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Black History Month and the importance of celebrating black British history

The Portrait of an African Man by Jan Mostaert, 1525 | public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

‘We cannot talk with impunity about Thomas Edison … [as] the creator of the light bulb, without mentioning that Lewis Latimer designed the filament that made the light bulb work! … In hailing Florence Nightingale, one is forced to hail Mary Seacole … In speaking of … Tudor England … Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, we must also speak of Henrie Anthonie Jetto and Mary Fillis of Morisco: the ‘Blackamoores’ that were Shakespeare’s other countrymen. Everywhere we turn, to tell human history right, we have to include. To crudely exclude the African or anyone else from human history is to be a partner in a crime and the accomplice in a felony.’ 

Dr Onyeka Nubia, ‘Black History Month in Retrospect,’ Black History 365, Celebrating Great Black British Achievers, Black History Month Magazine, 2017.      

Popular and digestible: Black history is a month

History should be popular and digestible, but a myriad of conflicting identity politics can leave people baffled, bewildered and even bemused. 

Why is there a Black History Month, but not a corresponding white one? Why are ‘women activists’ celebrated as such, but male ones not; and why are we lauded for celebrating diversity and not for celebrating ‘Englishness.’ The answer lies in the fact that identity politics exists for those who have had their identity erased. Arguably, every month is white history month; male activists do not need to be specifically lionised because they are men, any more than straight people need to ‘come out as straight,’ or be praised even if they did. And criticisms of diversity are already mainstreamed, it is a popular pastime. It may even be fashionable, to ‘cleverly’ challenge ‘tolerance,’ ‘liberalism,’ and ‘political correctness’ as if they were all the same ‘snowflake tosh.’    

Nevertheless, critical critiques of BHM do not just come from those who doubt its moral compass. But also those that question its probative effectiveness. Some of the fiercest critics include commentators of African descent, who ponder whether there is utility in only having one month to celebrate Black history. Some have even remarked that BHM is tokenistic, a voyeuristic flirt with blackness. A flirt that makes blackness – only attractive one twelfth of the year. And when this flirtation is over, they are no longer ‘a la mode.’ Their blackness is again unattractive – BHM does not make every-day Black people popular – even if it popularises some of their mystic.    

Far too frequently, (Black History Month) is preoccupied with an African-American narrative...

For BHM to survive, tokenism must be superseded by substance. Change will come when we take BHM seriously, and when the content of BHM programmes is worthy of that seriousness. So the subject matter that we draw from should engage and challenge. Moreover, far too frequently, BHM is preoccupied with an African-American narrative that is stretched and conflated to mask ignorance of Africans in Britain. Of course, African-American narratives are intrinsically connected to African Diasporian realities. But African-American history should never be used as a universal panacea for everything Black and historical. And we should never, because of a lack of scholarship, or from pure ignorance, use African-American history to hide what we do not know about Africans in Britain. 

The history of ‘Black Britannia’ should be a central aspect of BHM discourses, especially in Britain. But we should draw inspiration, from the breadth of human history. Time-bound narratives can never be comprehensive if they leave out two thousand years of human history.  For example, if they begin in Britain’s domination of the transatlantic ‘slave trade,’ before stumbling forward to 1948 and the Empire Windrush, and then drifting back to ancient Egypt (Kemet). 

We can no longer ignore the fascinating histories of the ‘Blackamoores’ in Tudor and Stuart societies

This type of storytelling is a pick and mix. And it’s a pick and mix that misses the point: that the post-classical 500 CE to 1500 and the early modern periods 1500-1800, are the most important for our understanding of modern times. Without these histories we cannot understand the position of Africans in the modern world. This is why the early modern period has been this author’s thirty years’ sojourn. A sojourn that now forces the Africans of those times into the mainstream, and will not let them be relegated to the margins. 

We can no longer ignore the fascinating histories of the ‘Blackamoores’ in Tudor and Stuart societies. Their history must be an integral aspect of any BHM programmes. This process helps BHMs become more than just digestible fayre. Instead, BHMs will infuse our endeavours at repopulating and decolonising historical discourses.

Indeed, that was why mainstream historical disciplines have shifted, because of initiatives that came out of BHM type celebrations. And for this, we owe BHM and organisations such as Hackney Black People’s Association, Lambeth Council, and ACSHO (African Caribbean Self-Help Organisation) in Birmingham a debt. A debt that we ought to repay, not just by serving up a regurgitation, but rather by using BHM as a mechanism to place Africans inside the womb of human history, rather than as a ‘Yurugu’ (the strange Gray Fox) lollygagging on the margins of it.    

By Dr Onyeka Nubia

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Dr Onyeka Nubia is a pioneering and internationally known historian and writer that is reinventing our perceptions of the nature of history. He is committed to the study of comparative histories and intersectionalism (the connections between different types of history). Onyeka has consulted on many aspects of history in the ancient, medieval, early modern and modern periods. He has discovered diversity in early modern England in his book: England's Other Countrymen, and in Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, Their Presence, Status and Origins.'