Some things about Black History month:
- It is not a recent product of early-21st-Century political correctness, but has roots going back to the 1920s;
- It isn’t unproblematic: race is a flawed organising principle for all the reasons that racists are wrong;*
- It does start conversations, shed light on forgotten or hidden truths, and prick our consciences in a way that they need to be pricked;
- And its problems might even be part of the point: people are inclined to scrutinise and criticise new (and uncomfortable) versions of history, turning on a light that we can and should turn on mainstream history, which we often fail to see is full of the same kinds of problems.
But the main thing I have to observe about BHM relates to recent history, and is about how quickly and how easily we forget.
This article in The Guardian about Paul Stephenson and (among other things) the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott was the one that did it for me. The things that happened, the prejudices people held, the way people were treated, the rank and often officially sanctioned injustices are so flagrant as to seem ridiculous – and pretty much unimaginable.
It’s as ridiculous as the situation described in this article from The Cambridge News where the city’s first black pub landlord ran one of the few venues that welcomed – wait for it – Irish labourers.**
These things seem ridiculous but they happened, and they were normal, in the country that my parents were growing up in.*** In the country that my non-white peers’ parents were growing up in. This history matters a great deal.
Which brings us to today. I don’t have a very rose-tinted view of human nature. I think all of us – and I mean people of all ethnicities – are prejudiced in all kinds of ways. To an extent that’s just the way we are, or at least it’s very difficult for us to be otherwise. We make wrong assumptions, we say and do silly or hurtful or damaging things even when we have good intentions (which is one reason it really helps if we can give each other the benefit of the doubt).
But looking through my eyes the idea that real, out-and-out racism and discrimination exists today – after so many struggles and after we’ve learned so much – in the world that my children are growing up in? It seems…
Which is why Black History Month Matters.
*Firstly, because there’s a sense in which all of history is black history. Secondly (and this is a different way of saying the same thing), because a person’s genetics – say, their line of descent from ancient Greek, Persian, Kenyan, Saxon, Jewish, Indo-Aryan, Mongolian peoples (or more likely, a wild mix of several of the above) – matters infinitely less to who they are than the culture they are shaped by.
**In 1964 it was legal in the UK to refuse service on the basis of someone’s skin colour.
***Full disclosure: my parents actually grew up somewhere else, but that’s another story