Three little words can mean so much… and so little. Black History Month, like that other famous three worded phrase, can be said with genuine love and passion. It can also be insincere. Some people even have trouble saying it due to internalised issues they can barely grasp.
So are you a dedicated Black History lover, an October player or a lifelong bachelor?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying everyone with African ancestry must be a scholar in our history.
It’s just that many of us have a heritage that placed great emphasis on knowing our past. Africa has a tradition of Griots who passed on knowledge through every generation.
We recorded masses of historical information, from the scrolls and wall engravings of ancient Kemet (Egypt), to the thousands of books from the earliest university in Timbuktu in present-day Mali.
African consciousness was for the many not the few. Today not enough of us have such consciousness running through our lives and veins. We’re just not hearing the calls of our ancestors any more. Or, if we are, we’re keeping it quite in case the men with white coats burst in!
Black History Month started as Negro History Week by Carter G Woodson 86 years ago. It began in February and African-Americans still celebrate that month.
The fact that we do not celebrate in unison with our brothers and sisters across the pond helps to divide our Diaspora.
While I look forward to the many independent events and speakers each October there’s little authentically African about some council-sponsored events.
Many local BHM launch events are characterised by speeches from the mayor and dignitaries interspersed with African drumming and an ever-so-cute musical or poetry performance by school pupils.
The collection of Black historical figures gets slightly wider each year but not radically so. You may even find the odd Gandhi thrown in to add an air of ‘inclusivity’
That said, there has been a positive trend over the past few years for a deepening of Black History Month beyond the stereotypical celebrations involving the same handful of ‘safe’ pre-approved historical figures.
When historian Robin Walker lectures or author Dr Joy Leary visits Britain there is a large crowd hungry for information that taps into something deeper. Rapper Akala, who borrows from Walkers’ work, has his young followers enraptured by revealing an ever-expanding world of amazing achievements.
The pride and strength that flows from such knowledge is the true spirit of Black History Month.
For those who question whether BHM has run its’ course, I say ‘no, it’s only just begun, we’ve got so much further to go!’
I am not aware of a single Black youth who has shot or stabbed someone after learning about their true history and greatness. But I have heard of criminals who used to go to church!
Perhaps a little less bashing of one solitary book – written and rewritten from Hebrew to Greek to protestant to the King James version and so on – and more attention to the many books about our history would benefit our youth more than any state-sponsored anti-gang initiative can do.
With supplementary schools kept too poor to afford the right materials and education secretary Michael Gove turning down every bid to set up a Black free school we’re not going to get any help from the state.
But then maybe the essence of Black History Month is to be inspired to the realisation that we can, and must, do for self.
I’ve been inspired lately by the writings of T’ Oba Shaka, an authority on the Twa, African’s first civilisation dating back almost 150,000 years.
It’s a reminder that we didn’t just invent the traffic lights (Garrett Morgan) but that tens of thousands of years before the ancient Egyptians existed there was an advanced agrarian society who were masters at astrology, respected all women as queens and had collective decision-making systems that put modern democracy to shame.
And while the great Pharaohs ruled the Nile there was an equally developed Nubian peoples in Mexico, the Olmec, who also built pyramids and heavily influenced the later Mayans.
A recent study by the University of Manchester uncovered new evidence that Kemetic ruler Imhotep, from the 27th Century BC, oversaw a civilisation who were masters at medicine.
And that when African merchants were sailing the trade winds in the Middle Ages to do business with Cornwall, Europe and India, Africans were also the cream of medieval society in France, Spain, Italy and Russia.
Author Dr Ronoko Rashidi has done an amazing job tracing the great African societies of China, Japan, Indonesia, Cambodia and across the far east. Most have disappeared or been wiped out but their temples and statues survive.
All this is a reminder that Black history did not start at enslavement. Neither did it begin with the Benin peoples who fashioned the bronzes around 1,000 AD, or the 15th Century mosques of Mali, but goes way back further.
The oldest bones, discovered at Omo in Ethiopia, have been carbon-dated at 195,000 years old while the oldest Caucasians are comparative spring chickens at a mere 20,000 years old.
We know that many enslaved Africans and their descendants have Scottish surnames but how many that there were black tribes in Scotland from 3 AD?
We know Africans’ names and culture were stripped from them but it is worth remembering that the name Morrison, for example, originates from ‘Moor Son’. It’s a flipping around of history which gathers the energy of empowerment as it grows.
A sense that not only did we build the wealth of Britain and Europe by forced labour but that we own a piece of it in another way too; we were not just ‘there’ in Africa, but were also ‘here’ in the West longer than we imagine.
And we were also in the East, in Australia, and the Americas long before the White man got there.
Which leads on to the other aspect of Black history I love; the mystery of what we cannot explain.
We know ancient Egyptians mastered geometry but the question is not just how they build the pyramids but how they lined up the corridor exits to point to particular stars?
How pyramids across the world fit into astrological patterns and how they knew about the Sirius star long before telescopes were invented to see that far into outer space? And while we’re at it, how did Africans sail across the Atlantic to begin new civilisations in the Americas up to 1,200 BC?
This brings us into the realms of the esoteric. Did they have other-worldly help? Or were they so at peace with the heavens they were able to travel spirituality across the globe and into space before returning?
Some may scoff but for me this is part of the essence of Black History Month. Reviving our connection to who we were, when we ruled, and a prism through which to see our current predicament.
A compass by which to measure both our relative downfall since the times of enslavement and to plot our rise again through empowering knowledge.
Not knowledge for the sake of it but to remind us that we were, and still are, a deeply spiritual peoples who were intimately connected to our own history, to the earth and the stars.
We ate and drank healthily, healed ourselves, treated ourselves to art, adorned ourselves with precious stones and metals and explored the world that we felt was ours.
Not to be blacker-than-thou but to share what we can because everyone of African ancestry is in it together despite of generations of integration and assimilation into European culture.
I have one White and one African parent, and am proud of both ‘sides’ of my heritage. I took part in a debate a while ago with the Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown who accused me of choosing Black and rejecting White.
If only she grasped the breadth and depth of African history she would know how much it has to teach us all.
That the essence of Black history is exposing the truth of the hidden so that we can see the art of the possible. Where awareness of the light of history shrivels racism and where all nations can all live and compete equally free from deep-seated notions of superiority and inferiority.
As Africa rises economically while discovering new underground reserves of water, oil and precious minerals, now more than ever the Diaspora needs to unite. Guided by the bright star of its’ past towards a new chapter in its’ history. Black History Month – all year round – has just started!
By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway