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A radical take on Black History Month

Activist Education
By PHILIP EIL  |  February 6, 2014

“Perhaps some of you will recall the Kenyan proverb that says, ‘Until the lion writes his or her own history, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ ”

It’s just after 6 pm on an icy February night, and Marco McWilliams stands at a podium in a meeting room at the offices of DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality) on the west side of Providence. There are framed posters of Rosa Parks and Frederick Douglass on the walls, a hissing coffee maker sitting on a counter across the room, and a handful of guests — some kids doodling on paper; but mostly adults wearing scarfs and sweatshirts, listening intently — sitting at a ring of tables facing McWilliams.

Tonight’s talk is about newspapers’ role in raising black political consciousness; on a table next to the podium sit four original issues of The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service. One cover from 1972 reads “GERM WARFARE DECLARED AGAINST BLACKS! HUNDREDS OF BLACK MEN DISCOVERED MASSACRED IN SYPHILIS ‘EXPERIMENT.’ ” Another, featuring photos of Black Panther leaders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, reads “FREE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS.” During his lecture about the paper’s 13-year run — it peaked at more than 200,000 worldwide subscriptions and faced various attempts at sabotage from the FBI — McWilliams points to the table and says, “These are the lions writing the history.”

February is a busy month for McWilliams, the founder and deputy director of the Providence Africana Reading Collective. Not only is he coordinating DARE’s Black History Month programming, but he’s continuing his regular work as a high-school diploma/GED instructor at Amos House and YouthBuild Providence. He is also, by his own description, an activist who played an organizing role in the “shout down” protests at Brown University last fall that brought the abrupt cancellation of NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly’s lecture, “Proactive Policing in America’s Biggest City.” The protests — covered by the New York Times, MSNBC, and other national media outlets — were a success, McWilliams says.

The Phoenix caught up with him recently for a conversation about Black History Month and other topics. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.


WHAT DOES BLACK HISTORY MONTH MEAN TO YOU? For me, Black History Month is a time for the country to take a moment to look at and assess the historical role that African Americans have played in the formation of the US and all of the complexities [that come with that]. And for me that starts before slavery. It starts in ancient Africa. It starts with who we were before we were slaves — before we were enslaved, I should say. It starts with black sciences, black mathematics. By “black,” I’m saying African. African ideas. African philosophies. African thought. African civilizations.

The problem with starting in slavery, is that when you start any people at the moment in which they are in bondage, you have no memory of what you have created, of who you’ve been, of who you were. And when you don’t have that memory of who you were, it makes it remarkably difficult to then create yourself again, anew.

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