah reading philosophy and Solanke law.
They were both affected by racism both within academic life and outside. In 1925 Solanke and Herbert Bankole – Bright, another West African student, formed the West African Students’ Union (WASU) with Danquah being another prominent member. WASU was in part a traditional students’ union but it also served to support West African students, mainly in London, against the hardships they experienced.
The union evolved into a pan African organisation promoting an end to colonial rule. It also campaigned against misinformation and ignorance. For example, Solanke challenged a London newspaper which stated that human meat was openly sold in African markets. In 1927 Solanke went on to write his book the ‘United West Africa at the Bar of the family of Nations’ with a foreword by Danquah. In it he described Africa’s place in world civilization and detailed how the continent’s development had been hindered by slavery and its aftermath.
We have Black History Month to inspire those in the African diaspora and to celebrate achievements by those of African descent. I have mentioned four African American librarians who were not only significant in their field but also in terms of their achievements as African Americans. Africa has both graphic and oral antecedents to the library concept and indigenous models of both. These provide records and a reference point of a culture and civilization prior to the devastation of the slave trade and colonialism. In recent times education and the usage of recorded history has been used as a foil to ignorance and prejudice against Africa and those of African origin by those who live in the diaspora.
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