Black History, once a year: cure or concession? An exploration by Cy Grant
Black History Month organizers often ask me to give presentations in October on the basis that an annual coming together may give a sense of belonging to the ‘Black’ community. Other representatives of that community are more sceptical, likening this one-a-year dosage to a limited concession at best. At worst, they see it as mere appeasement – a sop to encourage deprived communities to conform to the status quo.
I have come to question more and more, the true motives behind this annual sequence of events. Whenever I have appeared at a venue in those communities I have been aware of a kind of euphoria reflecting the great need of our people, that they feel at last they are being recognized and accepted as equal citizens; and in a sense it would be churlish to deprive them of this sense of ‘belonging.’
Appearing in a mostly ‘white’ venue is just the opposite. One is always aware of the possibility that such occasions can be officially approved rituals, mere concessions to alleviate the sense of deprivation suffered for the other eleven months of the year, but is nonetheless prepared to ‘give it a go.’ Regrettably, my experience has mostly realised this fear of events roughly put together at the last moment, poorly publicised and tainted by poor organization and programming. Attendances are often small, audiences being made up largely of black people travelling from their own communities to catch some of the action, only to find none.
On the ground then, my own circumstances have led me to conclude that BHM is more concession than cure for society’s failure to come together. It is difficult to take issue with those in the ‘Appeasement’ camp who see it as more crumbs off the white man’s table and a field day for Black Race Relations predators. Having said that, I wanted to look again at the history of ‘Black History’ and see what positive vibrations might be encouraged.
I strived for concord
for unity in diversity
efforts still unheard.
now the climate’s changed
awash with funds
floods that feed
the seasonal scramble;
grabbing trade of temperate tourists –
crumbs off history’s imperial table
Is it not a shame
some black activists
bite the bait –
you can have de money
if you don’t buck the State;
the only access
pawns in an achromatic
that loads the dice
of light and dark
of men and mice.
oblivious to their second
ignore the historical
how they were dis
[from Rivers fo Time, Naked Light 2008]
A Brief History
What is not generally known in England is that Black History Month originated in America in 1926 as Negro History Week. The month of February was selected in deference to Frederick Douglass – the great Black American abolitionist, statesman and reformer of the 19th century – and Abraham Lincoln who were both born in that month. Black History Month was adopted in London in October 1987 as part of African Jubilee year. The decision to make this an annual event each October was endorsed by the Association of London Authorities. From its early beginnings in African America, a commemoration of ‘Negro’ history has been expanded into one of ‘Black’ history. But what does the word ‘Black’ really mean today? Not so long ago it denoted a collection of communities of various origins who came to be known as ‘Black’ following increased immigration after the war, their only similarity being that they were not white. ‘Blackness’ was later adopted as a useful political stance – a point of resistance – in the face of overt racism and oppression in the late 1960s and early 70s and since then the contributions made to Britain by migrant communities have been many. These days ‘Black’ has been divorced from ‘Asian’ as a term, so in the context of this paper I am referring to people of African descent – many from the Caribbean – who are now British.
From Week we have moved to Month. But today any calendar month of the year would be appropriate for celebrating Black history. Throughout our recent history there have been many Black heroes – from Equiano and Toussaint L’Ouverture to W.E.B. DuBois, Cheikh Anta Diop, George Padmore, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Frantz Fanon, AimÃ© Cesaire, Euzhan Palcy [film maker], Malcolm X, Mary Seacole, Rosa Parks and Claudia Jones to name but a few. There is a seemingly unending list of revolutionaries, world leaders, activists, scientists, writers such as Chinua Achebe and Ngugi Wa Thiongo, and scholars like J.J. Thomas, Adu Boahen, J.C.deGraft Johnson and Ivan Van Sertima. We have witnessed the far-reaching impact of Black music in the jazz of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Quincey Jones and Herbie Hancock. More and more we are made aware of important professionals and workers on world culture, of entertainers and sportsmen of the calibre of Mohamed Ali, Viv Richards, Brian Lara, Pele, and Tiger Woods.
