The celebration of black history that occurs in the UK every October is a sincere and somewhat relevant response to the injustices that litter the past, and the multiculturalism that defines the present.
Black History Month was first set up by the American historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926, at a time when black history was barely explored by the mainstream media. Its purpose was to counter the representation of blacks in many history books as slaves or the descendants of slaves.
It is, of course, a reactionary response.
In a perfect world, there would be no institutional injustice to respond to; it would not be the case that a whole portion of history would not have been marginalised and denigrated. Ideally, we should not need to set aside a month to concentrate on black history; history is a rich and complex tapestry, not a collection of compartments. Moreover, the diverse, fluid, and overlapping nature of history highlights the inherent nonsense involved in an attempt to categorise history according to something as continuous and arbitrary as race.
Nevertheless, given that we do not live in a perfect world, we can only strive towards ideals. The realities of the past mean that a month set aside to present and celebrate the histories of the peoples of black heritage can, and should, do a great deal of good. It is an opportunity to applaud the, often overlooked, contributions that have been made by black people to British history. It is an opportunity to acknowledge the participation of black people to contemporary British society. And perhaps most importantly, it is, or at least should be, an opportunity to reflect upon the health, sustainability, and underlying principles of our multicultural society.
Current common interpretations of black history do not do justice to the spirit in which black history month was conceived and should be practiced.
The prevailing usage and understanding of the term ‘black history’ suggests that there is a single historical thread that invariably links all peoples of black heritage. It tends to reduce the various histories of the vast and heterogeneous peoples of black heritage into one manageable theme. This homogenisation fails fundamentally to depict an accurate picture of history and results in manifest misrepresentations.
Such a homogenisation requires there to be a single thread with which the multiple histories can be bound together.
The single lens through which the multitude of black histories are viewed and understood is that of injustice, and the abominable injustice of the transatlantic slave trade serves as the key focal point. The transportation and commodification of men, women, and children from West & Central Africa to work on the plantations of the Caribbean and Americas is, for many people, the defining element of Black history.
Furthermore, the slave trade, along with the subsequent and ongoing struggle for the political, economic and social equality of black people, for many people, is black history.
Of course, the slave trade should be remembered as an indelible stain on human history; it is an aberration, the pervasive consequences of which can still be seen today. It should not, however, be essentialised. The slave trade no more defines black peoples, or black history, than it does European peoples or European history.
Much of the best work that takes place in and around black history month goes unseen, and much of the celebratory message fails to filter through. The manner in which it is presented in the mainstream media and taught in the majority of schools should almost certainly bear the brunt of the blame for this.
What should be a celebration, can often leave a distinctly sombre after-taste.
There are two cruel ironies that it is worth taking a moment to note.
The first involves the fact that a lazy understanding of black history month not only homogenises black histories, but also implies that black history began 500 years ago in the 16th century. There is rarely any reference to the histories of the African societies and civilisations that existed before they encountered Europeans. The unfortunate and unintentional suggestion is that black history begins at the point of first contact with Europeans; Europeans, in effect, bring black history into existence. Clearly, this is a comment on eurocentric attitudes to history and colonialism in general. The same point could be made about peoples the world over: from the Aztecs to Australian aborigines, indigenous Americans to Indians. Nonetheless, the sour irony lies in the fact that, according to such an interpretation, black history is subordinated to European history, existing only really as a sub-set of, or footnote in, European history. This hierarchy of histories mirrors precisely the political, economic and social hierarchy that black history month is, at least in part, a response to.
The second irony relates to the fact that during the slave trade there was a policy of enforced homogenisation. Families, villages, and tribes were deliberately split-up so that the slaves were less likely to forge associations and rebel. The slaves’ African names were replaced by the European names of their owners. The intended result was to suppress individuality and to dehumanise, to underline the African’s owned status and undermine their separateness from each other. Today, in an attempt to empower and celebrate, black history is again homogenised. Diversity amongst peoples of black heritage is underemphasised and singularity overemphasised.
A multi-thematic representation of history, that emphasises and celebrates diversity amongst peoples, fosters a climate of diverse possibility. For example, European history (note that few people simply refer to European history as it makes more sense to refer to periods, regions, and peoples) contain various themes that extend over a huge timescale: empires that rise and then fall, nations at war, revolutions and revolts, periods of great thought, discovery and creativity, periods of stagnancy and backwardness, great characters and spectacular events, despicable characters and horrendous events. This contributes to a structure of diverse options and opportunities, because almost every precedent has been set. Diversity, complexity, conflict, contradiction, and change in the past suggest that the same is possible in the present, and indeed the future.
Today’s singular understanding of black history conjures a barren historical landscape and leads to a diminished understanding of possibilities and identity.
Few people have much knowledge of any of the various African histories: of monarchy, religion, and community; of war, trade, and discovery. Personally, I know very little of the history of the region in Africa from which my family originates. I am, however, certain that it did not begin when Europeans ‘discovered’ that region. This disconnection with history is a further consequence of the slave trade and one that lazy interpretations of black history month do little to remedy.
Much of ones identity is derived from how they understand their history. History helps to shape aspiration and define possibility, contouring the landscape within which individuals make choices. If the old cliché, ‘you don’t know where you are going until you know where you have been’ contains a portion of truth, then it is imperative that we develop a richer understanding of black history.
An understanding that acknowledges and celebrates difference amongst black peoples, and not just between blacks and whites (as if this is the only distinction that can be made or the only one that matters). An understanding that seeks to offer a richer and deeper representation of black history, presenting an account of pre-European African histories and thus providing an appropriate context within which black history can exist. An understanding that enunciates a celebratory message and not simply a sombre, reflective one.