We can’t talk about Black History Month, which we celebrate every February to recognize the achievements and contributions of African Americans and Black Canadians, without first looking at why Black people are in North America to begin with. Let’s talk about the Black diaspora in North America and how it shaped many of the most influential Black people in history.
What is the Black diaspora?
A diaspora is the dispersion of people from their homeland, either voluntarily or involuntarily. You may have heard this term used in reference to Jews or Muslims who spread their religions and cultures from the Middle East over several millennia.
People of African heritage outside of Africa are often collectively referred to as the Black diaspora, particularly since the Black power movement in the US. The term African diaspora is also used as there has been much debate around names for Black immigrants, whether African-American, Caribbean-American, Afro-Canadian and others. The important point of note is that a great majority of the Black diaspora were brought to the Americas against their will and sold as slaves. As a result it was different from other such mass migrations because much of the history and culture of these African men and women were suppressed and lost in the process.
But what people never talk about is that these immigrants were business owners, tribal chiefs, doctors, farmers, nurses, midwives, seamstresses, preachers...they were people with identities, lives, families. Their transportation to North America was actually not the first wave of the African diaspora but the fourth, after having been brought to Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. However, it is perhaps the most significant and most well studied due to its size; it is estimated that between 11 and 12 million Africans were brought to the Americas during this wave.
How did the Black diaspora change North American history?
The Black diaspora altered the course of North American history in numerous ways beyond the economic impact of slavery. The social and moral repercussions of slavery, which was common from the 17th through the mid-19th centuries, were a chief cause of the American Civil War. And the outcomes of the Civil War are still being felt in the US today. There are areas of the country that openly embrace racism and believe the Confederacy should have won the war.
The Civil Rights Movement in the US has largely been based on overcoming the remnants of slavery and the racism at its roots that saw Black people as less human than whites. While we strive to make Black History Month about more than slavery and oppression, it’s challenging to leave it out of the discussion because so much of Black history in the US and Canada is related to triumphing over adversity.
What are some important African American achievements in the 21st century?
When we celebrate Black History Month, we tend to focus on achievements that demonstrate progress in the areas of human rights or breaking the colour barrier that stood for so long in North America. They are our Black revolutionaries — people who bucked the system or even risked their lives to create change for the better.
Of course, there are many Black revolutionaries in history prior to the colonization of the Americas and in the days before the United States became independent. These leaders paved the way for other revolutionaries who followed:
Queen Nzinga was a monarch in what is today the country of Angola. A canny negotiator, she fought against Portuguese slave traders in the 16th century.
Cécile Fatiman was a resistance leader during the Haitian Revolution of the late 18th century. She used Vodou prayer as a way to unify people against white oppressors there.
Crispus Attucks is often considered the first Black revolutionary in America. He was killed in the Boston Massacre of 1770 while fighting with colonists against the British.
African Americans in the 21st century follow in these revolutionaries’ footsteps, and they are certainly big shoes to fill. Some are breaking records and becoming “firsts” in the world of sports and entertainment, while others battle in politics and social justice. You’re surely familiar with Barack Obama and Kamala Harris, but what about these people?
Vonetta Flowers was the first African American gold medal winner in the Winter Olympics, taking first in two-woman bobsleigh in 2002.
In 2006, Major General Walter E. Gaskin became the first African American to command a US Marine Corps division.
Charles F. Bolden Jr. was the first African American to serve as the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Misty Copeland was named the first female African American principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre.
In 2019, at just 15 years old, Dasia Taylor created surgical sutures that change colour, alerting healthcare providers to their patients’ wound infections — a medical first.
Zaila Avant-garde became the first African American winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2021.
Also in 2021, Reverend Raphael Warnock became the first Black senator from the state of Georgia.
These wins don’t happen in a vacuum. Just like Black revolutionaries in generations past fought for opportunities for people of colour today, people now need to open the door for those coming after them. It starts with discussions about racial inclusion, tolerance, and diversity.