Put down the history books that fixate on the legacy of slavery and realign your focus to a reality where you can see the ever-present faces that illuminate Black history, a journey of adaptability, endurance and ingenuity.
We are history, we are the faces of Black Britain. We are intimately connected with the time frame of today, the fabric, also the seamstress - tying the ends of British society together, yet so forgotten. Despite attempts to omit from our national psyche and cultural learning, the memory that runs in direct opposition to the romantic version of the British Empire - Black Britain is alive and are situated in British history. These realities are bound up in a shifting nexus of the continual de-humanising of Africans and the African diaspora.
In October, the month that is formally recognised as the UK’s Black History Month, exists a major defunct that send all learning of and appreciation for Black British people into a distant, elusive black hole. The erasure of Black History Month as piloted under Hillingdon Council in 2007, followed by more recent attempts to change Black History Month into ‘My History Month’ celebrating all cultures, is part of a wilful and deliberate attempt to remove Black people from this society. Although less overt, these methods of erasure hold a similar resemblance to the Windrush scandal, by way of wrongfully denying the existence of Black people here in Britain.
More importantly, the efforts which targeted the Windrush generation are continuing to unfold and should remain a central point of learning, especially in Black History Month - otherwise we run the great risk of repeating the same racist cycles.
Much of the public are unaware of how present and impactful Black British history is. When presented with evidence of these histories, there seems to be much resistance in our society and institutions to even recognise these facts as important, yet alone to even think about incorporating them into our cultural learning. Why do we continue to fixate on the notion of a multicultural society, when cultures who have contributed to British society are continually undermined?
One major focus in Britain’s school curriculum is the misconstrued idea that the history of Black people living in the UK began solely as slaves. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade, while intimately connected to the history of many Caribbeans living in Britain, is not the entirety or the main focal point of Black British history. It is merely one of many facets selected in this history, that fixate on aspects of inferiority and subordination. In the event slavery remains the crux of Black educational discourse, we must start to apply nuance into this eerie take on history that includes documenting slave rebellions, unpacking the role Europeans played in the decimation of population, culture and the environment or to go further, exploring the links to modern day institutions such as the banks, universities and museums found on the streets of London. Our curriculums and Black History Month lessons do not reflect and engage with the past critically in a manner that connects to Black Britain in the present day. In fact, by choosing to remain sitting on this side of history alone, we welcome ‘facts of the past’ to abide in our everyday interactions.
When Black Britons grow up learning a version of their history that is depicted as passive, uneducated and a violent monolith, all under a month deemed to be empowering, the message that is relayed is an attack on one’s ontological density, spelling out a reality of being at the bottom of society. It silences current Black British voices and fades out the work of Black British civil rights activists and pioneers in a multiplicity of fields.
The disconnection of history that was cultivated on British soil centuries ago, a history that was documented well before slavery and the fantasy of Columbus’ discovery, uproots the search for humanity into a shroud of continued oppression - that is centred on a lack of knowledge about Black history, self and a contribution to this world.
Incidentally, the world as we know it today would not be the same without Black people’s contributions to civilisations, science and all the way down to sport. Even in the face of erasure, the fact remains true.
Our society has much to gain from the inter-cultural exchange of learning about British History, after all, Black history is history, and is for everyone. The information we choose to take and apply, directs the future of the world we are about to step into, that is tomorrow and 50 years from now. In approaching the teaching of Black British history from a place of humanity, we will find that it is alive and at our doorsteps which everyone has a stake in keeping that knowledge alive.
Lavinya Stennett is a writer, artist and student in development and African studies
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