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Black History: What’s the Rumpus?

SNA (Tokyo) — Host Michael Penn interviews columnist and book author Baye McNeil about the meaning and significance of Black History.

Penn: Why don’t you tell our audience a little bit about yourself? Why is it that you’re here in Tokyo right now? What are you doing? What is your own background?

McNeil: My name is Baye McNeil. I’m originally from Brooklyn, New York. I’ve been living here in Japan for about eleven years now, it will be eleven years in April. I originally came here to get away from the political atmosphere in America at the time, because this was post 9/11, and this was when President Bush at the time was pretty much planning to invade a couple of countries in search of weapons of mass destruction. I was like, oh god, this is not pretty.

Penn: We know how that went.

McNeil: Yeah. I said, let me get out of here for a while, and I could see what had occurred during 9/11 from my window, so it was pretty horrible. I think I was suffering from PTSD at the time. I came and visited my friend over here, and stayed with him for about ten days, and Japan was amazing, so I decided to come here and stay for a year and do some teaching, and so one year turned to five, turned to ten.

Penn: That’s the same story for a lot of us.

McNeil: I think maybe around 2008, I started doing some writing here. I was a writer before I came to Japan, but nothing really serious, I did some writing for a local paper in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and I’d written a book before I came here, but I hadn’t done much writing from 2004 when I arrived in Japan until about 2008. In 2008, I started blogging. I started a blog called Loco in Yokohama. The blog pretty much talked about the experiences of a New Yorker, a black person, and a foreigner, all three aspects of life here for me. It got some notoriety. A lot of people started paying attention to it, and my first book grew out of that. It was called Hi! My Name Is Loco and I Am a Racist. It did very well. People understood where I was coming from, and read the book and loved the book. And I came up with a second book which took on the name of my blog, Loco in Yokohama. It primarily focuses on building relationships here, and maintaining your sanity living under certain conditions here, and also about teaching here, and some of the adventures and misadventures that had occurred during that time. As a result of those two books and the success of them, I was offered a job here writing for a newspaper, the Japan Times. I started my column with them and I also did some work for some periodicals here, Metropolis, and a couple of others. Yeah, so far so good. The writing career has taken off. I’m working on a third book now, and a fourth, so those should be coming out this year, as a matter of fact, and I’m translating the first book into Japanese, and that should also be coming out this year. I think what motivated me to get involved with the column, which is called “Black Eye”, which comes out the first Monday of every month.

Penn: How would you define the theme exactly of what “Black Eye” is about?

McNeil: “Black Eye” focuses on the experiences of black people living here in Japan. I think that definitely in the literature here, and the periodicals, we’re underrepresented. I felt that there needed to be a column dedicated to that purpose. Similarly to what’s happening in the States. In the media and the newspapers and the magazines, we are definitely underrepresented. So I’ve been trying to increase that representation, and so far, so good. I’ve been focusing what people are doing here. I think that a lot of the problems that occur here, with the Japanese people, is that they don’t have much information about African-Americans to draw from. I want to put more information out there so they can know why we are here, what we are doing here, so we’re not the fairies. I think a lot of the ideas that Japanese have of people of color here is that we’re here for nefarious reasons, and it is just not the case. I’ve done stories about musicians and artists and educators and all kinds of people that are doing lots of different things here. That was my motivation, and that’s what keeps me going to do that column.

Penn: We’re talking about black history. Maybe that’s self-explanatory, or maybe it’s not. When we’re talking about black history, are we talking about the history of blacks in the United States, or in all of the Americas, or are we talking about Africa? What are we talking about when we use this term, Black History Month and black history?

McNeil: When we talk about Black History Month, I think primarily, we’re talking about three different countries. The United States has a Black History Month, that’s February. Canada has a Black History Month, that’s February. And England has a Black History Month, and that’s in October. The Canadian Black History Month and the British Black History Month were both inspired by the American Black History Month. The founder of the Canadian version, her name is Jean Augustine. She was a member of the House of Commons in Canada, and in the 1980s, she was an immigrant from Grenada, she rose in political ranks to become their equivalent of senator, or congressperson. From the House of Commons in Canada, she was able to push to get Black History Month in Canada instituted. Amazing Woman. In the U.K., there was an African gentlemen, so he was from Ghana, and he was the one who was primarily responsible for getting Black History Month instituted in the United Kingdom.

Penn: Are they talking mainly about the black people inside their country, or cover even, for example, people living in other countries. When we talk about the Black History Month, are we focusing on in our classroom or in our society, we have black people from these countries, who are Americans, Canadian, or British citizens, or are we talking globally about black history here.

