On Their Black History Month

I write from a specific personal history and a precise place. Of course I do, everyone does. I’m from a single-parent family, just my mum and five children, growing up on council estates in a small city. Despite living in the ‘black area’ I went to a different school from everybody else and found myself to be the only ‘non-white’ sitting in the classroom. Both, the all so English white children at school and the all so English ‘non-white’ children after school would often take me to task over whether I considered myself ‘white’ or ‘black’. Perhaps I thought this was a result of where I lived and where I went to school rather than my parentage, but either way I learned from an early age that such questions contained a great deal of bullshit and were irrelevant to me. Still every time there was a nameless African, Asian or some Other in a textbook at school, childish voices would call out, ‘Martin, is that a relation?’ The teachers did nothing, it was so normal that years later at university when people told me that there was no racism at their schools it was hard to see them as anything but stupid. Racism was normal back then, and yet our memories know it wasn’t acceptable. Today inequality and racism have increased rather than decreased; a strange twist sees only our memories acknowledge an inappropriate acceptability of racism that grows evermore unchecked.

Today, when reports reveal that the police stop to harass non-whites as much as twenty-six times more often than the 85% of the population with a lighter skin tone (and Hampshire is one of the worst areas), nobody cares. Senior (black) police officers and (black) equality officers come forth suggesting that their own stats are wrong, yet they maintain increased policing in ‘black areas’. When they go onto suggest that such statistics are just the outcome of too much paperwork (a ridiculous proposition not because I love paperwork) I know that their colour means nothing to me and that their position does even less to protect me. When I say to them that we have witnessed the return of Swamp 81 stop and search tactics, that caused so much harassment and tensions to rise into riots before, they seem to hold back laughter. Their position matters little to me, their concerns are not mine, and they are not interested in protection. Partly this is their own self-indulgence and partly this is the success of a system that has largely succeeded in segregating us along religious, ethnic and gender lines. During the eighties workshops explained what such different starting points had in common in terms of colonialism, art and oppression; links were forged. Today Muslims have a problem with ‘Islamophobia’, Afro-Caribbean people have a problem with prison, and we all have a problem with the Polish; the issues are divided and not even theory is allowed to unite them.

While first generation migrants of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are stereotyped as keeping their heads down and trying to fit into the system later generations forced their way into the system, but for what? So they could stifle the voices opposing institutional and everyday racism? So they could commercialise the concerns of people struggling to live in the face of adversity? It has been said before that that the greatest problem with the anti-racist movement today is that we have lost so many excellent and respected voices to institutionalisation; the voices that could precisely make the links between the Toxteth and Brixton of 1981/1985 and London thirty years later, in 2011 and beyond. The voices we need to hear speak about unreliable and divisive journalism of riots thirty years ago and those today. While we all share in this loss there are some weird statistics to go alongside; there are less non-white councillors than there were thirty years ago; perhaps suggesting that that old guard are consolidating and holding onto their positions (it doesn’t really suggest this but it’s what I think). So when reports are revealing that there are more black people in prison in the UK, proportionately, than in America (who have more black people under lock and key than during slavery), I say to the old guard speak up or make way.

Black History Month, like Notting Hill carnival, was an achievement that came from struggle. The impetus came from the supplementary schools movement when parents wanted to stop feeding their children Eurocentric versions of history; classes were formed to combat racism, teach relevant history and to positively discuss non-European accomplishments. It was their achievement that they are right to reminisce but time has come to stop listening to their pacifying voices and start building towards such an achievement of our own. The month is sometimes criticised for being the one time to bring in the ‘black’ pound, highlighting the point that it a light-hearted moment devoid of the meaningful struggle. I think we are witnessing this most vividly this October in Southampton’s Black History Month when there is nothing on the Black Panthers despite the month coinciding with the 45th year since they were formed, and we see nothing discussing riots. But the thing that becomes clear from such reminiscing as well as from our everyday lives is that, despite statistics, colour is of little importance. Yes, colour makes for an easy target for the those in power to harass but if we bypass the politician’s and the corporate media’s system of classification we can see that there is more that ties us together than divides us. We are neither ‘white chavs’, ‘black thugs’, or ‘the aspiring middle class’ so often portrayed. We are all being fucked. Ever since I can remember I have loved the words of one civil rights activist in particular:

“If you’re not careful, the newspaper will have you hating the
people who are being oppressed and loving the people doing the
oppressing” – Malcolm X


2 thoughts on “On Their Black History Month

  1. Interesting, so are you saying at the end of the day we are all oppressed under this system, regardless of colour?

    Still left wondering about your memories of racism and school/ university, and when you say, ‘colour is of little importance’…..

    And when you say we have lost excellent voices to institutionalisation, if a non-white was to become a councillor ( less non-white councillors than there were thirty years ago) would you consider them to become institutionalised? Where can we draw the line?

    The quote at the end, is great though.

    • Yes, this has historically always been the case. If you take the Irish for example, they were used as a testing ground for colonialism (both the theory and practices). In early texts you can find the English refering to them as uncivilised, witchcraft, and natives; this was the excuse to control and dominate them.

      For me, colour is of little importance, for others it’s everythings (for those who seek to hold onto power colour isn’t so important either, as long as we are divided and fighting amongst ourselves). But it’s how we mediate these experiences and find common ground, recognising that colour is just a bad excuse for bad policies and policing tactics. Again the ‘Irish’ travellers of Dale Farm feel this racism in a very unique form. Something that perhaps no ‘black’ people can experience because they have not lived this life style. And there are ‘black people’ there trying to further their understanding of racism today and support the travellers.

      The last thing you say about institutionalisation, i can offer two perspectives;
      The Ivory Tower: Chomsky says somethings quite clearly; he says if you want to join the police, or work for the Guardian, or be a councillor – you are to certain degree already institutionalised. you know what rules you will have to follow and you want to fit in, there is only a very controlled degree of creativity and change possible which must fit into existing structures.

      From the Ebony Tower; Walter Rodney pointed out that the beneficiaries of neoliberal independence, in the African Diaspora, were a narrow group of elites drawn from the middle-class, yet despite their racial composition would continue to act as mere representatives for the big trading and financial bourgeois of the North. With a few exceptions, in the areas of health, education, access to economic opportunities, employment and justice, very little has changed for the Black Diaspora’s masses since Walter Rodney’s writing in 1969. As Rodney predicted, “The local lackeys of imperialism have long had to admit the existence of tremendous social injustice….the administration of the law has become more vicious and partisan”.

      He went on, “since `independence’ the black police force…have demonstrated that they can be as savage in their approach to black brothers as the white police of New York, for ultimately they serve the same master.”


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