Today marks the start of Black History Month, a time to shine a light on black historical events and people like Martin Luther King, which originated in the US and is now celebrated and observed around the world.
Guess what? Every month is Black History month and behind closed doors, many may eye roll and question the need or validity of such an event. I studied history at Bristol university, history before beauty was my first love. By 8, I could tell you the Kings and Queens of England, what happened in 1066 and beyond. As a history student I loved the research and the studies and growing from what I learnt from walking in other people’s shoes and learning about their lives. The saddest part for me is that I know nothing of my own history, there are whispers and folklore but little else.
I’m half Nigerian and I’m half Trinidadian, so one part of my family were slaves and the other weren’t but being black, my history, my people, wasn’t deemed important enough to record. Like millions of others, I have been made invisible and our contribution to the world has literally been white washed away.
Growing up I never saw positive images of myself, people who looked like me were always victims and disempowered. Dark skinned black women with my 4C coils in movies, stories and the media were painted as slaves, maids or junkies. I loved watching Gone with the Wind as a kid and the image of ‘mammy’ stayed with me; she was a caricature but the only person who remotely looked like me. The actress Hattie McDaniel would go on to win the Oscar for her performance in 1940 and made history by being the first-ever African American to win but she’s not a household name like Vivien Leigh. She also wasn’t allowed to attend the premiere of the film as it was a whites only theatre and at the Oscars she wasn’t allowed to sit in the main part of the ceremony but on the sidelines on a separate table to her cast members. Why? Because she had more melanin than them.
People need to know these stories and facts to understand the double standards and roots of racism. Growing up without positive role models chips away at your self esteem and in 2020, I still live with the painful hangover of this portrayal of being perceived as powerless and pitied when I am the very opposite.
Many of us know of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Maya Angelou but do you know about Harriet Tubman, the female runaway slave who later went back to the Deep South 13 times to rescue and emancipate over 70 slaves, later becoming a spy for the union army and also was a light in the suffrage moment? Do you know, what knowing about her would have done for my self esteem growing up and how society views black women? Do you know about Madam C.J Walker, the first African American self-made female millionaire, born a slave and who created her wealth through hair care? What about Daniel Hale Williams, born in 1851, an African American doctor and one of the first people to perform open heart surgery in the US.
A little closer to home in the UK we have Charles Ignatius Sancho, born in West Africa he was a British composer, actor and writer who voted in the 18th century general election qualifying through property when millions of white men didn’t have the right to vote. Ask yourself why you don’t know about these extraordinary people who managed to excel in a time when people thought of them as beasts let alone human.
We don’t know about black history, about these figures about the intellectually contribution to the world, because it traditionally made it easier for people to steal, exploit, rape and maim people who you could dismiss as wild, out of control animals. The hangover and stereotypes built over centuries of exploitation is what we are only now trying to unpick and unravel with movements like BLM.
For a lasting legacy of social justice we must learn about our past, not in an act of revenge, which I believe many people are afraid of, but in order to acknowledge and recognise where our unconscious bias comes from. It helps us understand why white police officers in America are so frightened, it explains why George Floyd had the life choked out of him, those officers saw him as the dangerous beast he has been painted to be in world history and not a man pleading for his mother, as he lay dying in the street.
I have a very open Scandinavian approach to learning where they teach young children about sex, relationships and people politics and as a result, they have the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the world. In the same way we need to teach our children about slavery, about why people discriminate in order to Lance the boil of this poison, which is racism.
I know many will tut and say children shouldn’t be taught these things, I’ve been told this many times in my DM’s and private conversations. However, our kids learn about the Second World War, about the evacuation of children, so they wouldn’t be bombed and killed in their beds with over 85 million dead. Kids rightly wave British flags and sell red poppies, least we forget about the brave contribution of both World Wars and rightly so. This VE Day I hung British flags on my door but also flags of Nigeria and Trinidad because all parts of my heritage were rationed, bleed and died for this country but we never see the images of African soldiers in the trenches of the First World War and we never see the African soldiers shipped in from across the empire to fight in the Second World War and that is exactly my point. We have never been exposed to these images or stories and if our children can handle this truth and chaos of the Second World War and the lessons it teaches us, then they can handle the truth about slavery and how it has shaped our society today.
For me, BLM, Black History Month, isn’t about me and my experience but that of my children and grandchildren. What we do today will shape their future. I know others before me have been beaten with barb wired baseball bats, had dogs set upon them all in order for them to fight for the right to vote in the 1960s in the Civil Rights movement (to give you context: my mum was 21 and living in New York in 1968). Today, we need Black History Month, I wish we didn’t but we do because we don’t live in a balanced world, where the black experience, history and contribution to the world is valued and we need to shout and shine lights and speak the truth until it is.