THOUGHTS ON: Black History Month 2019

For Black History Month 2019, I was asked to write this blog post as part of a series at work which asks various people to talk about their cultural heritage and identity. Based on the reaction it received and the fact that it touches on theatre, I thought it’d be worth sharing it on here too.

Where were you born/brought up?

I was brought up in Finchley, North London and then lived in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire from secondary school onwards.

What’s your ethnicity and what does your heritage mean to you?

Black British – African? I’m rarely asked about my ethnicity or my heritage. It was only when I lived in Germany last year and it was obvious from my accent that I wasn’t German, that I noticed this question come up a lot more. Anytime I met someone new, one of the first questions I’d hear would be ‘where are you from?’ But saying British was never enough and I would have to explain how I grew up in the UK and my parents were from Ghana which was good practice for learning the language. Occasionally, this would lead to a discussion about football or how I might be friends with someone else that they know who is also black!

My heritage is something that I’ve recently sought to learn more about. I saw this play which strongly resonated with me at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year called ‘The Canary and the Crow’. It was all about this dance that people from immigrant backgrounds tend to do to fit into circles where we are perceived as an outsider. The message is that in doing this, we tend to leave our cultural identity behind. This is something I’ve been guilty of and I’m keen to do more to learn and celebrate all aspects of who I am.

Do you think families from minority backgrounds are well represented in the media?

Depends which media you focus on.

How can we better bring together people of different identities, especially those with the most often marginalized identities?

If the answer were simple, I suppose someone would have already tried to do something to address the increasing divide and polarisation that we’re seeing in communities right now.

One of my favourite plays was an adaptation of Harper Lee’s ‘How to Kill a Mockingbird’ at the Barbican. Although I had studied the text in school, it was only seeing it performed live that one of the lines truly clicked. Atticus Finch goes, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”

I think the best way to bring people together is by just doing that. But this is easier said than done, especially when you hear things in the media or from your friends and family which can easily distort your perceptions against certain groups. I think one way to challenge this is by going to the theatre and seeing works by a diverse range of artists. Theatre can be quite powerful in transporting you to other worlds, if you let it. If you’d like to climb into someone else’s skin, that’s one of the best ways I can think of doing it. A few suggestions would be to see Barbershop Chronicles which has recently embarked on a UK tour or the Londonist have also put together a list of things that you can see this Black History Month which may be a good starting point.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

There is some disagreement over the need for Black History Month and it’s something I’ve wrestled with a bit too. I think that in an ideal world, Black History would be understood as just plain ol’ history that’s known and woven into our education. But ultimately, though everyone may not agree, we have it for same reasons that we have Pride Month or International Women’s Day. Having a dedicated time of year that we focus on black history helps to tackle a structural societal imbalance in how much time and attention we dedicate to learning about the history of black people. There’s a lot of misinformation out there and unless we take the time to educate ourselves, our history can easily be ignored, or worse forgotten.

I think it’s great that Black History Month challenges societal narratives about black people, celebrates our accomplishments but also confronts us with the challenges that we have faced. As I say, this year I’m embarking on a journey to learn more about my cultural identity and black history too and I know it’s a journey that’s likely to take me much longer than this month in October!

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