Black history month, it seems to me, has come to reflect only the second-class status of black people within British society. A mere distraction or act of appeasement, it minimises Black history and achievements, ignoring the true historical perspective of the contribution of Black people. White children as well as Black [who still experience racism] should learn that all our histories are inextricably linked, so changing the way they perceive themselves and the world. Black history in Britain dates back to the presence of African troops in the Roman armies. There was also a significant Black presence in England even before the days of European conquest of Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean, and slavery and the heinous crimes perpetuated by Europeans. Black history also dates back to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the ongoing struggle against racial discrimination. This reality can only be transmuted by unearthing the darkness of the human psyche in the context of colour: being Black and trapped in a White culture; being White and caught in an ambush of denial – the chequered history from which we must all learn – black or white .
For Black people this would mean rediscovering the knowledge of who they really are, thus making themselves able to contribute positively to the healing of society. Their mere presence here is already making Europe confront its racism. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela have shown that they can influence and change entrenched attitudes. Mandela was once considered a terrorist. My particular hero has been AimÃ© Cesaire, the great revolutionary politician, poet/philosopher from Martinique who died only recently. His revolt against Europe is what worked on me in a subliminal yet positive way. It wasn’t just a revolt against racism, colonialism and the excesses of European culture but a call for a return to our native human values, to recognise that Nature is alive and bounteous and that we should not abuse her.
In the English speaking world Black people are generally unaware of the contribution of Cesaire. Frantz Fanon, author of The Wretched of the Earth – the bible of the Black Power movement in 1960s America – acknowledges Cesaire as his mentor. This movement knew about ‘Black is Beautiful’, but alas only on a superficial level. Cesaire’s plea was for a reconnection with Nature and a call for the emergence of a new man with new values. The Black press in Britain, I am told, did not even carry an obituary of the great man. In my essay The Way of the West I said that the Black man having reclaimed his authentic history and recovered his lost soul, must not fall into the trap of aspiring to assimilate into the so-called civilized values of his former oppressors. On the contrary, he must search out a different way. One obvious route would be to revert to the traditional values of community and caring; celebrating the intrinsic goodness of ancient African life and rites of passage; the ‘being’ mode as opposed to the ‘having’ of Western culture, encapsulated in the concept of Modimo, where all life is sacred.
Surely it is time to challenge the Eurocentric nature of historiography, which still ignores its debt to the great civilisations of the world – India, China, Sumeria, Mesopotamia and Egypt. Egypt is of course an African country and all our knowledge of mathematics and philosophy originated in Africa where Pythagoras, the father of Greek civilization, (from which we trace our cultural and philosophical heritage knowledge) studied in the temples for 21 years. I have suggested elsewhere that Black people themselves have forgotten their birthright; that Africa was also the birthplace of the human race [the Mitochondrial Eve] where human history began. People of the African diaspora suffered tremendously from colonisation of the mind. They are still unable to disentangle themselves from the identity of ‘collective victim’, rooted in the experience of colonialism and the memory bank of slavery, which falsely gives them a sense of solidarity – a position that engenders further rejection, one which I call the ‘black trap’ in The Way of the West. In order to challenge the status quo, a clear understanding of the mechanics of this process is needed.
The Way Forward
Pride in one’s blackness is just a part of a negative definition of self and needing to state that one is black and proud would be like trying to defend the obvious. This kind of pride is the other side of the coin of colonialism, the hubris of white institutions being the other.
The Association of London Authorities endorsed BHM in Britain in 1987, the very same year that saw the last Concord Multicultural Festival in Britain – a county wide event in Gloucestershire of which I was Director. The year before there had been a similar countywide Concord Festival in Devon. The previous 3 years had seen weekend Concord festivals in 20 of Britain’s main inner cities. Concord was set up by me in the early 1980 to celebrate the cultural diversity within Britain as a result of the race riots that were rife at the time. Its object was to include all racial minorities and not just the Black community. At the time, however, the notion of ‘Multiculturalism’ was resisted and our work though impressive, filling major theatres throughout the country, never received the support that it needed from the Arts Council and County Councils and media.