McNeil: I don’t know how it’s practiced in the U.K. or Canada, but in America, it’s been primarily African-American history. I think it should be expanded. I think it should be a global thing, which brings us to what I think the definition of black history should be. Black history should be inclusive, not just of the diaspora of the entire African experience, but also of the continent and the diaspora. When I was growing up, I had a separate experience. I didn’t go to a public school, I went to a private school. My mother was a part of the Pan-African Movement back in the 70s, and she didn’t want her children to be Europeanized, so she put us inside of a school that taught us about African culture, and African language. We didn’t study French or Spanish, we studied Swahili. So my first foreign language was Swahili. This is in Brooklyn, New York. And my uniform was a dashiki with a kufi. Yeah, it was real. Combat boots. This was real. This was hardcore, full on. So I was never Europeanized, so for me, it’s always been about Africa and the diaspora, but for many African Americans, they don’t really feel a connection to the continent. As strong a connection as they ought to have, whereas I don’t think that’s the case from watching Canada and the U.K., because most of the people of color living in the U.K. are immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean. Not from the Americas. So their identification is not with slavery, it’s just about the lack of information about people of African descent, period. Of course in Canada there is a history of slavery, because most African-Americans in Canada came from the U.S. via the underground railroad, but also there are a lot of immigrants from the Islands, not that the Islands were free of slavery. They also had slavery, but their experience with slavery is different from that of mainland Americans. I think that the Africans in the U.K., their emphasis for getting Black History Month had nothing to do with slavery. It was all about increasing the information that British people had about Africans. I think it would be spread out among all of the different countries, not just the countries that are primarily living in England. I think the majority is from Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal in England.

Penn: I think the 19th century colonial history may have made the British a little bit more global in their point of view, as opposed to Americans.

McNeil: I believe so. But again, I can’t speak much for what’s happening in England. I just did the research to find out how they started their Black History Month, but as far as how it’s being played out, I don’t know much about it. I would love to find out though. So I’m probably going to look into that now.

Penn: If any of you can give him a plane ticket.

McNeil: Yes, please. Give me a plane ticket. I’d love to go to England in October and check out their Black History Month.

Penn: There we go. Finally, we’re here in Japan, so for a people like the Japanese, what do you think they should be doing with black history. Where does it fit in here?

McNeil: I think it’s unlikely that black history will be a requirement of Japanese students, just like it won’t be a requirement of American students to learn about Japanese history, or how in other countries, it isn’t thought to be a requirement to learn about other countries’ history. However, there is a growing number of people of African descent, people of color living here in Japan, and what we do here in Japan is potentially historical. For example, a friend of mine, Jesse Freeman, is a licensed teacher of ikebana, perhaps the first person of color to achieve that status. So that’s history. Here in Japan, significant to the Japanese people living here. Another friend of mine, Lance Lee, he became the first black president of the Tokyo American Club. So that’s significant, and these are things that are being achieved here in Japan.

Penn: And what would you like Japanese young people to know about black history if you had a chance to get at them?

McNeil: That it’s very diverse. You would be surprised to learn all of the various creations that black people have contributed to the world. I think you should take some time, surf the internet, and you don’t have to wait for your teachers to teach it to you, you have the internet. It’s a heck of a resource. A lot of this information is in Japanese as well, so even if you’re limited by language, you can still check it out in nihongo. Look into what other countries of people living here with you, what these countries have contributed to world history. A lot of history that they are exposed to is very limited, limited to Japanese and perhaps to other Asian countries, and a lot of European countries. But Africans and African-Americans and African-Canadians and African-Europeans have contributed a lot to the world, so I would recommend looking into those as well.

Penn: And maybe I have a last, last question. If you could recommend to everybody out there one book to read that would give them the best insight into these issues, maybe one that impacted you, what book would you tell them to read.

McNeil: I have two books. One book would be Randall Robinson’s The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. This book really changed my thinking on a lot of things, particularly African-American history, and how important it is. His book is about why there needs to be reparations made for slavery, and the book was remarkable. The second book is a book by one of my favorite authors, James Baldwin, and it’s called, The Fire Next Time. It’s just a remarkable book. There are two essays in the book. One is a letter to his nephew, and one is a essay he wrote about meeting Elijah Muhammad. After you read those two essays, you’ll be like, oh okay. Both essays are very informative about a part of history that many people aren’t really familiar with, and familiarizing yourself with that aspect of our experience, by our, I mean the African-American experience, would be something that would benefit everybody a great deal.

Penn: I do think that we probably have a little bit more reading to do after this segment.

McNeil: You’ll love it. You’ll thank me.

Penn: But before we get into the reading, how do you feel about having some dinner.

McNeil: Oh man, I’ve been looking forward to that part.

Penn: Alright. As you all know, we’ll be filming here each week from The Pink Cow restaurant, and after we have a discussion like this, the next step is to go and order some food. I’m getting a little hungry and I think maybe you are too. So let’s wrap it up for What’s the Rumpus this week. Please join us next week as well. We’re trying to have a series of stimulating guests, and I think we succeeded this week, so thank you very much for coming.

McNeil: Thank you very much for having me.

Penn: See you all later.