Black History Month is a time of year I think shouldn’t have to exist since Black History is interlinked with White History, writes Tre Ventour.
Black History is everyone’s history. It’s just as important but it’s been systemically erased by those who write / wrote White history books. And by extension, subjects like colonialism aren’t taught much in British schools (see my article “The Empire Shuts Its Mouth”).
Anyhow; this is a list of a few things related to blackness in some way that I think everyone should look at, be it race, culture, identity, history. No matter your skin colour, it’s good to learn about different cultures and history.
Directed by Amma Asante, Belle is inspired by the true story of the Black Georgian Dido Elizabeth Belle (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She was the daughter of a royal navy captain, and a slave in the West Indies. Raised by her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson) at Kenwood House, her lineage gives her privileges but her skin colour stops her from partaking in the traditions of her social standing. Wondering if she will ever find love, she falls for a vicar’s son, set on changing the world, via the law, in hope of changing the laws that keep Africans in chains.
Taking place in the backdrop of the infamous Zong Case, following the Zong Massacre (1781), this film is as much a love story as it is a historical biopic.
The slave ship Zong left Africa with 470 slaves. Slaves were not seen as people. They were material objects to be touched, poked and prodded, at any white person’s choosing. They were often raped by the slave masters too, as shown with Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o) in 12 Years a Slave and Hilde (Kerry Washington) in Django Unchained.
Slaves were seen as commodity items. Many captains took more than ships could handle to ensure maximum profits. The Zong was overloaded. Many got sick and died from disease and malnutrition. Captain Collingwood jettisoned some of the cargo in order to save the ship and provide the ship owners with some insurance money. In total 133 slaves were thrown overboard for an insurance claim.
Though the film is depicted as fiction, the Zong Case is not. The Zong Massacre and then the court trial happened. Dido Elizabeth was real. Belle’s love interest John Davinier (played by Sam Reid) was real. Lord Mansfield was real. Kenwood House still stands in London. The Zong was one of the many benchmark cases of the Slave Trade. Director Amma Asante puts these atrocities into a format that everyone can understand, not just people in the legal profession.
“Where are you from?” I am asked on a regular basis. “The UK” I say. “No, where are you really from?” I am then asked where my parents are from. What they want to know is how many generations back did my ancestors come to England. My Windrush grandparents came in the 1960s. That’s what they really want to know.
I’m British and so are my parents. I was raised in Britain and so were they. So why do people keep asking those with brown skin where they’re from? It’s this idea of indigenousness that has been tied directly to being White.
Brit(ish) is about the day-to-day acts of racism that impact British society. It’s about Britain’s troubled relationship with its history. It’s how some people think refusing to see race (being colour-blind) will inhibit its ability to exist.
Brit(ish) is Afua Hirsch’s investigation into her identity and Britain’s crisis of self. Britain is a nation in denial about its history and its contemporary issues.
The Georgians were the people of abolition. In fact, after the British stopped trading in slaves, they went out of their way to stop other countries doing it (look up the West African Squadron). Ironically, this was their moral mission, to stop others doing something that they did for nearly three hundred years.
Brit(ish) is a compelling book, an insight into Britain’s soul and I certainly recommend it. We are convinced that equality and justice are fundamental British values. But one look at our history and even the last year casts that into doubt.
“Where are you really from?” Honestly, I don’t know where I am from but reading this book made me think it’s less to do with where you’re actually from and more to do with where you think you fit and what you believe.
It’s truly riveting and worth every euro I spent at Waterstones Amsterdam!
#3 Babylon (1980)
In the wake of the recent Windrush Scandal, this film is so relevant.
It tells the story of the Windrush and their children. These characters came from Jamaica. Babylon revolves around the racial divides of 1980s London.
In addition to poverty and lack of opportunities for Black people, it discusses racial profiling with the police, employment (or lack of), martial relations and racism from our neighbours. It’s as if history is repeating itself.
The 1980s was the era of Margaret Thatcher, spam and White Nationalism. The guns of Brixton sounded in 1981 in the wake of The Battle of Lewisham (1977) and Enoch Powell’s “River of Blood” (1968).
The 2010s is the decade of race riots, White Nationalism (still) and PM Theresa May’s racist foreign policy she made when she was home secretary.
Babylon was as relevant in 1980 as it is in 2018.
#4 Guerrilla (2017)
“We are the children of the colonies who built this Empire on the backs of their labour” says the narrator, in Guerrilla.
The Sky Atlantic miniseries is a snapshot on what it means to be both, to be Black and British. In reference to the African American, W. E. B. Du Bois called this “Double Consciousness” in The Souls of Black Folk. But this can be applied to Black Britain too. To be Black and British is to have multiple identities and there was no time where this was more prevalent than in the 1970s.
These were the children of the Windrush Generation trying to find themselves in a society that despises them, a country that plastered No Irish – No Blacks – No Dogs onto shop fronts and establishments – a nation that even today celebrates its colonial past. Places like Bristol and Central London prove that – patronage, the British Museum, colonial statues and street names.
Produced by Idris Elba and written by John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), Guerrilla is as simple as us and them. Truly, it’s a brilliant watch. Educational.
Popular historian David Olusoga explores the Black History of this country in the long relationship between Britain and the African continent. Using genetic and genealogical research, original historical documents and testimony from the best in the game, Black and British is a four-part documentary series that goes way back to Roman times, the Georgians and right through to the late 20th Century.
