Debate Magazine

Black History Month: Far from Token

Posted on the 31 October 2012 by Lesterjholloway @brolezholloway

Black History Month: Far from tokenYesterday evening I had the pleasure of speaking at a Hackney Liberal Democrat debate entitled ‘Black History Month: Is It Just a Token Gesture?‘  It was a lively, positive and heartfelt discussion. Please find below a video of my opening statement before the Q&A (apologies for the sound quality!)

Fellow speakers were the ‘Hackney Heroine’ Pauline Pearce – the main organiser of the event – former GLA candidate Chris Richards and would-be MEP Anuja Prashar. The event was chaired by Simon de Deney.

As far as I’m concerned the more attention we give Black History Month the better. The most common definition of black history is the history of the African Diaspora. Africa is the cradle of civilisation origins of humanity, and that means it is all our histories if we go back far enough. It’s in all our DNA. Even members of the BNP and EDL!

I like to think that Liberal Democrats are humanists and internationalists and that we are instinctively against selective histories, against geographical or racial biases and against notions of superiority and inferiority. These are habits of the Right and are at the root of the worst episodes of historical inhumanity; the conquering and enslavement of others, the eradication of other people’s histories and the burning of books. And the writing of it from the perspective of the conqueror.

Credible historians rarely re-write history, they revise it by adding elements that were previously excluded. It is a never-ending process. Unless we want to desperately hold onto our biases and prejudices we must all strive to understand more and to connect our common humanity more deeply.

In Mexico, the population of African descent is poor and downtrodden and suffer much racism. Yet, before the Spanish arrived, indeed even before the Mayan civilisations, existed the Olmec people. They date back 150,000 years. They build pyramids and massive sculptures of heads with distinctive Nubian features. We know they were there because of the evidence in stone but they also wrote on papyrus.  Their books were burnt by the invading Spanish who sought to eradicate evidence of how advanced they were. As their writing went up in smoke it was replaced with ideas about them being primitive, to be controlled and oppressed.

Spain itself was ruled by the African Moors until Medieval times.  I have not seen evidence that most Spanish recognise and embrace the African history of their nation but it is clear that black people suffer terrible racism there today. So when we hear about the Spanish football manager casually using the N-word or holidaymakers sunbathing as the bodies of washed-up African migrants lie nearby I ask this question: How many generations does this prejudice go back? The answer is very many. And combating it fully will take more than one generation.

Because calling out racism – as essential as that is – often merely slaps a thin layer of ‘tolerance’ on top of centuries of programming. De-programming is more than drumming a message home that we are all equal and deserve equal opportunities, it is a deep understanding that we really are equal, and that there is every bit as much to admire and feel proud about the history of your own country as the civilisations of people who look very different to you.

So is black history tokenistic? No, but sometimes the way ‘equality’ is promoted can be. It would be considerably less tokenistic if we understood a bit more than the requirement to avoid being caught out as being racist. I believe that this understanding comes from an appreciation of all our histories and the inter-connectedness of it. And Africa is the beginning of this story of human history and it is also an important part of world history throughout the ages.

Black History Month was started 86 years ago as Negro History Week by Carter G Woodson in the US, and evolved into BHM which has been celebrated in February in the Americas. In an era when there were no black history books to speak of, it began as an attempt to resurrect the tradition of oral history that had been eroded through 300 years of enslavement. Many enslaved Africans had secretly passed on the oral history of who they were and where they came from. But in the Jim Crow era when they were free but not equal, it was important that they fortified themselves with pride in their history to continue the struggle. Oral history has deep roots in Africa, with the tradition of Griots who travelled from village to village telling the long story of the land and people.

When BHM was introduced to Britain 25 years ago, by Akyaaba Addai-Sebo and GLC leader Ken Livingstone, it was with the same principle of telling the previously untold story. The story of achievement and inventions and the struggles and victories for race equality because history as written by the ‘victor’ will always only ever be half the story. Far from being tokenistic, when BHM began – here and in the Americas – it was about addressing a chronic deficit in truth and history, adding knowledge to the reclaiming of Black Pride.

