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Thursday, 9 October 2014

Back to Black (History Month)

Obligatory UK Black History Month post here.

Don't worry, it'll be short(ish) and, hopefully, to the point.

The point is, I think it's important more than ever to appreciate the complex differences in black UK perspectives in relation to US viewpoints, whilst being careful to remain in solidarity with both sides of the pond. The point is, whatever your standpoint on Barbicangate*, more black people here - people who have historically been underrepresented in spheres of power, barred from cultural institutions, political institutions, academic institutions whilst being disproportionately institutionalised - are engaging politically and that can't be a bad thing. The point is, if we take BHM for what it is, celebrating the fact that the Mary Seacole Ward and the Florence Nightingale Ward now sit comfortably in the same hospital with the same number patients (although, trust the Daily Mail to dredge up someone to make Seacole out to be a higgler woman, profiting from war)**, we can now start to ask why is everybody so sick?

And the point is also that it's difficult to talk about race without the huge spectre of racism casting its shadow, as much as we want to depart from that. ("You know who talks about race? Racists," the angry guy says, without any sense of irony… which Jon Stewart cleverly satirises)

Back to the UK and the point is it is only in the interests of a few to promote the richness of black history and culture and, even among black Brits, concepts of "blackness" and "history" are contested. The only solution is to give voice to as many people as possible. I grew up just as "multi-culturalism" began to make way for "diversity" and I strongly adhere to its principles of not restricting society to just the one narrative. We lose out by only telling 'one story' (I love Chimamanda for her writing, but her TED talk on the danger of a single story is another good reason to love her.) I strongly believe that there is enough space for a wide range of people and views AND for argument. One of my favourite quotes, from Peter McLaren - as quoted by bell hooks - is:

'when we try to make culture an undisturbed space of harmony and agreement where social relations exist within cultural forms of uninterrupted accords we subscribe to a form of social amnesia in which we forget that all knowledge is fogged in histories that are played out in the field of social antagonisms.'***  


I felt it for Raven SymonĂ©**** when she got pounced on for stating that she isn't "African-American" (or gay, for that matter, but that part largely went unnoticed); she didn't deny she was black, as she later explained:

“I never said I wasn’t black… I want to make that very clear. I said, I am not African-American. I never expected my personal beliefs and comments to spark such emotion in people. I think it is only positive when we can openly discuss race and being labeled in America".
All well and good and yes, as an outsider, I do find it - how shall we say? - problematic that white people get to be called Americans and black people largely become African Americans (which becomes especially tricky when African immigrants, or black people from the Caribbean with different histories then get brought into the mix), but that isn't my conundrum to solve. So Raven has every right to decide she's not AA. Although stating that she was 'colourless' hit a familiar nerve.

Bear in mind that I created a 50-minute poetry show that was all to do with labels (during which I covered myself in an A-Z of 26 self-adhesive labels, which I removed while deconstructing some of the different ways in which I have been labelled over time, in alphabetical order). Bear in mind that, at the end of the show, after I had explored diversity and race and gender, sexuality, religion… and after the floor was strewn with labels and all sorts of poetic paraphernalia that comes from creating a one-man show, I worked out that only the very privileged can afford not to have a label. I celebrate Raven's colourlessness, and her ability to transcend colour and sexuality, while knowing that I cannot afford the same, and while knowing that transcendence hides discrimination and inequalities and injustice.

I used to find it annoying filling out ethnic monitoring questions on forms - well, in fact, I still do… But, often, the purpose is to monitor and sometimes mitigate against prejudice (and there will always be prejudice in the world, it's natural). If, suddenly, we stop 'seeing' race, any need for people to address under-representation of certain races in certain areas will disappear (I don't think France has resolved this issue, for instance). The same goes for gender, disability, age… We should 'see' race in how we teach literature in schools.

We should 'see' race in how we look at films, music, art and other forms of culture. Sometimes that means getting angry about certain things; sometimes it means accepting other things; sometimes it means challenging our own failings; and sometimes it means agreeing that Raven is right in one respect, we should also see our shared humanity.

I'll post more on events I'm probably attending this month later on! Happy Black History Month!


*I really hate when people add 'gate' onto things to signify controversy but I shall do what many have done with other hateful turns of speech and reappropriate it ironically. Having said that, it's kind of tautologous, seeing as the word 'barbican' means gateway, so it's almost like saying gategate or doorgate; it actually makes no sense whatsoever.

**I try not to link to The Daily Mail too much. As much as a lot of their articles sound reasonable enough, they spew far too much hatred - here's a reminder of just some of the highlights.

***Peter McLaren from Steinberg, Shirley. “Critical multiculturalism and democratic schooling: An Interview with Peter McLaren and Joe Kincheloe.” In Christine Sleeter and Peter McLaren (eds). Multicultural education, critical pedagogy, and the Politics of difference (New York: SUNY Press, 1997)

****Ok, if you don't know who she is, who is you? (I grew up with her - almost literally as we're a similar age - watching The Cosbys to Hangin' With Mr Cooper etc...)

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