Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs
January 31, 2011


Zakiya S. Carr Johnson
Senior Advisor, Race, Ethnicity, and Social Inclusion Unit
Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs

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What is Black History Month?
The story of Black History Month begins with Carter G. Woodson and what was first established as Negro History Week in 1926. Observance of Black History Month began in 1976. Through the creation of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, there was an opportunity to further study and reflect on the valuable contributions made by African Americans. Every year the Association selects themes and the theme in 2011 is "African Americans and the Civil War," to honor the efforts of people of African descent to destroy slavery and establish universal freedom in the United States.

How is WHA working with other countries in the Western Hemisphere to promote racial and social inclusion for People of African Descent?

Various offices in the Department of State have approached this in a number of different ways:

The Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs’ office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs has shared African-American experiences and culture with audiences across the region by providing unique opportunities for young people, women and men of African descent to access English language programs, and take part in educational, cultural and entrepreneurial exchanges in the United States.

In 2008, the Bureau embraced the diplomacy of racial, ethnic and social inclusion and consolidated its efforts to promote equality with countries like Brazil and Colombia through bilateral Action Plans. These agreements bring together governments, civil society and private sector to share best practices and conduct people-to-people exchange on issues like equal access to justice, environmental justice, health, access to quality education, culture and communication.

Increased interest in expanding these initiatives led to the creation of the Race, Ethnicity, and Social Inclusion Unit under the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs in 2010. The Unit coordinates bilateral agreements such as the Brazil and Colombia Action Plans on Racial and Ethnic Equality, and advises leadership on the implementation of related bilateral and regional initiatives. As a special part of the Unit’s mandate, we are working with every office and post in the region to engage in the commemoration of the International Year for People of African Descent.

What is the Year for People of African Descent?
The United Nations General Assembly and the Organization of American States (OAS) have proclaimed 2011 the International Year for People of African Descent (IYPAD). The year will focus on strengthening national, regional, and international cooperation to benefit people of African descent and promote a greater knowledge of and respect for their diverse heritage and culture.

During the International Year for People of African descent, the Race, Ethnicity and Social Inclusion Unit is coordinating U.S. Department of State collaboration in host countries regionally to: promote inclusion and equal participation of people of African descent in all aspects of political, economic, social, and cultural life; explore our shared regional African Diaspora roots; create awareness of and respect for the diverse heritage, culture, and contributions of African descendants to science and technology, education, independence and civil rights movements, agriculture, language, cuisine, culture, and the arts. We will also engage multilaterally to bolster continued inter-regional dialogue and cooperation.

What progress has been made?
In the Western Hemisphere, approximately 12 million Africans were brought to the Americas over the 400 year history of the transatlantic slave trade. An estimated 90% of those enslaved Africans ended up in Latin America and the Caribbean; 5% went to the United States. Today, African descendants make up one-third of the total population in the hemisphere. They are the majority of the Caribbean population, however the largest numbers of African descendants are found in Brazil, the United States, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador.

Despite historic discrimination and on-going exclusion and inequality, people of African descent have made significant contributions in their respective countries in the Western Hemisphere and around the world. Through initiatives like the U.S.-Brazil and the U.S.-Colombia Action Plans to Promote Racial and Ethnic Equality we have made significant progress but there is so much more to do.

Black History Month as well as the Year for People of African Descent mark a time for all of us to renew our commitment to engaging in diplomacy which reflects the inclusion of historically marginalized groups and the promotion of racial and ethnic equality and access to opportunities for all people.