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Black (Man’s) History Month? Bringing Miriam Makeba back into the spotlight

As we celebrate the contributions of such black history luminaries as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X or Medgar Evers, I can’t help but think of the fact that the only woman who is mentioned during Black History Month is Rosa Parks, and our knowledge of Parks is quite limited. I was an adult when I learned that Parks was the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for 14 years.

In her role as secretary, Parks investigated the gang rape of Recy Taylor, a black woman from Abbeville, Ala. and formed the “Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor,” which the Chicago Defender called  “the strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade.” Parks had racked up an impressive record of standing firm for civil rights long before her courageous actions on that city bus on Dec. 1, 1955. However, the accomplishments of women are often footnotes in history. Consider Ella Baker, Septima Poinsette Clark and Fannie Lou Hamer, who were integral parts of the civil rights movement. I know many of you reading this article are saying to yourselves, “Who in the heck are these women?” Honestly, I didn’t know who they were until I started doing research for this article. The fact is that the civil rights movement is a man’s world and like all “good women,” they are content with living in the shadows of their famous male counterparts, providing loving support when needed and staying inconspicuous when historians record the events for posterity.

Also take into consideration that not all those who fought and died for civil rights were black men and women. We are all familiar with Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, white men who, along with James Chaney, a black man, were murdered in 1964 in what is known as the “Mississippi Burning Case.”

But what about Mrs. Viola Liuzzo, a white housewife and mother from Detroit who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan for her role in fighting for civil rights, which she considered “everybody’s fight?” Some of us may have a vague recollection, but many of us may be clueless as to who this woman was, and that is a crying shame.

Another thing to consider is that not all civil rights icons are born within the borders of the United States. Civil rights are a global issue. If I were to ask someone on the street to name any civil rights leader who wasn’t born in the United States, we may hear names such as Nelson Mandela or for the well-versed black historian, Patrice Lumumba or Toussaint Louverture. Truth be told, our knowledge of black history is as limited as the days of February.

One person that I have come to learn about in recent years is the late South African singer Miriam Makeba. For anyone born before 1970, Makeba was an international icon.

She was the first black woman to popularize African music worldwide and the first black woman to have a No. 1 worldwide hit with her song, “Pata, Pata.” She was also the first black woman to appear on American television in a natural (not processed) hairdo. She brought African fashion to the world stage and influenced, even indirectly, many popular singers today, such as Erykah Badu and Sade. I know some are wondering, “Okay, this is all good, but what does she have to do with civil rights and why should I care?” I’m getting to that.

On July 16, 1963, Makeba became the first African woman to testify to the United Nations Special Committee about apartheid. Before this, the world wasn’t largely aware of the atrocities happening halfway across the world in South Africa that mirrored the church bombings, lynchings and unrest that were commonplace in the United States. Makeba used her fame to bring attention to civil rights violations globally.

Her United Nations testimony focused the world’s attention on the crimes that Hendrik Verwoerd and the South African government were committing against black South Africans. The testimony also began a movement for companies such as Barclays Bank, Polaroid, Ford and Chrysler Motors to divest their business interests of South Africa. Her social activism gained her the respect of contemporaries such as Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando, not to mention that she was married to civil rights firebrand Stokely Carmichael.

For her trouble, Makeba was exiled from her homeland for 30 years and was in constant fear of being assassinated by the South African government while living abroad. She also suffered a professional exile from the United States after her marriage to Carmichael. Her recording contracts and concerts were cancelled and she was under constant surveillance from J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI to the point that she had to flee to Guinea with her husband.

Despite suffering staggering personal losses, Makeba continued to use her fame to champion human rights causes until her last breath on Nov. 9, 2008, when she collapsed on stage performing at a benefit concert.

On Saturday, March 2 at 3 p.m., the Africa World Documentary Film Festival will screen a documentary about Makeba entitled “Mama Africa” at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park. A panel discussion moderated by Dr. Nathan Grant, associate professor of English at Saint Louis University and editor of The African American Review, will be conducted before the screening, and the director of “Mama Africa,” Finnish filmmaker Mika Kaurismäki will be attending the screening to answer questions from the audience.

To get a glimpse of the often-untold story of one of the forgotten ones of the civil rights movement, I would like to extend an invitation to all of you to attend this screening. Perhaps we may expand our knowledge of black history, which is simply human history of a different hue, but is still just as vital to the advancement and survival of us all.

 

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