A new legacy for Black History | Just Reflections - Issue #14
This week I am writing about a subject I’m largely still learning. And I give my two cents on a very complex subject. I definitely want to think about this some more and learn more so take this as the first of a subject that I will explore over a long time. I’ll be back on it from time to time as I learn more and refine my thinking about it. Enjoy!
The month of October is Black History month in Britain. I was born and raised in Zimbabwe, a country where black people are the majority, so I barely interacted with any non-black people till I was much older. Even then, they were just a handful. As a result, I can’t really relate to the concept of black history month because black history back home was just history. I can relate to the struggle of being black. I live it every day and now that I live in the UK I can relate to the struggle of being black and in the minority. So as a way of understanding my new reality better, I challenged myself to learn more about black history month and black history in Britain in general. I want to figure out what black history month means for me. This is something that I’ve only touched the surface of so let’s do a quick fly-by of what I’ve learnt about Black British history and what I think about Black History Month.
National forgetting and selective remembrance
Most of my knowledge about black history outside of Africa is American history. I’ve never really thought about or learnt about what the history of black people has been outside of Africa and the USA and from what I’ve learnt, British black people aren’t really taught about British black history in school either. It’s only those with personal interest who discover what black history really looked like in Britain.
Did you know that black people have been in Britain for centuries and not just in the last 70 years or so? I didn’t. Do you know why this tiny little country is so rich? Do you know why there are so many people from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean in Britain?
One of the first people I encountered in my research of black history in Britain is the famous rapper, poet and journalist Akala. I think the opening to his speech at the Convention on Brexit and the Political Crash in May 2017 makes a fitting start to our exploration. This is what he said:
“Britain’s racial history 101: Our project of national forgetting and selective remembrance has been so successful that we often like to believe that race happens elsewhere, in the USA perhaps. But Britain built an entire global empire nourished in no small part by the assumption that white humans were superior to all others. People that were non-white came to be seen and treated not just as a lower class of humans but often as non-human. This ideology was created not by poor people — this is important and has relevance to today as often poor people are painted as the most or even the only racists, which is classist nonsense. Race, rather was codified by some of the greatest thinkers, educated at the top universities of the modern age …. And the idea of race was used by a pan European ruling class to devastating effect.” — Akala, The battle Britishness in the age of Brexit
I hate that we can’t talk about black history without talking about racism. Unfortunately, that is the world we live in. My search for black history on YouTube led me to many videos about racism in Britain. There’s an overwhelming number of black creators talking about how racism in Britain is a covert type of racism. It almost makes it hard to speak out it because it’s so subtle that you are left wondering if it was really racism or something else even though you’re feeling really horrible. This reminds me of Loyiso Gola’s comedy special at the Apollo. One of the extensive sections of his act was that Britain has a nuanced flavour of racism. Like Akala put it, there’s a serious ‘project of national forgetting and selective remembrance’. Learning all this was an eye-opening experience for me and I feel more strongly that we as black people are one people, we share similar histories and everyday experiences.
Africa has many struggles, but for all its struggles, when I was home I never directly felt discriminated against because of the colour of my skin. I felt many other wrong things and injustices, but fortunately, racism wasn’t one of them because we were all black. Didn’t take long though, because the moment I stepped out into the world I was welcomed with a harsh unkindness to people who look like me. So maybe as a child, I was just naïve.
It was fascinating to discover that Black History in the UK didn’t start 70 years ago with the soldiers from the colonies coming to fight for the ‘motherland’. Black people have actually been here for centuries and there’s even a forgotten history of black slaves here. There are so many amazing stories of some incredible black people. Akala gives a nice and quick rundown of black British history in these two short videos, check them out.
A people without a home
A story you will definitely encounter when looking into Black History in Britain is Windrush. I learnt a lot about it from this documentary. For those who know nothing about Windrush, don’t worry I also knew nothing a few weeks ago. So here is an oversimplified version of the story.
