Why I Have A Difficult Relationship With Black History Month

Photo: Via @jazkopotsha
Don’t you think it’s strange that in the era of pro-wokeness, a time when "diversity" is the world’s favourite buzzword, conversations about race still feel like an awkwardly painful effort? Just me? As a young, liberal, socially aware black woman who writes about culture for a living, I’m probably not meant to say this. But fuck it. In my 25 years of pretending to feel comfortable navigating waters that even now feel very murky, this type of chat still doesn’t come easy. That’s the most frustrating thing about it.
Black History Month doesn’t always help me here. The arguments for and against the few weeks allocated to celebrating are familiar to many of us. Great; we’ve got some time to acknowledge parts of history that are too frequently left out of the mainstream narrative. We can push for the recognition that an overlooked minority deserves and draw attention to positive black stories that would otherwise be forgotten.

Reducing a whole ethnicity’s past to one month a year feels tokenistic when I’m pretty sure we exist for the remaining 11 months, too

But also, not great; reducing a whole ethnicity’s past to one month a year can’t help but feel tokenistic when I’m pretty sure we exist for the remaining 11 months, too. It's a superficial outlook on a complicated reality. Though the dream is for black history to be acknowledged as just "history", level with the other ethnicities who also greatly contributed to Britain as we know it, we're really far from that dream. We still operate in a society that systematically discredits and excludes the black experience. It would be weird if Black History Month didn't remind me of that.
I feel bad about not feeling good about Black History Month, though. For years I’ve wondered why I’ve been so reluctant to revel in the glory of our rich, fascinating history in our allocated slot. A knot still forms in the pit of my stomach as I think back on those awkward moments at school when the teacher would reference black history in front of a predominantly white classroom. Their eyes would dart in my direction, lingering just long enough for me to feel the weight of expectation on my different coloured shoulders. Should I be grateful that I’ve been given this month to remember a huge part of British history that we share? Is it required that I, the only black girl, be the mouthpiece for it again this year? Am I allowed to resent the subconscious undercurrent that inadvertently suggests this month is the only time for the country to publicly celebrate blackness?
Last year, some London boroughs came under fire for their rebranding of Black History Month, which has been a staple in the UK for more than 30 years now. Wandsworth council was the latest to drop the "Black History" and replace it with "Diversity Month" and just like that, the well meaning purpose at the core of our annual celebration was shot dead. Better, the now ironically named private company behind Wandsworth's rebrand, believes we should celebrate Britain’s "many and varied experiences and cultures". While that’s an easy statement to agree with on the surface, it completely misses the point of there being a month dedicated to black history in the first place. Instead, marginalised communities are lumped together beneath the now meaningless "diversity" umbrella and our individual histories are diluted once again. One box ticked for a multitude of people when, in reality, it only further reinforces the sad and frustrating rhetoric that minorities still, at this stage in history, aren’t important.
We’re fortunate enough to live in a world where there’s a huge population of people connected by rage, good sense and social media, who are willing to shout when yet another awards ceremony bypasses black talent. There are a growing number of people who recognise that one film showcasing predominantly black, Asian, female or LGBT talent isn’t the answer but sure, it’s a step towards representation. Save for the misguided "All Lives Matter" brigade who (like Better, it seems) miss the pertinence of defending a minority so proactively dismissed as worthless, most of us know better than to accept tired ways of banging the equality drum for the sake of void cultural currency. So, with all this willing force for good that isn't confined to October, why does Black History Month still make me apprehensive about a largely positive cause working to do the same thing?
Maybe it’s because I can't shake the stress of blackness being a gimmick. No, it’s neither a Halloween costume nor a method of "getting down with the kids", and it’s certainly not a conversation starter that’ll earn you Brownie points when you’re forced to address it at work or school once a year. A lot of my apprehension probably comes from the continued erasure of black history. Despite the fact that this month-long celebration has been going since the late '80s, Britain's black history is still largely missing from the curriculum; it was less than a year ago that a GCSE textbook which said Caribbean fathers were largely absent was pulled from circulation after a series of complaints about racism.
My relationship with Black History Month is complicated because my relationship with black history is fraught, not to mention mistrusting of the white lens it is so infrequently told through. My stomach still lurches when the topic comes up because I'm not always sure how I'm meant to feel about it. I can articulate my confusion about it all, but that confusion remains an annoying fixture at this time of year when we're called upon to wave the flag for black excellence at a time that's convenient for the rest of the world to absorb it.
Don't get me wrong, the importance of Black History Month has never wavered in my eyes and in the context of Windrush, the growth of the far-right and the disparate connection much of our generation feels to our own history, we really need this month. Challenging any negative associations with black culture and celebrating the continued work of our community couldn't be more crucial. But I've come to understand that my apprehension doesn't come from Black History Month itself, it comes from the niggling worry that these four weeks aren't enough to counter the year-long reality of the black experience. We must continue to fight that cause regardless.

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