Some thoughts on Black History Month by Maggie Harris

Black History Month now offers several events and activities across the country, but in the early 2000’s when I was a Reader Development Worker for Kent Arts and Libraries, the concept was only in its infancy. I remember planning an event in a local library only to be questioned by someone in authority on the need for such an event based on the premise that not many black people lived in Thanet! I replied that BHM was not solely for the black community, but for all; to highlight and educate on black history and culture. The event proved to be successful and very well attended by an audience both black and white.

Twenty years later, how aware is the general public regarding BHM? Whilst black communities no doubt are, it’s not on the radar of a vast majority of the population. A short survey conducted on social media threw up mixed results – there were people in their 20’s and 30’s who had never studied anything related to Black Culture at school and others who had done limited reading of texts like The Colour Purple; some colleges celebrated the month through student-led activities while others did nothing. Some of my close friends and family have admitted they only knew about BHM through me!

The writer, Geoffrey Phillips quotes Marcus Garvey ‘We must canonize our own saints, create our own martyrs, and elevate to fame and honour black men and women who have made their distinct contributions to our racial history.’

The current climate stemming from the injustices against George Floyd, the removal of statues and the Black Lives Matter campaign has had a number of reactions, both positive and negative. The New Statesman writes ‘sales of books about race by black authors (have) shot up the bestselling lists,’. However, the recently formed Black Writers Guild responded by saying ‘publishers have taken advantage of this moment to amplify the marketing of titles by black authors…’ (The New Statesman)

Some people see the need for Black History Month as ludicrous, as history of both black and white should be the same subject. The current ‘toxic climate’ as described by one reply to my survey refers to accusations of attempting to engage with the past as attempts to rewrite history, not understanding that history written by the oppressor will always be ‘whitewashed’. This ‘toxic climate’ has also produced an overwhelming list of complaints against the dance group Diversity’s recent performance on ITV because the reality of black lives weren’t deemed suitable for a family show.

I was lucky to be able to study African/Caribbean Literature at Kent University during the 90’s, which introduced me to writing from across the diaspora; from Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite to Linton Kwesi Johnson. These writers informed me of a whole world of issues which, although I had been born in the Caribbean, had not been taught to me at school. It wasn’t only in the subject matter, but also through their creative and innovative approaches to writing – Derek Walcott’s lyricism and themes of hybridity, Brathwaite’s orality and historical re-imagining, and Sam Selvon’s comedic and bittersweet experience of early settlers in London.

The question of voice was all-important – who was writing ‘our’ story, how do we write it, how do we define ourselves? Grace Nichols’ poem I am a Long Memoried Woman drew me back to Africa in my imagination, and led indirectly to my first collection Limbolands, which won the Guyana Prize in 2000. Literature from a post-colonial perspective has produced some of the finest Caribbean books in the 20th century, from Walcott’s Omeros, Kamau Brathwaite’s Arrivants, Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea, to Witchbroom, by Lawrence Scott. Studying these writers have helped to make me the writer I am today as I continue to bridge the two worlds I still live in; a Caribbean world of memory and essence and a British one of modernity.

That Black Writing is somehow alien to the mainstream still exists. Now that Bernadine Evaristo has co-won the Booker Prize, hopefully we can see more readers seek out the wealth of diverse literature available, including Bernadine’s other books which over the years have opened up an important discourse on the black presence historically as well as stereotypes, gender and culture.

Sharmilla Beezmohun, of Speaking Volumes, a platform for writers of colour, writes: ‘Whilst Black History Month is great in shining a light on black culture, it may be the only time this happens – particularly in schools, where there’s so much pressure on teachers. And too often there’s a focus on African American culture, which ignores the contributions made by generations of black artists in Britain. That’s why we put together two brochures, Breaking Ground – which highlights 200 British writers of colour across all genres, from poetry to fiction, thrillers to biographies – and Breaking New Ground, which gives information on 100+ British writers and illustrators of colour for children and young adults.

Right now, Black History Month is still very much needed, and hopefully will continue to showcase the great wealth and talent of black creatives whilst giving everyone the opportunity to challenge the limited inherited perspectives. We have to respect and accept that the UK is not a mono-culture, but one in which diverse voices inhabit and exist both historically and culturally and Black History is everyone’s history.

Maggie Harris is a Guyanese writer living in Kent. She has won the Guyana Prize twice for her poetry and was the Caribbean Winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her latest book of poetry is On watching a lemon sail the sea and a CD Mother Tongue.

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