Saturday, 17 March 2007

Correcting History: Too Much Music And Dance Dilutes Black History Month

Opinion piece by Kwaku published by New Nation Nov. 13 2006 p.8

Having just celebrated another Black History Month (BHM), and with next year being the 20th anniversary of BHM in Britain and the 200th anniversary of the Slave Trade Act, which abolished the British slave trade, I feel moved to turn the focus towards how we can be empowered by these landmark events.

My local newspapers, and other publications, have described BHM as a celebration of black culture, black history and culture, or black and Asian, and sometimes ethnic minority, cultures. I contend that they are wrong. Why?

Let’s go to the genesis of BHM. Dr Carter G Woodson started it in 1926 as Negro History Week, because he found very little black representation within American history books. BHM was launched in Britain in 1987 by the now defunct Greater London Council’s London Strategic Policy Committee (LSPC).

The reasons October was chosen include the fact that it is the month that generally marks the end of harvest across west Africa, and is a period of reconciliation and reflection. BHM was launched within the context of the African Jubilee Year, which covered August 1987 to July 1988.

The Jubilee was also launched by the LSCP, with a pro-Africanist declaration, which included anti-apartheid, anti-racist commitments, and focus on promoting positive images and understanding of Africans and people of African descent.

This background puts my stance into context. Most BHM programmes are overwhelmingly represented as a cultural event, in short, a time for singing, dancing, and drumming. I am not against these activities – after all, I’m the founder of the Black Music Congress (BMC). I love music and performance, and I believe culture forms an important part of history.

However, my beef is that the import of BHM has been diluted. The end result of many of these cultural events are devoid of a historical context, and only re-affirm the stereotype that black people are good at singing, drumming and dancing. What do we take with us after attending such events? Great entertainment, but very little focus on history, to challenge and inspire minds.

It’s relatively “easy” to pull crowds with cultural events - a celebrity here, a singer there, and people flock in to be entertained. So I salute those that persevere with history-based events, which generally don’t draw huge audiences.

Why? Is it because we don’t like to be mentally stimulated, or don’t like history? That said, Robin Walker’s ‘When We Ruled’ book launch and question and answer session on African history at Harlesden Library was ram-packed.

BMC and BTWSC organised the Brent Black Music History Discussion in Brent and The N-Word & Insidious Racism Debate in Harrow. These talks programmes had good attendances, without celebrities to promote them. October should be the month when British society see black people with fresh eyes and respect, because of the role they have played, and continue to play, not just in the arts and sports, but other fields of endeavour, such as finance and the sciences.

BHM has a practical function, which benefits both black and non-black people. I find many BHM events regaling about great achievements, such as the pyramids in northern Africa, or the great kings and queens that have come out of Africa. This is all well and good, but it can sometimes be tokenistic. The driving reason of such commemorations should be aimed at educating the whole community. But more specifically, to instil some self-worth, confidence and aspiration within the black community, particularly the youth.

Look at the educational indices. Africans and African-Caribbeans usually figure around the bottom. Look at prisons - we are over-represented. Whilst the reasons are multi-faceted, the lack of self-worth and positive imagery, have been shown to be contributory factors. It is for this reason that I believe BHM should be focused on history, specifically African or African-Caribbean. Not only because the Jubilee declaration, within which BHM was launched here, was African-centred, but also because the positivity instilled can only enrich the whole community – less ASBOs and prison sentences, more reason for staying in school or pursing one’s true potential.

This year, the Harrow BHM Forum funded BHM events that were history-focused, and also highlighted black scientists and inventors. During the ‘N-Word & Insidious Racism Debate’, we awarded the BTWSC Black S/Heroes Award 2006 to Ghanaian mathematician and physicist Professor Francis KA Allottey. We also launched the Prof. Allotey Science Prize, which will go to a Harrow secondary school student of African descent.

Here is an example of how we can use BHM to empower us – we learn about a giant in the sciences – the Allotey Formalism method of determining matter in space is named after the Ghanaian scientist, and we use the Prize to encourage science take up among our youths, who at school are routinely directed into the arts and sport, whether or not they’re best suited to these fields. That in itself is a form of insidious racism.

I think the 200th anniversary of the British abolition of the slave trade, should not be a time for mindless celebration, but rather, serious reflection. One of the issues I wish we’d ponder upon is how we identify ourselves.

Those slaves were Africans. Isn’t it funny how some of their descendants, whether born in the Caribbean, Britain or the Americas, are happy to call themselves by the N-word, but find it offensive to be referred to as Africans?

I know the New Nation has made an effort by referring to black people as African Caribbean. It’s a start, but I say, let the significance of the 200th anniversary be the time that black people of African descent describe themselves simply as Africans, or similarly to the Americans, as African-British. Remember Peter Tosh’s words: “No matter where you come from, as long as you’re a black man, you’re an African.”

Finally, arts minister David Lammy, who’s overseeing the nation’s 2007 commemoration plans, recently hinted that the teaching of slavery could become part of the school curriculum. What I’d add is that there’s a form of slavery which no curriculum or BHM event will change, if we do not have self-worth, and grounding in who we are as individuals and a people. To quote another Wailer, Bob Marley: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.”


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