My first offers of working on BHM projects came in 2001 at a point of unemployment. Theatres and venues I didn’t know somehow managed to find my details, making enquiries about my availability for October with a view to making collaborations with Black History as a focus. The only downside was there was very little preparation time (enquiries began in August) and not much money. However, I believed it was worth it, considering the opportunity to work with such established organisation could foster new lucrative relationships. I felt at the time the opportunity to work during BHM was a chance for organisations to see the way I worked and witness the success of my projects. They were opportunities that couldn’t be passed up…. or so I thought.
After three years of repeated promises to work in a more sustainable way across the year instead of the one month lead up to BHM and then working across the month for very little money, I decided this particular avenue was like a parasite. BHM was feeding off my very presence. It began to signal to me Whiteness’ attempt to validate its existence by delivering BHM as a means to an end. The idea to working longer term with me would literally disappear into the shadows for the following 10 months without even so much as a thank you for some of the frankly Herculean efforts I was making for such low wages. I know I wasn’t the only one, this was being replicated across the country. BHM seemed nothing more than a way to service the system and give the illusion of a non-existent cohesion. Besides, I was growing tired of the slave narrative that seems to dominate BHM.
It’s the same slave narrative that keeps being brought up as ‘black history’. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not. The slave trade is the history of colonial white European domination inflicted on the world. It’s the story of how the British along with the French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese among many others fed and gorged themselves until bloated with gout upon the profits made from enforced “free’ labour entwined with the horrors of enslaving millions of Africans for three centuries, and how the wealth turned turned Britain into a super power, gifting it an empire which ruled over 23% of the world’s population at it’s height. It’s the continuing narrative of how Britain’s educational, legal, political, and social systems were aided by the profits of the slave trade, indeed the rise of the industrial revolution could not have happened without the slave trade. None of this is ‘black history’.
The black history I understand speaks of kings and queens on the African continent, a time before the Europeans enslaved Africans on a mass scale. The black history I understand speaks of Bussa, Nanny Maroon, the Haitian Revolution, as well as many other uprisings by the enslaved which continued throughout the entire period of the slave trade against the colonisers who refused to see human beings. It speaks of the British Civil Rights movement (not American) with events like the Bristol Bus Boycott, and hear the stories of activists like Olive Morris. This is the black history I want to see. Others agree with me, indeed Jeremy Corbyn’s recent announcement for Labour’s proposals to change the way Black history is taught in the U.K. shows there is indeed some sort of a will to do things differently. I want to see such history embedded in the British education system. But this I believe will never happen in my lifetime, not least because it disproves the notion of black people being knife-wielding, uneducated, service providers who should be grateful for being here in the UK. And if a black person doesn’t like how they are being treated then they, and I quote “have the means to leave the country’ as Piers Morgan told Dr. Kehinde Andrews recently. This insipid othering is the thing whiteness always does to protect itself. And too many white people fall unconsciously into this diatribe with wild abandonment when faced with accusations of racism. I say this with a vague hope that I’ll be proved wrong… although I doubt it.
But, I digress.
As a black woman, I am constantly called to justify my presence in the U.K. to white people who literally don’t know the history of how the black community came to be in the U.K. Every single day, I’m faced with a continual barrage of micro aggressions, pictures and articles from a media hell bent on demonising people who look like me and constantly triggering of racial trauma. In order to navigate my daily existence, as well as having artistic expertise which is frankly outstanding (you can’t say that as a black woman… yeah, I can) I’ve had to become part historian, psychologist and social scientist simply so I can defend myself against the daily assaults of whiteness. Funny how I feel I have no choice but to become a sort of collector of facts whilst all whiteness needs to question my valid criticisms
of the U.K.’s continuous attacks on blackness and the on-going racial injustice in general is a ferocity of opinion. I think it’s fair to say that in the thirty years since BHM came into being, the U.K.’s relationship with the black community has at this point fallen to an all time low. BHM has been become a silo, a mouthpiece to keep black people placated. And given the contexts I’ve given, my thinking is being born out by the facts.
The current and blatant attempts to rebrand BHM to Diversity Month seeks to both service whiteness’ wish to erase black people from the British historical canon and maintain the negative perception of the U.K. black community whilst at the same time, promoting through the back door a heightened sense of white people’s diversity as proof that we are all in this together. From the notion of White Christ right up to the lack of acknowledgement by the U.K. of the West Indies effort in fighting in the armed forces in both World Wars on behalf of Britain, Whiteness merely seeks to maintain itself as top of the food chain. White supremacy has been going on for a millennia at the very least.
My criticism is BHM is far less about denigrating the efforts of the many in the black community who year in, year out are called upon to deliver a programme of work, for not much money. Working BHM is a thankless task which rather than being seen as an very necessary and integral way to celebrating a community whose efforts over the centuries have directly contributed not only to the development of the U.K., but to to the world. My criticism is more about the response whiteness has to BHM. A response which I feel will always typify how the dominate white culture in the U.K will always see the black community. The systems in place demands there is no alternative to the fake narrative.
BHM to me has become a series of wasted opportunities for discussions around how UK society wishes to view itself in the 21st Century. It’s a severely under-resourced month of a string of broken promises. And it serves as yet a further reminder that the system of whiteness will do anything it can to protect itself. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent statement about the importance of BHM to U.K. does nothing more than give lip service in a vain attempt to deflect criticism.
My feeling is it’s time to do away with this farce. In the face of Brexit, Britain needs to face up to and confront it’s colonial past with honesty and bravery.
I won’t be holding my breath.