FOR most of us it would be an awkward task: attempting to find the exact moment in our lives when we absorbed the data that comprises the broad spectrum of general knowledge. Christmas, tig-and-tag, the Olympics – our knowledge of these things arises from osmosis and are generally picked up through our childhood. Alas, knowledge and celebration of black British history were absent from my formative years. Such negligence revealed itself in the times where I would wrap a towel around my scalp when playing pretend as a child, the material askew on the crown of my head, but a passable substitute for the gravity abiding hair of my classmates.
Being the only black family in my community for a decade, and only one amongst a handful of ‘others’ for just as long, was difficult enough. Certainly, every child feels like an alien amongst their peers, feels desperate to fit in, but most of my juvenile insecurities were able to be addressed and tamed in time. Yet up until my adolescence, I had buried the shame and the discomfort of being black – to voice these insecurities would be to wound my parents and their heritage, and I had no understanding of how to take pride in something that I was ignorantly teased about. However, in concealing these aspects of my identity, I rendered certain parts of myself illegible. I was not a part of this intricate community whose history I am still learning; a history that is being honoured in the month of October. Rather I existed as an individual, an anomaly, an abnormality. That kind of isolation erodes the individual’s idea of normalcy and forestalls one’s sense of belonging.
I don’t think I can recall a single instance in my primary or secondary school where I was taught about black British history.
Black History Month is important today and tomorrow, and it has retroactive significance as well. It recognises the monumental and the everyday contributions of the black community to Britain. In order to validate my experiences, I needed both of those heritages, the black and the British, to coalesce. I especially needed my comprehension of blackness to exist beyond that of the African-American experience. Too often do we abridge black history to the events occurring across the Atlantic. What it does is create a myth that Britain’s history with African and Caribbean peoples was nonexistent up until 50 years ago, and even then, that history is barely discussed in classrooms or shown in our media.
I don’t think I can recall a single instance in my primary or secondary school where I was taught about black British history. I can remember only the situations where slavery was brought up; my teachers and peers making pointed efforts to glance at me with guilt in their eyes, and I, catching the impression that to be black was to exist in the parameters of exploitation, oppression, and injustice. My knowledge of black history arose from the need to self-actualise and it was not until I read Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman that I knew that there were black writers working in Britain – and a woman to boot! Encountering that text and that author made a profound impression in my life, as did the succession of black writers, artists, politicians, and scientists whose histories represented my future.
History helps corroborate our personal narratives; it gives us routes for our dreams and the courage to carve out spaces of our own. The fact that Black History Month is celebrated for a mere month should register as to how our experiences and contributions in the culture are peripheral. The recent decision of the Wandsworth council, and the Hillingdon council in 2007, to change Black History Month to a celebration of “diversity” and “multi-ethnicity”, is one I not only condemn but also mourn. These actions do not reflect a progressive and inclusive community, rather they dictate that celebrating difference should be kept within strict confines. It also makes it clear how little these matters have integrated into the mainstream if we must sequester diversity into a specific time of year.
Most marginal communities are already struggling for visibility, and 31 days is not enough time to focus our attention on all of these groups.
I will be more accommodating for such changes when our culture actually makes considerable strides to transform dominant attitudes with policies that protect the welfare of all. If this country is to pride itself as being multicultural, it must be accountable for when these mixings of culture were not only fraught but unbalanced. It must take responsibility for the hostility and failures of the Windrush scandal. It must change its curriculum across all stages of education. For this history is not just important for the black community, but for Britain as a whole. Black history is important because it informs our prejudices, and these prejudices cause catastrophic and microscopic damage. Widening access can only go so far if, when these spaces are occupied, they lead to vitriolic criticism, denouncement and even death threats. The price of ignorance can cost people their lives; we cannot afford to reduce the opportunity to combat myths and beliefs that eject black experiences from society.