Our account managér Dereck talks about his view of Black History Month, and the importance on changing the way we celebrate it
To get the elephant firmly out of the room, the reality of life is I am Black (shock) and therefore I celebrate my blackness and have “Black History Month” 365 days a year and of course 366 days on a leap year.
I live in my blackness.
However, I have always struggled to buy into black history month.
I have never been the one pushing the black history month agenda.
The truth is I don’t agree with the prevailing narrative of black history month being of black trauma and adversity. Blackness is not a synonym for slavery and racism. There was black history before slavery and there has been so much black history since. Why are all of the “celebrating black stories” Black History Month ideas focused on people overcoming adversity or battling through unbelievable amounts of trauma?
I’ve always been proud of my blackness and keen to learn about it, but yet every year I’m left feeling unsettled when Black History Month comes around, the month where I should be most enthused to talk about “The Black experience”.
Which by the way sounds like the name of a very unsuccessful debut album - if I ever pivot my career and become a singer that will most certainly be the name of mine.
Anyway I digress.
For those wondering how I can work in D&I, be an advocate for black voices and actually be black but yet not be the biggest fan of black history month, let me explain.
Growing up, I didn’t think that there was that much emphasis placed on Black History Month. Like many others, I’d be lucky if my school did anything to recognise the occasion. And considering the kind of area I grew up in and the demographic breakdown of my school, this was an oversight to say the least. And when black history was taught, it mainly consisted of stories of slavery and oppression and how the African Americans rose up against the system that opressed them. This is all to be highlighted and definitely not forgotten, and slavery is certainly a part of black history as is the trauma that come with oppression and institutional racism - but these most definately are not the parts of black history to “Celebrate”.
Imagine the story and celebration of your life being highlighted by all of your worst days. Not exactly wedding video worthy is it? Point being, Black people were not born into slavery and black history did not start with enslavement and oppression no matter what Year 7 History tries to tell you.
In Britain for example we hardly speak of Black British figures such as Mary Seacole, Professor Stuart Hall and Olaudah Equiano. This is Black British History, these are people who were pioneers and real black heros. Reading these stories made me realise not only how rich our identity is here, but also the role Black Britons have played in British culture. But even that is not where black history started.
I can imagine you’re sat there scrolling through your phone or on your laptop thinking ‘right, so where does it start?’ The sad reality is, I wasn’t taught that so I don’t know. But what I can tell you is what I have found through doing my own research and speaking to those much wiser than me.
Prior to colonisation and enslavement, Africa had kingdoms and city-states, each with its own language and culture. The empire of Songhai and the kingdoms of Mali, Benin, and Congo were large and powerful with monarchs heading complex political structures governing hundreds of thousands of people. In other areas, political systems were smaller, relying on agreement between people at the village level. The African continent was created on its own path of development, without significant external intervention until the fifteenth century of our era. Some of the world’s other great civilisations, such as Kush, Axum, Mali, and Great Zimbabwe (As a Zimbabwean I had to sneak this in), flourished in Africa for centuries.
Art, learning and technology flourished, and Africans were especially skilled in medicine, mathematics, and astronomy none of which is actually shared in “Black History” lessons. Even before the rise of Ancient Egypt it seems likely that an even more ancient kingdom, known as Ta Seti, existed in what is today Nubia in Sudan. Which I only learnt from my grandfather. Leaders such as Mansa Musa ruled over great kingdoms with great riches and influence.
This is the history I relate to. This is the history I want to be told. These are the stories we should celebrate if we are truly celebrating “Black History” or do we want to keep recognising black oppression?
Black history month should be as much about celebrating the black present as much as it is about recognising black history. We should celebrate Kwasi Kwarteng as the first Black Chancellor of the exchequer, the baroness Lawrence for her continued work driving inclusivity for all, Lord Paul Boateng the UK’s first Black Cabinet minister. And of course, it’s crazy that in this day and age, in big big 2022, we are still experiencing firsts as black Britons, but we should still recognise and celebrate each and every one.
I speak about Black history month this way as someone who wants my little sisters to grow up proud of who they are and what they stand for, and not feel like their skin tone comes with some sort of shame or is a sign of some unwritten or unspoken weakness. I write like this in the hope that my kids will be taught black history not only year round, but also taught of the successes of their ancestors and taught of the great marvels and feats black people achieved even before we were “discovered”. But on a more introspective level I write about this, like this so that I myself one day fall in love with Black history month and feel fully able to revel in the events and festivities that are happening without that sinking feeling.
I am not the first young black person to feel that Black History month does not represent me or my culture the way I would want it to currently, and alone I am not the person that will change how black history is viewed. But I hope even as you read this you can start to help me on that journey.
This Black History Month, do not alienate your friends, family, colleagues or employees with stories of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks. Instead, seek to understand their history as people, their culture, and their lived experiences and celebrate their wins.
Make this black history month one where you seek to learn, understand and appreciate real black history.
Phew, I haven’t written that much since A level economics.
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