Black History is British History

Published: 25 October 2018

Region: UK

by Safiya Ahmed

New_BHMIt is that time of the year that we fill our shopping baskets with colourful gourds and admire the changing foliage in our city streets. But with the changing of the seasons, comes another awareness of colour in our national consciousness: Black History Month.

Our local libraries display head shots of Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie wearing colourful head-wraps and resurrect copies of Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father and Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. A familiar media debate ensues: is an entire month devoted to Black history really necessary? Is it an excuse for the media to sow the seeds of racial division with op-ed pieces? What about “White History Month”—or Muslim, South Asian, or Latino history month, for that matter.

At first glance, Black History Month’s objectors seem like hardline Christians wringing their hands over replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Seasons’ Greetings.” However, as time goes on—and our cultural consciousness expands—a range of other criticisms emerge. Is one month enough to do justice to the cultural contribution of the entire Black community? Actor Morgan Freeman recently commented that it is “ridiculous” that Black history is relegated to one month. Others object to the month’s focus on the legacy of slavery and colonialism, arguing that it is reductive and negates the full history of people of African descent.

For University College London lecturer Jeff Bowersox, commemorating this history is essential to understanding the cultural contribution of Black people to Britain.

“As long as full and equal recognition has not been achieved, there is an important place for Black History Month in the calendar,” he argues . “There is no reason that it cannot productively coexist with other projects to point to the diversity of British experiences, past and present.”

Black History Month was first known as “Negro History Week,” and started as a way for Black communities in the United States to remember the people and events that shaped the African diaspora. Since then, it has extended to a month and expanded around the globe, where it is celebrated in Canada, October, the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland.

While the original intention was to commemorate the past and celebrate triumphs against racist policies, some argue that this emphasis on blackness further embeds historical differences, reducing any progress in race relations. Does it make sense to create divisions when most children see their country as a a multi-ethnic melting pot?

BHM_LambethAs Tony Morrison once wrote:

“The very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

As race relations improve, children of all backgrounds will likely see books authored by black authors as significant in their own right, with or without Black History Month. Dreams From My Father will simply be a book, instead of a “Black History” book and diversity will be assumed, rather than scrutinized.

But if the next generation does not learn how the history of slavery and colonialism informs present-day racism, they will be at a disadvantage. Without the context of historical moments like the “one drop” rule,  they will not understand issues like why Barack Obama is the first Black president, when he is actually of mixed-ethnic heritage. Worse yet, they will not understand when emotional triggers from the past govern our present day realities—particularly apparent in scandals such as H&M’s use of a black model with the slogan “coolest monkey in the jungle” or why many found Jamie Oliver’s “jerk rice” to be cultural appropriation.

Consequently, a Google search for “H&M” or “Jamie Oliver jerk rice” yields far more search results than many of the more pressing racial justice issues of our time, such as the Windrush scandal and the fact that in spite of the 2010 Equality Act, nearly half of Black and ethnic minority workers have experienced racism at work.

Framing Black British history is key to informing this discourse. First, our media needs to expand beyond Black History Month explainer articles and predictable opinion pieces.  Tokenizing Black writers once a year does not ensure “diversity” in the media; it creates a false narrative that all Black experiences are the same, and ignores Black thinkers’ diverse evolving discourse on how these histories are interpreted or the issues that matter the most to them.

In school, integrating Black history into the national curriculum is crucial. Anyone studying history should be given the tools to understand how the transatlantic slave trade and colonial history fits into world history. This allows new generations to reflect on the past in a way that allows them to understand progress, and challenges that still need to be overcome. No student should be afraid of being written out of history. To quote Maya Angelou,  “I long for the day when all human history is taught as one history, because it really is.”

Anyone attending Black History Month events around Britain can see the enormous diversity of the attendees. While some councils have expanded their program to include all ethnic groups, others have continued with the tradition of celebrating Black communities, and how they came to be an integral part of British communities, today.

“The fact that events are attended by people of all backgrounds highlights that Black British culture and history is being recognized as British history,” said Sherry Dixon, a transformational coach of Guyanese descent who spoke at several events throughout the month. “Despite challenges we need to continue to work on creating a sense of shared identity.”

Anyone still reticent about Black History Month should attend John Akomfrah’s Mimesis: African Soldier, at the Imperial War Museum. As a multimedia installation highlighting the millions of Africans who fought and died as soldiers or porters during the First World War, it only further shows that Black people are indisputably linked to British history. What we make of this fact is within our conscious control, now more than ever.

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