So how far have we come? Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jnr said: “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” I was reminded of this quote on Sunday when watching the unveiling of a blue plaque for the late great MP Bernie Grant. Before the speeches there was a libation. It said to me that Bernie Grant was not just the maker of history, but was also made by history.

I’m sure he would have approved of the libation.  Because when he raised the issue of reparations for enslavement I like to think he was doing this not just to demand that something is done to right and historical wrong but that we need to do something to rest the spirit of those that died so horrifically, and of those ancestors that went before him who are also pained. That African history did not begin at enslavement but goes right back to the beginning of the human story. And because as a spiritual people – as many of African heritage are – we walk under the eye of our ancestors.

The libation outside the old Tottenham Town Hall certainly put more recent black history in the context of a much wider and deeper history. Many champions of BHM also see a bigger picture between the knowledge they seek to bring to life and the empowering impact of it. That black history is more than a series of interesting facts and compelling characters, it is part of our living roots and part of our life. Black history lives inside those of African ancestry.

Not everyone chooses to live life as a dedicated scholar of African history. Most prioritise making ends-meet in this Western society, but black history still resides within all peoples of African descent. If it’s just the odd African figurine on the shelf or the black-conscious books on the shelf it’s a powerful reminder that there is something to be proud of, that melanin is more than a colour and that the beat and base echoes to the drumming communication across the lush valley’s of West Africa.

Our traditions and behavioural patterns – good and bad – all come from somewhere. Whether that be traces of the rich roots in Africa, or the coping mechanisms of surviving the Maafa, or reactions that were forced upon past generations by oppressors it has an origin. Modern ‘urban’ grime and Hip Hop lyrics may be clouded with materialism, anger and misogyny but musical patterns can be traced back to music and dance that bonded the community, gave thanks for their relationship to the earth and cosmos and cemented respect for women and men, the young and the elders.

And talking of respect, if only our young men realised that when they ‘front’ at perceived disrespect, that is an echo of emphasis on young warriors valuing self-respect but their reaction has become corrupted through the hopelessness and frustration of generations of living in an unfair society where talent isn’t rewarded if you come from the wrong side of the tracks.

I don’t think we’ve come anywhere near unpicking the condition of the African Diaspora through the lens of empowering black history. Where are we going? In the right direction, but far too slowly for my liking.

For much of the 25 years, Black History Month has been about State-sponsored events and exhibitions aimed at promoting and reinforcing a limited number of historical figures and their journeys. Today Mary Seacole, Rosa Parks and Malcolm X are taught in schools. Posters of black inventors and composers are pinned on walls. To remain at this level would be tokenism, a token mouthful from the delicious multi-layered cake of black history.

Thankfully Black History Month is evolving, as it has been for the past few years. Increasingly this takes place without any Council funding, independent of the State and increasingly free of the need to ‘please’ funders or dignitries. From exploring the great civilisations in Africa to exploring the great civilisations of Africans in the East and in the Americas; from the wealthy elites of African empires to the wealthy African elites who lived in Europe and Russia; and from George Alcorn who invented the X-Ray in the last century to Imhotep who mastered medicine in the 27th Century BC, Black History Month is evolving for sure.

They can take away our black bookshops, like Centreprise in Dalston, but with the internet the genie is out of the bottle.  Some may choose to have historical amnesia, but we no longer have historical anaemia. It is available to everyone, and black history events will be put on regardless of lack of grant aid.

This awakening cannot be reversed. The question is how the younger generation will take this forward. They are increasingly self-educated and aware but this has not yet taken root in a real African consciousness. But with the right young leadership such a movement is possible. if and when that day arrives Black History Month – as we celebrate it today – may well look tokenistic compared. But until that time Black History Month remains relevant and important. Evolving and deepening. And increasingly empowering and inspiring. We must continue to deepen it to lay down the bricks of knowledge that are the foundations of the future.

By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway

Also please read my previous blog: The Essence of Black History Month

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