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H.E. Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the OAS
Permanent Representatives and Permanent Observers to the OAS and other Members of the Diplomatic Corps
Representatives of International Organizations and Civil Society
Other invited Guests
Muy buenas tardes a todos que nos honran hoy con su presencia aquí en la Casa de las Américas, para esta celebración tan especial. Today, the 23rd of February is a significant day for the OAS as it marks the second consecutive year that we commemorate Black History Month in the US, but also because it represents significant milestones in black history: it is the birth date of famed African American leader of Haitian heritage and co-founder of the NAACP, W.E.B. Dubois in 1868; it marks the day that Constance Baker Motley, African American civil rights activist, lawyer, and daughter of Nevis immigrants, was elected President of the Manhattan Borough in 1965 and she later became the first female African American federal judge; and the day that the only English-speaking country in South America became the Co-operative Republic of Guyana in 1970, shedding its Colonial past and forging its own destiny.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to be here today and partake in this staunch manifestation of Afro pride and heritage in our Americas. As many of you know, Black History Month in the United States was an offspring of “Negro History Week,” which originated in 1926 from acclaimed historian, Carter G. Woodson, and other prominent African Americans who recognized the extant chasm in proper recognition of and deference for the contributions of African Americans to the history and culture of the United States. In the decades that followed, mayors of cities across the country began issuing yearly proclamations recognizing Negro History Week. By the late 1960s, due to the Civil Rights Movement and a fervent call to promote black identity and unity, Negro History Week had evolved into Black History Month on many college campuses. Then in 1976 President Gerald R. Ford officially recognized Black History Month calling upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Since then, every U.S. President has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month and other countries around the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom, also devote a month to celebrating black history.
Our hemisphere, a heterogeneous mix of races, ethnicities, languages, and customs, is masterfully colored by this unfettered tapestry of its denizens who hail from the arctic tundra of Northern Canada and Alaska, to the tropical rain forests of Central America, the pristine beaches of the Caribbean, down to the glacial lakes and endless Pampas of Argentina. However, we do not live in a utopia. Human rights and dignity are not always recognized. There are the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised. Unfortunately, in many of our countries these are persons of African descent whose mere existence in these Americas has been held hostage by hate, oppression, bigotry, and racial intolerance. This is not acceptable. Yet, despite this history and amidst present day challenges, our societies have made great strides towards social inclusion for all.
The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2015-2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent citing “the need to strengthen national, regional and international cooperation in relation to the full enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights by people of African descent, and their full and equal participation in all aspects of society.” It was in recognition of this Decade that my Office organized last year, for the first time in the history of the OAS, a similar event to commemorate Black History Month and celebrate the contributions of persons of African descent to the hemisphere. We partnered with National Geographic to explore the history of African ancestry in the Americas. During the event several persons were pre-selected to receive DNA testing kits. I am happy to announce that in today’s Programme we will be hearing from one of those recipients about their results. We received an overwhelmingly positive reaction to last year’s event and interest by Member States to continue this observation of Black History Month. Though we were enthused by the positive reactions, we were also forced to face reality that this was indicative, despite ongoing efforts, of an important gap in the role that the Organization plays in highlighting Afro-descendants.
In fact, the Organization has done considerable work to shed light on the plight of persons of African descent in our hemisphere. Most notably, the 2013 adoption of the Inter-American Convention against Racism, Racial Discrimination, and Related Intolerance and the Inter-American Convention against All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance after over seven years of intense negotiations. Led by the delegation of Antigua and Barbuda, this was the first legally binding instrument to condemn discrimination by reason of "nationality, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, language, religion, cultural identity”, among others. Since then, other countries have signed one or both of the Conventions. We implore more Member States to sign on.
