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Not our history

14:55 19/10/2021
Not our history

Liz Muir reflects on the power and potential of marking black history.

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The first time I realised I was Black, the term was used in a way that highlighted that I was different. It made me feel othered. I was about six years old at the time but it has always stayed with me. I didn’t understand the concept of being othered until later on in life, but looking back, I have encountered similar scenarios often enough to know that the assessment of my feelings in that moment were correct. I thought the feelings of shame were about me - something I had said or done to be categorised in a way that felt dirty and excluded. I now know that it was actually about the way Blackness was seen through the lens of a society that prioritised, celebrated and elevated whiteness and looked down upon anything that was not that.

During October in the UK, we celebrate Black History Month. It’s not an event that took place when I had my first experience of being othered, and maybe if it were, the positive discourse may have been more mainstream and might have helped me to make a rebuttal about all that was good and not just different about who I was… who I am. This month is a time when we’re reminded of all that Black people have contributed to the world. It’s a time when people realise and are reminded that the story of history is not just white, neither is the way that it’s remembered completely accurate.

Growing up, the big story of my blackness was tied to slavery and struggle. This was Black History. Recently I read a tweet by award winning podcaster Bilal Harry Khan that said this: ‘One of the problems is that slavery is taught as the history of Black people and not the history of white people.’’[1] Those words changed a sense of ownership deep in my soul that liberated me from what I had been resigned to. Different. Owned. Bought. Sold. Trapped. Low. Other.

Racism has created the same story for Black people across the world. Many of the diaspora living in the UK have ancestry in parts of the Caribbean and Africa. In those places today, many of which are low income countries, the structural inequalities caused by racism demonstrate the ongoing impact and after effects of colonialism. As I note in my recently published case study in Theologies and Practices of Inclusion: ‘This is evidenced by the fact that the Majority World is the economic minority, and in the ways that White supremacy and the White gaze have shaped societal standards of beauty, attainment and success. White saviourism is deeply rooted in the foundation of the INGO sector, where communities of colour have been seen in need of rescue, despite the immense level of natural resource wealth, the creativity, innovation, beauty, talent and intelligence that is attributed to the Majority World.’

Not only were we othered, we were taught that across the world, Black meant poor.

Black History Month offers Black people an opportunity to decide not what their story is, but more importantly, what it isn’t. There are various views across the Black community about whether having a thirty-one day period where we talk about, recognise and celebrate Black history is tokenistic and contrived. Whatever your view, it is possible within these days for hearts, minds and expectations to be confronted, changed and challenged about what it means to be Black.

Much of Black history has been taught through the lens of despair, loss and shame. Knife crime, gang violence, poverty, injustice, racism, drugs, the aforementioned slavery. The moments that are celebrated are regulated to endeavours such as music and sport and even then they are type cast. Stories in other fields are emerging as time passes and the voices and achievements of Black people are being acknowledged, accepted and amplified. And maybe the journey we are on now is one of acceptance. Maybe this emergence of Blackness that is true, contributory and successful and not hidden and suppressed, is what will help rewrite Black history for generations to come not as what was done to us, but as what we did.

That it took the award winning movie Hidden Figures for many people to learn that Black women contributed, significantly, to space exploration deprived many Black children of the role models they needed to know they could do the same. Similar omissions perpetuated the structural racism in other sectors that said no, this is not for you. How different would the standard of healthcare received by Black people be, particularly those living in white majority contexts, if more Black people grew up knowing about Dr John Alcindor, a Trinidadian Doctor who attempted to serve in the medical corps during the first world war but was rejected because of his ‘colonial origin’[2]. If they saw people who looked like them doing things that history erased them from. How many Black women would have survived childbirth had the medical field been receptive to ‘the content of their character’ and not the colour of their skin. That we continue to have Black firsts[3] in the twenty first century speaks not of what we weren’t capable of, but what has been overlooked.

These stories are so often told from the lens of what Black people did or didn’t do and omit the facts of how the stories have been hidden by racist policies and practices. They are so deeply embedded in the systems and structures that perpetuate racism that it’s hard for Black history not to feel like an endless tirade of tales of woe.

Being Black is so marginalised that Black people can forget that although the structures and systems of society designated them as other, they are having a substantially positive effect on that same society, the impact of which has and is changing the discourse on Black history. And that’s because, what was done to Black people isn’t the story of Black history. It’s the story of whiteness and what it did to Blackness.

Black History Month presents an opportunity for the collective memory to be accurately restored and for all of history, not just the parts that have been deemed acceptable, to be the story of history. For there is no history without Black history.

 

Liz Muir is Tearfund’s Head of Diversity and Inclusion

Theologies and Practices of Inclusion is available to order now via our website.

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[1] https://twitter.com/TweetsByBilal/status/1445681197317689351?s=20

[2] https://www.redcross.org.uk/stories/our-movement/our-history/the-famous-black-doctor-of-paddington

[3] For example, Lord Simon Woolley was celebrated as the first to head up an Oxbridge College in 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/mar/31/lord-woolley-former-head-of-race-disparity-unit-to-be-principal-at-cambridge-university