On this particular day, as my mother asked me what I learned during that day in school, I made one, fleeting, off-hand comment about the existence and work of Florence Nightingale.
My mother meanwhile, who was still in the kitchen preparing dinner at this point, put down her knife, washed her hands and sat me down on the sofa. I remember feeling as if I had done something wrong, that something in my Florence Nightingale story was bad or I had accidently mispronounced a word and swore.
It was in that moment that I had ‘the talk’. No, not about the birds and the bees, but the talk about how history is written by those in power and how those in power had written history to forget about us. The talk that every account in history has more than one side and it was more than likely we would only hear one side unless we look for the other side ourselves.
Furthermore, being born in the UK- I would most likely never get to hear about what black people did in history, because a lot of the time people just didn’t care.
Now as a young boy I never wanted to believe this. I never wanted to believe that an entire race of people who still roamed the earth had no documented history. Did Black people simply just ‘pop up’ over night? Where were the black people during the Aztecs, the Romans, through the Tudors or even World War Two? Was being black some sort of new thing?
The truth however, was far less dramatic and in the coming months and years, I would learn that being black was not new. In fact, being black was as old as humanity itself, since scientific discovery dictates that our collective history stems from African descendants millions of years ago.
Sadly, the gap between the well documented segments of Black history and speculative or even interpretive information, is also millions of years old, making the notion that Black History only truly started somewhere in the 1700’s with the Atlantic slave trade just that little bit more believable.
But putting the word ‘black’ in front of the word ‘history’ doesn’t mean that suddenly all discovery is reduced to facts and figures to fit somewhere on the timeline of human history. For me, it is more than just recognising or remembering the achievements of Mary Seacole, W.E.B. Du Bois, Huey P Newton, or Barak Obama. It is more than learning about the influence and critiques of Louis Farrakhan, Malcom X or Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, because time and time again, history has shown itself to be both an account of what happened, as well as the identity of the people who live in its consequences.
If at this point you think what I have written for you to read is complete hogwash, I want you to first consider the sense of pride someone feels when they say they are from a particular nation. Using the example of Britain, does all of that pride suddenly bubble up from solely recent events? Do Brits suddenly feel a sense of belonging and pride because we earned a total 65 medals at the Olympics? Or does that sense of pride come from the fact we have the NHS or ‘won’ World War 2? (1945). Perhaps this pride is supported by knowledge that there was a British Empire which spanned almost the entire world between the 16th and 18th Centuries and has had an internationally recognised monarchy and some form of parliament since 1215… or 1707 depending from where you count.
My point though is this. History is more than just what we tell children so they know about medieval kings and the feudal system, and it’s more than what we base the present day on in order to form and construct our social norms. It’s also a very strong source from where people draw their identities from. So, in the absence of Black history for Black people, there is ultimately an absence in our identity and a lack of understanding for our social norms and constructs.
This is why this year’s theme of ‘Community Heroes’ does not mask over the more obscure aspects of Black history. Speaking of our community heroes does not take away from the great Ghanaian Empires of the ancient world, nor the bravery of Kenya’s Silk Road merchants. Instead we add to the accounts of what we are all doing for history, adding to the timeline of what we are accomplishing as individuals in a community and laying the groundwork for something that makes sense for tomorrows generation.
So, ‘What does black history mean to me?’ Well, for me it’s the biggest signifier of political injustice and racial inequality. For me, Black history is the reason why having a black boyfriend or girlfriend is seen as being one of the worst things a person can do short of going to prison, socially. It’s why we can have self-hating black men and women who are just as happy to persecute members of the community they dwell in- rather than make a positive difference. Personally, I’m tired of it all and I know that a root cause of all of these problems is because there is no widely accepted database on Black History, nor is there a universally accredited way that this information is delivered. So not only do Black people not know about Black identities and social constructs, neither does anybody else, so it leads to a lack of respect from the world community. It’s why Black men find no fault in shaming and degrading Black women for being Black, but will defend a woman’s choice for bleaching her skin or going to have surgery to reduce her nose and make her facial features more ‘European’. It’s why we can romanticise the life of rappers or Floyd Mayweather when an overwhelming majority have not finished school or live a criminal lifestyle and we call it ‘Black Culture’. This accumulation of lost identify and essentially self-sabotage is one of the biggest shames I believe Black History Month can help to begin to change.
We have to change in order to remember, because we are forgetting who we are.
It saddens me that having an Afro is immediately considered a fashion choice rather than a political statement or a sign of embracing natural beauty- two things the Black Panthers stood to advertise with the hairstyle in the 1960’s. It saddens me that Nigerians are reduced to 419 scams rather than their rich ancestry and natural heritage. What about the fact that it competes for the highest grossing nation to produce movies, even eclipsing that of America? I’m saddened by the fact we associate the West Indies with passport and citizenship scammers looking to target large white women on holiday, forgetting almost entirely that Haiti, a Caribbean Island was the first place in the world to abolish slavery and that the majority of the West Indies became a safe haven for freemen and escaped slaves. Yet the biggest grievance I have is the fact that we associate the entire continent of Africa with slavery and poverty- ignoring the fact it has over 80,000 millionaires and that 49 of the 54 African countries are looking or have found oil deposits since 2010.
The reasons for this discrepancy in knowledge are vast, which are again- all buried within the histories of nations. However, in the grander scheme of things, how can this be just? When you take a closer look at any other community and their history you can find a wealth of information about the Native Americans even in light of their genocide. We can link historical passages to religious texts for the Israelites even after their exile from Israel and their mandated return in 1945. Even tales you hear in the middle-east contain fragments of truth, surviving its ill-gotten reputation for being ‘war-torn’, History is still passed on through the generations via word of mouth.
So what does ‘Black History Month’ mean to me? Black History Month is a platform for our voices to be heard. It’s a place where we can begin to learn our value to both our localised communities, the nation’s we populate and our world history. Black History Month is a catalyst for learning, self-discovery and international recognition. Black History month is a reminder that we are not new, we are not useless and that we are all, people of importance.