The inauguration of Black History Month was a very poor response to what I believe is necessary if we are to achieve a fair society for all. Concord was not just about Black cultural events but there to celebrate the wide cultural diversity within Britain. A report on Concord in Devon, was also published by the Gulbenkian Foundation in 1987 [ironically the very year BHM was adopted in London] and provides a workable blue print for the arts, not only for the arts of minorities. Was all this work in vain? At the time it was virtually ignored by the media. Even today the Arts Council have not acknowledged what we achieved and could still do to foster good relations within society. They still are locked in the same pattern of condescension and separation. As far as I can see nothing much has changed in the last 20 years – just lip service to multiculturalism. What I would propose is that funds should be allocated all year round instead of for just one month in the calendar year for a proper acknowledgement of our one history – to teach the history of Empire, not just cultural events. I suggest that a more detailed exposition of activities and learning should be promoted in a year-round approach to Black history, not just by local authorities but also in the media.
Spending could be at the discretion of local authorities and educational bodies. They could arrange well-structured events in conjunction with other bodies to ensure that there are no clashes of timetable and that a potential audience can witness them all rather than having to choose because of a concentration into a single month. Indeed, the greatest disadvantage of allocating just one month to all things black is that too many events are crowded into a short space of time. Also, some organisers of events will not care about the quality of events to be presented and so a lot of money is spent indiscriminately and planning and advertising can be slipshod.
A good example of what has been achieved by persistent lobbying over many years by the Equiano Society among others, is that now the story of Equiano is being compulsorily taught at KS2 (aged 11-14) in all British schools [since September 2008] – not only during the month of October. But perhaps what is most urgently needed is in-service training for teachers, many of whom may still treat teaching about Equiano as a one-off exercise in exoticism. The whole issue of slavery in human history (and which still exists in many forms) should also be explored, but not in our present climate of denial.
Before we decide upon a calendar of socially relevant events, we would do well to look again at who and what we are and begin to know like Cesaire that the tree of our hands is for all.
Cy Grant, October 2009
Bernal, Martin. Black Athena: the Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization. London:
Free Association, 1987.
Grant, Cy. Blackness and the Dreaming Soul. Edinburgh: Shoving Leopard, 2007
Palcy, Euzhan. AimÃ© Cesaire: A Voice for History (three-part documentary). California Newsreel, 1994.
Poe, Richard. Black Spark, White Fire: Did African Explorers Civilize Ancient Europe?
Prima Lifestyles, 1987.
Van Sertima, Ivan. Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern. New Brunswick: Transaction, 1983.
Cy Grant, ex RAF Flight Lieutenant, WW2, is well known as an actor and singer. He is also a qualified barrister, writer and cultural activist. He toured AimÃ© Cesaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Return to my Native Land, trans. John Berger, Anna Bostock) as a one man show for 2 years around Britain in the late 1970s and was Chairman of Drum Arts centre, also in the 1970s and Director of Concord Multicultural Festivals in the 1980s. He was instrumental in setting up a permanent online archive www.caribbeanaircrew-ww2.com developed in partnership with Hans Klootwijk – a unique record of West Indian air crew who flew in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. No official record of the 440 aircrew had been available .
He is a Member of the Scientific & Medical Network and an Hon Fellow of the University of Surrey, Roehampton. Cy is author of Blackness & the Dreaming Soul, Race, Identity & the Materialistic Paradigm, Shoving Leopard 2007; A Member of the RAF of Indeterminate Race, a war memoir, Woodfield Publishing 2007; Ring of Steel: pan sound & symbol – the evolution of the Trinidad Steelpan, Macmillan Caribbean 2000; Rivers of Time (Collected Poems), Naked Light 2008.
More details of Cy’s long and varied career can be found at www.cygrant.com