Opinion: What Black History Month means to me

black history monthI was delighted by Nick Clegg’s excellent statement welcoming the start of Black History Month. As he says, this is an important aspect of British history whatever our background.

Black History Month exists because black history has long been overlooked. Large swathes of social history, the story of the working class and women battling for rights, have also been relatively absent from standard history taught in schools.

The two strands are often intertwined. The great abolitionist Thomas Clarkson led a grassroots movement against slavery in tandem with the likes of slave-turned-abolitionist Oladuah Equiano, whose writings helped pave the way for emancipation, and Ottobah Cugoano.

The campaign was strongest in the north, particularly Manchester, where the Victorian underclass saw a direct link between the same elite who ran the brutal slave trade and those that oppressed them.

For me Black History Month is about more than discovering hidden histories, it is also about empowerment through knowledge. For those whose ancestors experienced slavery and whose roots and culture in Africa were severed it is an important opportunity to reconnect not just with individual achievements of the past but also with a deeper appreciation of the long and often glorious history of Africa before it was impoverished and subjected to under-development.

We are less than 50 years since James Brown released ‘Say It Loud I’m Black and Proud’ and the British Lovers rock group Brown Sugar  sang ‘Black is my colour’. They were part of a movement to reclaim pride in self, soothing ointment on the scars inflicted by racism, throwing off the psychological shackles that Bob Marley had earlier identified when he sang about emancipation from mental slavery.

We are less than two generations from colonialism and not many more from the trauma of enslavement. People of African descent are still healing, still journeying to emancipation as author Dr Joy DeGruy so insightfully dissects.

Black History Month is part of that process, of climbing to Dr Martin Luther King’s mountain top while the rocks of casual and institutional racism continue to tumble down, wounding, denying opportunities and knocking far too many off the mountain altogether as witnessed by the extent of mental illness and black unemployment running at twice the rate for white working age people.

While I was Editor of New Nation I relentlessly plugged ‘When We Ruled’ by the British historian Robin Walker for his expertise concisely highlighting the amazing achievements, inventions and civilisations in Africa.

African-American historian Runoko Rashidi has conducted fabulous research into ancient African civilisations across the world, from the Olmec of Mexico to the Far East, and University of Chichester lecturer Dr Hakim Adi and Andrew Muhammed have both delved to the Middle Ages and beyond to bring us the untold story of black history in Britain. They are modern-day Griots preserving a tradition of passing down history. The struggle to maintain this in the face of the twin factors of enslavement and Westernisation was, for me, a key point of Alex Haley’s ‘Roots’.

The youth of Britain are hungry. When rapper Akala (brother of Ms Dynamite) gives his lectures, the reaction afterwards is a sight to behold. I bet there has never been a stabbing or shooting committed by a young person who knows their roots. No-one defends a postcode if they know about the city of Carthage and no-one flunks education if they know about the University of Timbuktu.

Dr King said “We are made by history” and I believe this to be true. Our traditions and behavioural patterns – good and bad – all come from somewhere. Whether that is traces of the rich roots in Africa or the coping mechanisms of surviving the Maafa (middle passage) and enslavement.

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.

So while it is important that people of all backgrounds learn about the black contribution to Britain and the world there is an additional infusion for people of African descent; it is about learning more about themselves and being empowered so they can step forward with confidence, the spirit of their ancestors beside them as they rise. Happy Black History Month!

 

* Lester Holloway is a former councillor and member of the Equalities Policy Working Group, and a member of the Race Equality Taskforce

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10 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 1st Oct '13 - 5:34pm

    I welcome this with enthusiasm Lester. This approach should be copied in the history curriculum (if it isn’t already). I think it is worth mentioning that I get nervous about diversity and history teaching because sometimes it appears to be about tokenism, but this is not tokenism at all and it is fascinating.

  • Martin Caffrey 1st Oct '13 - 6:45pm

    Erm…..didn’t the Libdem’s allow those racist Home Office vans to appear???

  • Martin Caffrey 1st Oct '13 - 7:48pm

    @Lester

    Thank you for that response. A lot of Libdems become uncomfortable when those vans are mentioned.

  • “I bet there has never been a stabbing or shooting committed by a young person who knows their roots. No-one defends a postcode if they know about the city of Carthage and no-one flunks education if they know about the University of Timbuktu.”
    While I don’t disagree with the overall message, don’t oversell it. Breivik knew his roots and committed a number of shootings, and there are white children who are aware that the University of Oxford exists who still flunk education. I don’t think black children are immune to the same forces that arre operating on white children.

  • Melanie Harvey 2nd Oct '13 - 12:38am

    Keep the flow Lester, people have much to learn.

  • If I hadn’t seen this article black history month would have just passed me by. I am not sure that all African history is black history. There is no agreement about Egypt and I believe that Carthage isn’t.

    However I would like to know more about the role of blacks in the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages and Tudor and Stuart times. It is a shame that there are not more programmes on TV that discussed this type of history.

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