The transformational potential of Black History Month

by | Oct 30, 2020 | Causes, Community, Racism, Voices

“Black History Month, at its most powerful links the ‘ordinary’ and the suffering of these lost lives.”

Black pain and suffering is a familiar occurrence in the things we watch, read and scroll past on social media. From 12 Years a Slave to Kidulthood our movie screens make a habit of showing Black culture as negative and painful. Over the summer we were reminded about how many Black lives are lost in painful circumstances. We were shown, through our phone screens, images of the violence that prompted the Black Lives Matter protests. Similarly, as recently as August, David Bates wrote about Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass. These were two slaves who escaped from death. In turn, their being faced with death inspired their involvement for abolition here in the UK and in the United States.

Here, at the end of October, I asked myself – can Black History Month help us handle this trend? Does the revival of historical figures upset the linking of Black life and the loss of it?

Usually we do all we can to avoid talking about death – it reminds us of people that are no longer with us and times that have passed. For me, Black History Month lets us face up to the suffering of our Black communities. Black History Month can use the stories of the past to imagine better conditions for today. We can use this idea to bring back to life many brilliant Black minds who we remember every year. What does it mean that these figures become mainstays of the way we teach history beyond this month?

Christina Sharpe is somebody who writes about the continuing patterns of suffering long after the end of slavery. She points out that Black people ‘become the carriers of terror’ [1]. She means that the dangers that are sometimes only talked about, become real-life dangers for our Black communities. Many of the signs we saw at the Black Lives Matter protests were about not being able to do ordinary things. ‘I can’t breathe’ expresses a basic function of living denied to Eric Garner in the final moments of his life [2]. Being safely at home is something many of us expect to be able to do – but unfortunately not for Breonna Taylor. Playing, like Tamir Rice was, ended in sadness for his family.

Black History Month, at its most powerful links the ‘ordinary’ and the suffering of these lost lives.

This October we can bring some of our historical Black figures back to life.

2020 is a year we have been left desperate for light. We reach for the light switch almost every day and we have Lewis Latimer to thank. He was a Black inventor who patented the lightbulb. In a time where we often turn to Twitter or Facebook, we can remember Phyllis Wheatley. Wheatley was a late-eighteenth-century woman with immense poetic skill. Many of us love making Spotify playlists. Thinking of musical enjoyments, we can recall Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. He was the late nineteenth-century composer who entered the London College of Music at 15. When we are waiting for the bus we could recall another fifteen-year-old, Claudette Colvin. She rebelled on the bus a whole nine months before the event made famous by Rosa Parks. What seemed ordinary, a bus ride, ended with her as a witness for the legal case that overturned bus segregation laws.

We should remember people like this more often than Black History Month. Our day-to-day education should be full of these remarkable stories and figures from history. Germany has already taken on board the mistakes of their past. They don’t ignore the awkward and difficult moments in their history – and neither should we. They have a word that means ‘working off the past’ (they call it Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, though! [3]). We can also transform our past treatments of Black communities. We can use the past to move forward, like we do with Black History Month.

Things are shifting. Change will be more powerful if we continue to think about historical figures in the same way we do in Black History Month. This kind of thinking will help us deal with the images of negativity we see in the things we watch and read. We shouldn’t be shy about imagining things a bit differently.

[1] Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being

[2] On Frantz Fanon, an interview with Lewis R. Gordon: https://www.aaihs.org/on-frantz-fanon/

[3] Lizzie Widdicombe, ‘What can we learn about the Germans about confronting our history’: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/what-can-we-learn-from-the-germans-about-confronting-our-history


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