‘Windrush’ is a term used to describe the mass migration of people invited from the Caribbean countries such as Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados into Britain, just after the Second World War between 1948 and 1971. This was primarily in response to a call from the British government for workers to help rebuild Britain after the Second World War (1939-1945). ‘Come help the motherland’ was the mantra. Many black people from the Caribbean responded to the call and went to war for Britain. After the war ended, many of them went back home, but many of them didn’t stay long. There were, once again, calls from the motherland. There was lots of post-war rebuilding that was needed in Britain and bit labour shortages. There were many promises of jobs and prospects for a better life so, again, many black people from the Caribbean took up the call and got aboard the infamous Empire Windrush — an ex-Nazi troopship that brought this first wave of Caribbeans in 1948 — to go rebuild the motherland. The term ‘Windrush generation’ refers to the many Caribbeans who came to the UK after the Second World War and up to the 1970s. Read more here.
Incidentally, in the 5 years after the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of eastern European refugee workers from displaced person camps in Italy, Germany and Austria were also recruited directly to work in Britain and were eventually permitted to naturalise.
Fast forward to the 2000s after many struggles to establish themselves in Britain, battling racism and racial violence and many things that are all so familiar to the black story, they’ve rebuilt the motherland and they’ve established themselves in the UK, started families and made what normal life they can. Then the government decides that neither they nor their descendants were British citizens and it’s time for them to go back to where they came from. Here are a few resources with some really sad stories of what people had to go through:
Commenting on this, Akala said the following in that same speech I highlighted above.
“Even though far more migrants came from Europe in the post war years than did people from say, the Caribbean, and even though they were not British citizens nor English speakers they have faded into obscurity and become official citizens of the UK whose status as recent immigrants is largely unknown. By contrast, those of us whose grandparents were British citizens and English speakers are still often seen and referred to as immigrants.” — Akala, The battle of Britishness in the age of Brexit
It really seems like black people across the world really can’t catch a break.
So what is Black History Month about? From my little experience with it, it is about education. About the confrontation of all these different histories and developing an understanding of how they have shaped the present. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put it this way:
“To tell only one part of a story is essentially to lie. A story is true only when it is complete. Germany is Beethoven and Germany is Bach and Germany is also its colonial atrocities that have resulted in hundreds of African skulls being stored in the basement of museums here in Berlin, skulls of men whose spirits cannot be at rest. … It is only fair to fully own all of the stories of Germany. We cannot change the past, but we can change our blindness to the past.” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Humboldt Forum.
That’s all great, but for me, it doesn’t stop there, it can’t.
Farm the cocoa and make the chocolate
Let me take a minor detour here to explain something. Karl Marx is inarguably one of the most influential figures in human history. He produced some of the most controversial and influential works we have seen; a champion for workers’ rights for many and a dangerous radical for many others. Regardless of your point of view on him, it’s hard to deny Marx’s principal critiques of modern capitalism.
If you were to ask the average person in western society, what is better capitalism or communism, chances are they will say capitalism. Most of us were born into capitalist systems. It’s all we know, the things we’ve achieved and that our parents achieved before us were all done in capitalist economies and dare I say, enabled by capitalism. Most people in modern western society have never been given a fair representation of the criticisms that Karl Marx had of capitalism. We almost view an acceptance of anything about communism as tantamount to sacrilege. Regardless of your thoughts about capitalism vs communism, I don’t think anyone can disagree with the value of looking at well thought out criticisms of the system that we’re currently in. Even if for no other reason than to make it better. And that’s my reason for looking at Karl Marx’s criticisms of capitalism. We can all admit that capitalism is not a perfect system and although we were born into it and we see its effects all around us all the time and many of them we see as good, there’s something to learn from critically analysing them all.
Capitalism leans the fortunes towards the rich and creates a ripe environment for continuously increasing the gap between the rich and the poor. For all its weaknesses, Marxism is right about one thing. We cannot turn around our destinies without owning the means of production. Black people have perpetually been on the back foot of history because our means of establishing ourselves rely on the benevolence of other people. Even post-independence, mostly black nations gained independence in many ways sure, but in terms of production, we are still the producers of raw materials for the west. We ship our materials to the west, who then turn them into higher-value goods and sell them back to us for a premium. We rely on others to create jobs for us. We often do really well at the jobs too, although we rarely get the recognition we deserve.
