I always look forward to black history month with equal amounts of anticipation and dread. I love the fact that there’s a whole month dedicated to the history of people of African descent, but I find a lot of black history month irritating.
There’s the cursory cack Channel 4 documentary about slavery, Mary Seacole, why black people are bleaching their skins, or the increasing popularity and price of weave. Songs of Praise will do a tribute episode awash with negro spirituals, often performed (ministered) very well by the Adventist Chorale, but leaving me wondering why black music only gets a look in once a year or so. The BBC might well do an offensive documentary about some ratchet Jamaican sub-culture or a Nigerian scam ring, purposely programmed to make a mockery of the whole month. Your history teacher will make you watch Mississippi Burning, Roots, or thanks to Lupita and co, 12 Years a Slave, for your annual black history dose. The more enlightened teacher will give you the Great Debaters (great film) for some positive reinforcement. Slavery will be talked about a lot, often with great emphasis on William Wilberforce and our other white ‘saviours’, to make white people feel less guilty about the whole inconvenient affair. Let’s ignore all of that though.
Black History month can be done well and is a fantastic opportunity to educate ourselves about our history (because it’s everyone’s history). Slavery should be discussed ,yes, because few of us actually know how horrific it was. It was as bad as the Holocaust, and went on for far, far, longer.
But black history is not slavery.
Our history started long before the trans-atlantic slave trade. There was Egypt – yes, a number of the Egyptians were what we would today term ‘black’, despite the numerous attempts by white historians and Hollywood to misle us into thinking that modern day Egyptians (who are a largely product of mixing that occurred from the Arab invasions in the middle ages), are the same as Ancient Egyptians. Let’s forget Egypt – there were thriving civilisations in what is now Ghana and Nigeria which were centres of trade and industry. There is the Great Wall of Zimbabwe that was discovered in the 1800’s by archeologists who refused to believe that black people could have created it (because we just aren’t smart enough). There are the amazing architectural structures in Sudan and Ethiopia. It’s sad that I have to affirm the fact that black people had thriving civilisations and made (and continue to make) significant contributions to history, but too often, the narrative is that we were running around in grass skirts, some of us were captured, and the rest were left to limp behind the rest of the world as best we could.
Ideally, we shouldn’t have a black history month at all. Frankly, the mere concept of it is insulting. Ideally, we shouldn’t expect the white mainstream establishment to behave any differently than they have done in the past. Channel 4 is always going to do wutless documentaries. The BBC is always going to be hit and miss – you might get a foolish interview involving Dizzee (Dizzy?) Rascal and Dianne Abbott side by side as if a politician and a rapper span the length and breadth of the community, you might get a Barack Obama biopic. I used to complain and write letters about the poor representation of black people on T.V, and then I realised that I was asking people who had a vested interest in the misrepresentation of black people, to represent us well. Dog’s bark. Bird’s fly. The BBC is the BBC. Black people a minority group in this country – let’s start making our own narrative instead of expecting other people to make it for us. Yes, petitions and letters are important on some level, but I’d rather black people invested in their own content and curated their own exhibitions.
So here’s to black history month. Here’s to watching Roots and emptying a box of Kleenex. Here’s to telling our children stories about their ancestors that don’t always involve chains. Here’s to natural hair and to the inventor of the relaxer. Here’s to Channel 4 making a decent documentary this year. Here’s to going to great talks at the Southbank centre. Here’s to supporting black business. Here’s to watching documentaries made by smart, young black people. Here’s to celebrating our history in January, June, and every other month of the year. Here’s to carrying on the history that our ancestors started. Here’s to recognising the shared humanity of every human being. Have a good month.
What do you plan to do for black history month?