What’s In A Name?

During a recent conversation with the Headmaster of my daughter’s school he expressed his frustration at the difficulties he faced in obtaining information on Black role models.

The successes in the fields of athletics and entertainment are well known to the majority as they are continually depicted in the media. In other areas such as science, technology, exploration etc., it is much more difficult; since unless any literature concerning achievers in these areas is accompanied by pictures, or it is stated specifically, there is no way of knowing if the individuals concerned are Black.

Names of course can give a clue to a person’s ethnicity.  For example if one reads of an achiever named Singh or Patel one can be fairly certain that the individuals concerned are of Indian origin, likewise Kwami  or Nkruma are indicative of African roots, but in the case of Western Black people, who were re-named by their slave masters, this is of no use.

There are other reasons for ignorance of Black people’s achievements.  In the case of slaves, because of their status, they were not permitted to claim the credit or register patents of inventions they were responsible for in the first place; the credit and indeed any profits going of course, to, the slave owners. The climate of racism that has permeated European society for the last four hundred years is yet another contributory factor.

The slavers, seeking to justify their evil trade, perpetrated the myth of Black inferiority.  That African peoples were savages, cannibals and that the best thing that could happen to them was happening, “Contact with white civilization and the Bible.”

By the time slavery was abolished these myths had become so ingrained in European society that they persisted and continue to persist even up to the present day, manifesting themselves in a reluctance to acknowledge contributions by Black peoples to world knowledge. This is especially so both in Britain and in the United States.

One of many examples of this phenomenon is the case of Matthew Henson (1866 –1955); it was only in 1972 that the U.S. authorities acknowledged that Henson, a veteran of seven Polar expeditions, was the first man to set foot on the North Pole in 1909 and not Robert Peary, as was popularly believed.

Peary was the leader of that, and the previous six expeditions, but it was Henson, his trail breaker, who arrived there first by about 45 minutes.  As well as being Peary’s trail breaker he was also invaluable to the expeditions as an interpreter, being fluent in the local Inuit (Eskimo) language.  Despite the 1972 admission; TV Documentaries still often cite it as Peary’s achievement.

To cut a long story short I gave the Headmaster twenty five pages of my own research to photocopy.  It contained around forty names of Black achievers past and present, plus information on ancient African civilizations. I informed him, as I inform you dear reader, that all of the information had been gleaned from the local library, adult and children’s.  So if you or your children want the information you know where the library is. Not only this, with more and more homes being connected to the internet – there’s no excuse.

Published – September 1998 “Sisters in Motion: Volume 1″.  

Thousands will tell you
that it cannot be done,
thousands will tell you
that you will fail.
But only you child
Will know how far you can sail,
so say to yourself,
I shall not fail.

Marva N. Collins