There is an interesting incident that happened at the Business in Africa Forum earlier this year between Ghanaian president Nana Akufo-Addo and the president of the Swiss Confederation Simonetta Myriam Sommaruga that I find quite instructive. Ghana and Switzerland have a long history of trade in cocoa, Ghana produces a lot of it and exports to Switzerland. After Simonetta Myriam Sommaruga had given her speech buttressing the fact that they need raw materials and Ghana has the raw materials and they would like to assure a continued trade relationship, the Ghanaian president surprised everyone with his response. Here’s an excerpt from his speech.
“We believe that there can be no future prosperity for the Ghanaian people in the short, medium or long term if we continue to maintain economic structures that are dependent on the production and export of raw materials. We intend to add value to our raw materials, industrialise and enhance agricultural productivity. This is the best way we can put Ghana at the high end of the value chain in the global marketplace and create jobs for the masses of Ghanaians.” — Nana Akufo-Addo, Ghanaian President.
Check out the whole thing for yourself.
He explained that if Swiss businesses want to take part in this, then they need to make direct investment in Ghana and get into partnerships with Ghanaians. Speaking on a separate forum with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, he also expressed these sentiments:
“I think there is a fundamental misstatement of the issue in the question. We can no longer continue to make policy for ourselves in our country, in our region, in our continent on the basis of whatever support the western world or France or the European can give us, it will not work. It has not worked and it will not work. Our responsibility is to chart a path which is about how we can develop our nations ourselves.” — Nana Akufo-Addo, Ghanaian President
His own failings and those of many African leaders notwithstanding, I believe that President Nana Akufo-Addo has the right idea about what Ghanaians need to do to secure a better future for themselves. I believe that this is a great example of what we should all be doing as black people. Take end to end ownership of the things we produce and create opportunities for other black people. Farm the cocoa and also make the chocolate. That’s what we need to do if we’re to take control of our destinies. We have many skills, but if all we do is trade our skills for little return in the value chain, then we will stay in this position for a very long time. We need to learn how the chocolate is made, teach our children to build chocolate factories in addition to farming the cocoa. Teach them how to build chocolate brands and market them and sell the high-value goods, own the most valuable part of the chain as well.
We need to build systems that tell our young people that our hopes and our dreams are here with us and in our hands. While following the typical path is a noble ambition and is a good starting point, we need to teach our young people to see beyond being another cog in the wheel and think about how they can take charge of their destinies and create opportunities for other black people. Each of us who has access should be obsessed with providing access to the next black person. Our interest and our concern should be what do we need to do today to move black people away from begging for recognition, for opportunities, for fairness, for representation. We have a wealth of resources and we have young people with extraordinary potential. We need to have a mindset that says we can do it.
We have many examples from the east; Singapore, Korea, China, who also have terrible histories but through intentional action and charting strategic paths for their people to be self sufficient and own their production end to end, they are forces to be reckoned with today.
Black History Month is great. Looking back at black people who have affected our history is wonderful. But we also need to transform the story of Black History. We need a new legacy for Black History. When Black History Month 2030 comes around, I’d love for us to be teaching our kids about how we took charge of our destinies. How we were no longer satisfied with just providing the labour, with being star employees working twice as hard for half the recognition. I’d love for us to say we continued making the cocoa but we also started making the chocolate and with small steps and consistent growth, we now own the chocolate production process end to end and we make the best chocolate around.
That’s all I have for you this week. If you like the newsletter, consider sharing it with others on Twitter, WhatsApp or Facebook. Hit the thumbs up or thumbs down below to let me know what you think about the issue.
I hope I’ve given you something to think about this week and I wish you ever-increasing curiosity.
Until next week.
Impactful ideas that challenged my thinking.
I have a lot of interests so I'm always learning all kinds of things, some of which really challenge my thinking. In the Just Reflections newsletter, I'll be sharing with you a summary of the ideas that challenged my thinking recently and hopefully they will challenge yours too and we grow together.
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