We are taken on a journey; from Britain’s global slave-trading empire to Queen Victoria’s African protégé Sarah Forbes to the Black Britons who fought at Trafalgar, as well as the Industrial Revolution being built on American Slavery.
The documentary series, and the book of the same name, confronts the uncomfortable, what British people would rather sweep under the carpet – slavery, empire and conquest. It shows that Britain’s story isn’t as White as people think it is. It shows that we didn’t only come here as slaves and immigrants. It shows a story woven into the landscape – stately homes, street names, memorials. Stories written into stone, literally.
Black History is not only for Black people. Black History is everyone’s history. It is part of this nation’s story and it’s a story that belongs to everyone.
In 2014, journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote a blog post explaining her anger in the way discussions about race and racism were being led in Britain, by those unaffected by it. Her words went viral. People longed for open and honest discussion.
In 2018, the renowned book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race was published. From erased Black History to politics of white dominance to whitewashed feminism, this is a timely look in how we should analyse and counter racism. And above all, it’s a look at what it’s like to be a person of colour in Britain today.
Why I’m is a roar of protest against a racism that has gone on for centuries (overt and structural). It condemns those acts and those who enforce them. From whitewashed history to the links between class and race to police brutality and white privilege, it’s a guide on race relations in Britain, now and then.
It’s a must-read and should be on every keen reader’s bookshelf.
#7 The British Museum
Cultural imperialism is dead. The British Museum is the blackface of British history. It’s an evidence room of items stolen from the colonies centuries ago.
When Erik Killmonger is introduced in Marvel’s Black Panther he gives the expert a stern word. “Did your ancestors pay a fair price or did they steal it like they stole everything else?” He is the antagonist of this film, but is he wrong?
Hanging onto cultural goods is deeply offensive. It tells me that Britain thinks it’s more capable of looking after African heads and plaques (for example) than any African country ever could. This is arrogance of the highest degree.
Is the British Empire dead? Yes, but Britain still clings on in attempt to recreate some sort of misplaced nostalgia.
Go to London. Go to the British Museum. It’s free. See for yourselves.
#8 Small Island
This is a novel about post-WW2 immigrants from Jamaica. I read this book in the first year of my Creative Writing degree at the University of Northampton (2016/17).
None of my ancestor fought in that war but my family story in Britain is one of racism and prejudice in the 1960s. My grandmother came to this country with her parents on their passports as a nine-year old girl. Like Hortense and Gilbert, my family left home to find home. They left those sunlit islands for wind and cold. Britain, where the trains were dysfunctional, where the NHS was in bits, where the streets were not paved with gold.
Small Island is a book of historical fiction that explores post-war Britain, mainly from the perspective of working-class Jamaicans, members of the Windrush. This was the point in recent history where this country began to change.
Here, author Andrea Levy critiques themes like empire, war and love. It’s seamless and even more meaningful considering the Windrush Scandal that broke a few months ago and the sheer prejudice that fuelled it.
#9 Checking Out Me History
John Agard is one of the first poets I read. His poem “Checking Out Me History” dissects Black History, talking about peoples like the Maroons (derived from the Ashanti in Ghana), runaway slaves who built communities, led by the famous Nanny de Maroon.
This is one of my favourite poems because it’s written in dialect and it’s a history lesson without bogging the reader down in facts. It’s musical and when John Agard reads it’s like you’re being transported back to Africa and the Caribbean.
Additionally, it shows the history we learn in school is so one-sided. Why do we learn that Christopher Columbus discovered America when there were already Native American tribes living there?
Why are we taught he discovered the West Indies? What about the Caribs who inhabited my places like Grenada? What about the Amerindian tribes, the Arawaks, the Maroons?
What this says to me is that nothing exists until the White Man finds it. Nothing exists until the European arrives. Like the British Museum, it’s arrogance of the highest degree.
“Checking Out Me History” is truly a wonderful poem that everyone should know about.
#10 Fire in Babylon
Fire In Babylon is the groundbreaking story of how the West Indies cricket team rose above their colonial masters becoming one of the greatest sporting teams in history. In the unsettling era of apartheid in South Africa, race riots in England and civil unrest in the Caribbean, these sportsmen led by Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards dealt a critical blow at the white society.
This is the story of how the West Indies cricket team ruled the world. For anyone looking to understand more about Black History as well as the sociocultural sub-context of the game during the 1970s and 1980s, this is a must watch.
Cricket gets labelled as a gentleman’s game, an old man’s game even, but this documentary shows that it can be just as brutal as any other sport.
#11 Black History Month: Open-Mic
Myself, in partnership with University of Northampton’s Changemaker Hub, have organised an open-mic in commemoration of Black History Month. Students and staff will be performing, as well as poets and musicians from Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire.
If you would like to perform or want more information, send me a message or an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s on Thursday, October 18, from 17:30 to 19:30 at the new Waterside Campus.
Come down and enjoy.
Black History Month shouldn’t be relegated to one month in the year. Black History is everyone’s history and this month is more than that.
History is a small part of it. It’s a time to celebrate everything Black people are – such as our race, culture and identity. This includes music, languages and very essence of being.
“In times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were single tribe.”
T’Challa, Marvel’s Black Panther