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OPINION - Yes we still need Black History Month in 2023, and if you think otherwise you aren't paying attention

Jeffrey Boakye ( In The Den Photography )
Jeffrey Boakye ( In The Den Photography )

It’s an easy mistake to make: To see "Black History Month" (BHM) and think it’s a time to shine a light on a history that has been pushed into the margins of mainstream thought.

In fact, that’s a pretty good summary of what the month sets out to do, hence why BHM enters the calendar with a sense of occasion and celebration. A fanfare, perhaps, for blackness that has been ignored, all year, so far.

But this comes with problems, or at least, specifics that need to be defined. The first is in the word "Black". Who does it refer to? Is this one homogenous, global group, or are there multiple black narratives in the mix? We can all agree that blackness is not one thing and black people are not a monolith, but at the same time there is a kinship to black experiences, across nationalities and ethnicities, that act as a point of unification for the melanated diaspora, surely.

The white west, of which we are part and into which you may well have been born, is full of gaps, silences and omissions

Implied in the very name "Black History Month" is the idea that there is something that can be identified as "white history", because that’s how race, as a theory works. Race is binary, with blackness being the opposite of a whiteness that was designed to make white (European) identity reign supreme, at a time of European imperialism. One result of this white supremacy was the dehumanisation of "black" people, with ongoing legacies of racism that persist to this day. Another result was that ‘white’ perspectives became the default norm. Suddenly, "white history" becomes all history, which is why there’s no such thing as "White History Month". That would be like randomly declaring next Tuesday to be "Sky Is Blue Day".

It's important to put BHM into a broad historical context to remind ourselves that it is fundamentally a politicised calendar event. The sky may be blue, but all history is not white. Here, BHM is about refocussing and rebalancing a deeply imbalanced status quo, going at least as far back as 1661 when the Barbados Slave Code made it legal for human beings to be enslaved based on the colour of their skin, baking racist ideology into an economic law.

If any of this information comes as a surprise to you, then welcome to the true spirit of Black History Month: Education. The white west, of which we are part and into which you may well have been born, is full of gaps, silences and omissions. History is a story that speaks certain identities into power and whiteness has used history to assert and retain its supremacy. That’s why you might never have been taught about the Barbados Slave Code, or the Haitian Revolution, or the Scramble for Africa, or the Berlin Conference or Operation Legacy… I could go on.

Dominant whiteness has failed to embrace, celebrate and acknowledge the realities of black narratives

It's clearly too much to fit into one paragraph, article, or even month. But BHM will never be comprehensive; it’s more of an approach rather than a tick-box exercise to be entered on October 1st and completed by Halloween. At its core, BHM needs to be a repositioning of attitude that seeks to see "history" from illuminating angles and expose historical blind-spots. And as is the case with anything that truly shines through the dark, it might be feel disorienting, like a blindfold being ripped off, forcing you to blink into the light, seeing truths that have been mantled for generations.

Mantled: Cloaked or covered up. Dismantled: Uncovered or revealed. BHM is a time for celebration and revelation. An opportunity for truth. That’s why it matters.

It's telling that even now, on the approach to the second quarter of the 21st century, there remains debate over the need for BHM at all. It speaks to the fact that dominant whiteness has not only failed to embrace, celebrate and acknowledge the realities of black narratives that are at the heart of its own story, but that the gravity of white supremacy continues to drag people away from simple truths.

Ultimately, it’s empowering. I’ve personally learned so much more about world history since leaving school than I did while I was there, and embracing black histories, plural, has been the catalyst for this revolution in my thinking. You simply can’t understood the modern world without recognition of racism and the role of blackness in our grand narrative, and accepting that there are things you didn’t know you didn’t know is a huge part of the process. BHM is an opportunity to shed the insecurities and arrogance of a system that struggles to be free of anti-black racism, making education and truth-telling one of the most important things we can do.