The groaning and flouncing were for several reasons. First, the North American Black History Month celebrated in February is the only one anyone cares about, and black people in other parts of the world are all supposed to adopt it and be happy. In Barbados, where I’m from, there is no month so called that is our own, and in the UK where I live, it’s in October, and no one outside the UK cares. (Arguably no one inside the UK cares, but that’s another paragraph.) But as usual, the US invents holidays and we happily run off with them.
This in itself is not that problematic. I’m not quite so anti-imperialist and nationalistic as to refuse to celebrate holidays created by the United States. Then I would have a whole closet full of useless party dresses. But the origin of the occasion also determines its expression. Hence, black history month is African American history month, celebrated in February because in 1926, its originator Carter G. Woodson chose the second week of February as Negro History week, since it marked the birthdays of two Americans who greatly influenced the lives and social condition of African Americans: former President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Our histories are of course tied. We all started as part of the same slave trade, although we proceeded on different trajectories. But African American history is not synonymous with Black history. Americans are of course free to celebrate black history in whatever way they want - although I take exception to some parts of their ‘celebration’ - and black people in other parts of the world must decide for ourselves what are the parts of our black history of which we will stand in remembrance.
Second – I’m still on the groaning and flouncing – Black History Month sparks the annual debate concerning whether black people even deserve a month. The white community begins to hold forth about the equity of a system that singles out one particular ethnicity to honour for an entire month in favour of others. And of course, the argument that the creation of the month was in response to the marked absence of a dialogue on the black contribution to mainstream culture and history, a contribution that at the time was significant compared to other communities, is met with “well now they can abolish it, or share it with Latino and Asian people or something.” Or why don’t we just call it Minority Month and throw cultural sensitivity completely out the window once and for all? And what does “well now” mean? “Well now that there is complete equality?” Because if so, we are not currently at a “well now” place.
Then there are the cries of “So why is there no White History Month? You see, this is just like Black Entertainment Television. If we had White Entertainment Television, we would be called racist!” It is at this point that I need to sit down. I feel weary. I counter with the standard “all history is white history” argument, and do my best to stay passionate and focused, but really, by this time, I’ve lost the will to carry on. What I fail to understand is how this even affects its detractors. Granted, I have limited experience as a white woman, so I can’t say for sure. But last time I checked, no one was forcing hordes of white people to cook grits or learn crunk. So what does Black History Month take away from the white community that they need to be so vocal about? I am now accepting responses.
But the argument goes on, and most of it I manage to ignore. What I cannot ignore is the fact that Black History Month still exists on the fringes, and is still cast largely in terms of slavery. If the aim of Black History Month is to reinforce the ways in which contributions made by black people have been and continue to be integral to mainstream narratives, where is it in the mainstream narrative? When I lived in the US, Black History Month amounted to a slew of plays and exhibits, a big production on BET but on few other networks, and the obligatory televising of Roots. People will say that the events are out there, and all I have to do is look. Well therein lies the problem: if I have to look, it isn’t in the mainstream. Here in the UK, Black History Month seems largely about sugar and slavery, and I would submit that in a country still so rife with racial intolerance (There, I said it. Now we can all stop pretending), it must be about more.
With President Obama in the White House, I am more optimistic that people will continue to see that history is not just the Middle Passage, the Abolition and “did you know a black man invented the egg beater?” History is also the evolving expression and experience of blackness all over the world. It is the exploration of failed governance in today’s Africa - which has existed and been building for decades - and its horrifying effects; it is the specific identification of black women who have fought for women’s rights and why this fight also needed a black voice; and it is a celebration of black culture in its own right - contextualized, yes - but not just within the story of slavery.
In Barbados, we observe Black History Month in February. A good friend once told me that growing up, Black History Month made him feel not proud of his blackness, but ashamed of the legacy of slavery and of his role in it. And this in a country that is 95% black, but that arguably still bears the power relations of black minority. We also televised Roots, and were told again and again the story of the American civil rights struggle. This is an important story to know, and it is undeniable that race relations in the US greatly affect those in other parts of the world. I feel solidarity with black people everywhere, but this is not our story.
Driven by Heroes’ Day and the celebration of independence, there has been some effort towards building greater awareness of a uniquely Barbadian black history, and this should be encouraged. What should also be encouraged is the discussion of blackness beyond the cerebrality of the Pan-African movement, which itself is marginalized and whose members are seen, unfortunately, as disgruntled and irrelevant. We too need to explore our evolving history, and to have the temerity to do so on our own terms - in the context not of cheap scandal-mongering masquerading as interrogatory, but of honest, public discourse. I think now is a good time to start.
Happy Black History Month.