During my early teenage years, black history month was exciting. Growing up in Nigeria, blackness was a concept that was unfamiliar to me. It wasn’t until I moved to London that this identity was assigned to me. Trying to understand what this meant and if, or how, it changes anything (spoiler alert – it does); you can imagine what relief it was to discover the existence of a black history month. In a way, I expected the month of October to give me some insight into what it meant to be black. So as the leaves withered and the wind got harsher, I’d go through my September days hurriedly. As if rushing through my daily tasks would hasten the arrival of black history month.
However, like many other black children, the school system failed me. In secondary school, year after year, when October rolled by, we’d learn about slavery and its abolition, the civil rights movement and key figures like Martin Luther King Jr. (the good negro) and Malcolm X (the unruly negro), all from an American perspective. Every year, all I remember learning from school was that white people in America enslaved black people then they felt bad so they freed us but with conditions, then we fought to be free of those conditions but we had to do so peacefully. Anyone who wasn’t peaceful was a deviant (read: Malcolm X and the Black Panthers). This recollection of history displeased me. So many things didn’t add up. If schools in the UK focused purely on American black history, what does that mean for black British people? It possibly couldn’t be because the United Kingdom had no prior interactions with black people to have its own black history. It was no secret that Nigerians celebrate our independence from the British yearly. So why was this absent from the black history month syllabus in schools?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against black history month because I recognise that it means different things to different people. My issue lies with the monolithic perception of black history and the black experience. The idea that black history begins with slavery and ends with the civil rights movement is false. The idea that Britain was innocent in all the crimes committed against black people all over the world is dishonest. The idea that black history is born out of struggle and oppression is deceitful. We are taught to believe that our genesis was slavery therefore we should be grateful for where we are now.
History has been fragmented. Black history month doesn’t need to be a thing because black history is world history. This dissection of history means that there is so much more to the story of humanity as a whole than we are taught. As the saying goes “history is written by the victors”. The black history we are taught in school completely overlooks Britain’s interactions with black people and our nations. It teaches us to believe that prior to the 20th century, we were essentially insignificant or just invisible. Therefore, black British people have no real place in modern day Britain. History has been whitewashed so that we don’t see ourselves as anything other than slaves.
As black people, most of our history is hidden. But without our history, the history of the world as a whole is distorted. We do not exist in bubbles. Different races have been interacting with each other long before slavery, be it through trade or war. If history was taught properly and in depth, we wouldn’t need a black history month. In an ideal world, black history would be as important as the Tudors or the Holocaust. But until then, happy black history month.