Yesterday, the 1st October, I began my third year of studying History at university. A gentle introductionary seminar kind of thing. It was not until an hour later, travelling through the more highbrow regions the Black-British twiterverse that it was brought to my attention the October is of course Black History Month. This is a fact that would have not gone past my teenage self so casually. Indeed I was the biggest advocate of the thirty-one day celebration of Africa and her children, her diaspora and so forth. In fact, for about four years I took part in the annual Waltham Forest secondary school Black History Quiz, with a proud record of 3 wins, one as captain, representing two separate schools in the process. Yes, as my peers would say, I was ‘that guy’ and made no qualms about the fact. But oddly, it was said quiz that first made me question the concept of Black History Month.
This quiz was the ONLY event that offered a broad and diverse perspective on the topic of Black History. In amongst the bombardment of images from the US Civil Rights Movement and the occasional passing mention of Nelson Mandela, this quiz had categories ranging from Caribbean History, Ancient Africa, black Britain, Sport, Art, Politics etc. And I began to think to myself, why are all Black History Month celebrations not like this? Why do we, as young black Brits, seem to focus more on what happened to our cousins across the Atlantic than our own past? Of course I am not calling for British children to not learn about the Civil Rights Movement. Knowledge is power, so the more we can all learn, the better. What I do have a strong issue with is the fact that I am certain more of my contemporaries know about the 1963 March on Washington and Dr King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech than the 1985 Broadwater Farm Riots in Tottenham. Why does this bother me?
We can be well versed in the struggles of others, but being ignorant on our own struggles leaves young black Britain without any sense of context of where we are in relation to the social-political sphere of the nation we call home. Black History Month was created by African Americans in order to ensure their untaught past was not forgotten. In a tragic twist of fate, Black Brits are in danger of ignoring our own story.
If it’s equality we seek, we must strive to become part of the everyday story, a recurring character, not a special guest appearance.
But one can ask, based on what I just said, ‘why not make Black History Month more like that quiz you went to, rather than scrapping it?’ My response lies in my discomfort at the very term Black History. Yes, history is often categorised in order to gain a focused area to study. Modern Britain, the Victorians, Roman Republic, the Ottoman Empire, Post War Europe. You see a theme here?
All of these topics have a specific and direct FOCUS. A set time and place, contextualised in the wider story of, well, history. Black History is not only too broad a term, it makes the stories of the Aksum Kingdom, Apartheid, Post-Colonial Africa, South American Attitudes to Race, The Arab Slave Trade, Race Relations In Twentieth/Twenty-First Century France, all seem like some form of ‘other’.
Black History and the month dedicated to it, add to the idea that rather than being active and relevant contributors to the story of the world, black people are somehow still outsiders, and our story can only be told in a context that only we can celebrate and understand. The richness of studying history, either at an academic or personal level, is that everything can be critiqued. I, a twenty-one year old male of total insignificance to those outside my circle, can question the decisions of Gaius Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great. The idea of Black History does not allow this.
The idea of Black History perpetuates the idea that guilty white people must take time to learn why we are great and proud people, and leave it there, no questions asked. And what’s worse, we ask no questions either. I give an example. One of my courses last year focused on post-colonial Africa, which focused on Sub-Saharan African states and their journeys to independence and the immediate changes that came with that. Without the restraint of the term Black History, we could all critique the role of colonial powers, the failings and successes of the freedom fighting leaders, the formations of nation states that brought together tribes that were in no way part of the same nation. Everything was open to discuss, rather than being driven by a ‘let’s show white people how strong and proud we are’ narrative. If it’s equality we seek, we must strive to become part of the everyday story, a recurring character, not a special guest appearance.
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