In addition, at the 2016 General Assembly, on the heels of the UN Proclamation of the Decade for Persons of African Descent and under the stewardship of the Permanent Representative of Colombia, the Organization adopted the Plan of Action for the Decade for Persons of African Descent in the Americas (2016-2025), which, as mentioned by the Secretary General, outlines key activities and measures to be carried out to promote awareness of the situation of persons of African descent in the Americas and ensure their full participation in social, economic and political life. Notwithstanding these efforts, there remains much work to be done and we are committed to continuing to do our part to bring awareness to the issues faced by persons of African descent in our hemisphere.
We must see ourselves as true citizens of the Americas, interconnected and interrelated. For that reason, it is important to take stock of the many ways our cultural diversity is rooted in African culture and history. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines culture as “the beliefs, customs, and arts of a particular society, group, place, or time.” Culture is the glue that bonds societies, the painter’s brush that defines generations, and the unrelenting spirit of human kind. The African cultural influence on our hemisphere is immeasurable. However, we cannot ignore that its origins stem from one of the most egregious events in history - the middle passage - which brought to our shores the sons and daughters of the African continent, shackled and bounded and forced to toil on our land uncompensated and unfree. It is estimated that around 150 million people in the Americas identify themselves as being of African descent. To that end, in almost all of our countries, the richness of our food, the beauty in our arts, the rhythmic tones in our language and our inherent belief systems have a significant imprint of this African past.
In gastronomy, our African ancestors introduced okra, or Quimbombo (gumbo) in Latin America, callaloo, fish cakes, saltfish, ackee in the Caribbean, and pudding and mangos, to name a few. Plantain, also introduced by African slaves, created delectable delights such as Maduro, Mofongo, Alcapurrias etc.
Peruvian Anticuchos, a wildly popular street food made of seasoned, skewered grilled beef or chicken hearts, originated from African slaves forced to create their foods from the scraps they were fed. Similarly, hacienda peasants in Mexico reimagined beef stomach (one of the few accessible sources of protein) by cooking it in a hominy stew called Menudo, now a classic Mexican dish. Other well-known dishes with African origins include Vatapa in Bolivia, Warm spices in Central America and Mexico, Boil-up in Belize, a hearty mix of boiled ground foods, meats and eggs topped with coconut oil and sautéed onion and tomato sauce, and the ubiquitous rice and beans or peas and rice found throughout the Caribbean.
While many of these food groups were native to the hemisphere, there were a plethora of crops brought directly from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade which include rice, blackeyed peas, kidney and lima beans. Other crops brought from Africa included peanuts, millet, sorghum, guinea melon, watermelon, yams (Dioscorea cayanensis), and sesame (benne). In the United States, African cuisine contributed greatly to the culinary taste of the country, particularly in the South. These dishes include: Cush, fufu, goober, grits, guinea corn, gunger cake, Hop’n johns, Jambalaya, and Jollof rice, just to name a few.
Turning to music, musical genres such as the samba, rumba, meringue, and salsa all owe their existence to African rhythms. The Fandango dance found in Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia is also of African origins. Brazil, home to the largest population of persons of African descent outside of Africa, is deeply rooted in African culture. Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, one of the most popular carnivals in the world, is a boisterous manifestation of African culture.
In Central America, primarily Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras perhaps the most poignant African-inspired musical art form is the Punta of the Garifuna - a people of mixed Amerindian and African descent who arrived from West Africa washing ashore on the island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and later fled to Central America to escape slavery. Their culture has withstood the test of time. They are probably best known for the Punta, a musical genre relying heavily on percussion instruments and distinctive drumming, which combines the beats of primero (tenor) and segunda (bass) drums and allows dancers to interact with the drums while couples or individuals compete against each other as they shake their hips and wine their bodies.
Musical art forms from other parts of the Caribbean have achieved international acclaim: Reggae music from Jamaica, steel pan in Trinidad and Tobago, calypso, soca, and reggaeton. Later you will hear presentations on the history of reggae, steel pan music, and Afri-garifuna jazz.
In the U.S., Black Music Month has been celebrated for the past 17 years in June. Musical genres such as Jazz, Rhythm and Blues (R&B), spirituals, and neo-soul, among others, all owe their existence to African culture. Jazz has also found its roots in modern music from Latin America. Genres such as Bossa Nova, Latin Jazz, and Mambo also have African roots.
Some of the most acclaimed singers and song writers of African descent in our hemisphere include the legendary Bob Marley, Chavela Varga of Mexico, the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, Celia Cruz of Cuba, Margareth Menezes of Brazil, Susana Baca, a Peruvian singer and champion of the revival of Afro-Peruvian music, Salsa musician Oscar D'León of Venezuela, legendary Calypso artists such as Calypso Rose and the Mighty Sparrow of Trinidad and Tobago, Soca artists such as Machel Montano and Destra Garcia of Trinidad and Tobago, Alison Hinds of Barbados, the late Andy Palacio, the Garifuna Collective, and the renowned James Lovell, all Punta artists from Belize, Ruben Rada, percussionist, composer and singer from Uruguay, and Kalimba of Mexico, and the list goes on.
In the arts, African Art inspired many of the great artistic movements of the last century, such as Cubism, Modernism and Geometric art, which greatly influenced European avant garde artists.
Caribbean artwork is characterized as primary level paintings of the senses using raw, vivid colors and a composition that celebrates freedom of expression and spontaneity. Notable artists include Wifredo Lam, Cuban artist and promoter of Afro-Cuban culture; American sculptor Edmonia Lewis; Penn Cayetano of Belize; and Philomé Obin of Haiti.
In literature, many of the writings were protests to the oppression that Africans faced as slaves and free persons in the Americas. Afro-Brazilian literature and poetry surged in the 1930s with the rise of nationalism, gradual industrialization, and urbanization that led to a political transformation in Brazil, including the formation of a black press and the first Afro-Brazilian organized political movement. Caribbean literature is also highly recognized. Iconic authors include V.S. Reid of Jamaica, Nobel Laureates Derek Walcott and Sir Arthur Lewis of St. Lucia, and V.S Naipaul of Trinidad and Tobago, as well as Eric Williams, former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago.
In the United States, the Harlem Renaissance, an African American cultural movement (particularly in the creative arts) of the 1920s and early 1930s, saw its epicenter in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. It was an explosion of talented black writers who produced an extensive body of literature in essay, poetry, and art, which promoted black self-worth. Notable writers of that time included W.E.B Dubois, Langston Hughes, and others.
Other distinguished writers and artists with African roots in the Americas include Abdias do Nascimento, actor, playwright, poet, and politician who defended the rights of Afro-Brazilians; and Doctor, writer and poet José Manuel Valdés of Peru
Ladies and gentlemen, I did not wish to exhaust you with such an extensive list of prominent Afro-descendants of our hemisphere, but I also believe that their contributions must be fully recognized. Unfortunately, for far too long their works and impact have been downplayed and largely ignored.
This afternoon we gather to pay homage to our brothers and sisters – trailblazers and transformers in our Americas. I also believe it is important to highlight the impact their legacies have had on economic and social development. It is undeniable the role that culture plays in economic development. Culture industries or creative industries create jobs outside the public sector, provide a space for micro, small and medium sized enterprises to flourish, and are strongly anchored in local communities and regional networks. In small economies it is the sector of the economy with the highest employment factor, particularly for those from low-income communities. While culture cannot be harnessed in a bottle, it can be used as a tool to overcome poverty and spread awareness of social ills.
I close by giving special thanks to the Permanent Missions who are co-sponsoring this Event with me. Without your support we would not have been able to organize this event. I also wish to recognize my Office, particularly my Chief of Staff, Ambassador La Celia Prince, whose tireless efforts brought this programme to fruition. This afternoon you will hear from several speakers on Afro-culture in the Americas. I hope that you are inspired and motivated to continue to learn about the contributions of Afro descendants in your respective communities. In the words of Bob Marley, “None but ourselves can free our minds.” I thank you.