Storyteller from South Africa challenges the limits of this yearly event and speaks to local actors proposing initiatives to expand learning about global cultures.
Words: Kabbo Ferdinand with contributions from Asafo Gyata
Illustration: Laura McKeown
“Black History month = 7 million years of human evolution…Squeezed into 31 days. An impossible task we create, as we continue to limit our evolution…” – Asafo Gyata
As many of you may know, Black History Month is celebrated in the UK during the month of October (February in America). It’s an important gesture to some, yet to others there’s an unerring feeling that it lacks substance.
This sense of unease is deepened by this ‘official’ celebration of black culture occurring within a multicultural context. It sets a potential problematic precedent, for it fosters an environment of exclusion within the United Kingdom. An irony, is it not? Or can one defer in saying that it’s one month for Black history and 11 months for White history…
I, Kabbo Ferdinand, took to the streets of Bristol to speak to people – of all colours of the Earth – to look for a more informed view. Many people, engaged on the topic, seem perplexed by the meaning of Black History Month. Some youths, for example, express confusion by what the term ‘black’ means in relation to a collective of people.
Another issue that comes up relates to the same American Civil Rights Movement heroes being continually celebrated. There persists, it seems, a sense that not enough is being done to celebrate the contributions people of colour have made – and continue to make – in the UK. What’s the point of labels, if they breed confusion?
Kirby, a mother of beautiful multicultural children, says she’s upset with the government’s handling of the situation. “It’s shameful, done out of British Colonial enslavement guilt, [and] meaningless, for there is very little evidence of improvement in the lives of blacks,” she says.
“Our government must take more responsibility and tell a balanced and dignifying story. It must be introduced as part of the curriculum in educational institutions and on television. Teachers [alone] can’t be expected to do it – more money should be made available in training teachers on the topic of cultural awareness and sensitivity within formal education.”
Effiom Ene-Obong, founder of an alternative employment agency, THE-SOCIETY, talks of being involved last year with an organisation celebrating Black History Month – and feels that nothing meaningful has happened since then.
“They only talk about slavery and the American Civil Rights Movement. They are not allowing us to deal with slavery; instead they are creating an environment where the black person has a higher chance of developing an inferiority complex. Our history did not start with slavery and Western explorers. On Facebook I post stories of amazing people of colour and their remarkable achievements.”
However, taking into context all of the above, it’s worth acknowledging Bristol City Council’s efforts to address the issue. The council has partnered with multicultural institutions – dance company Afidance, Ka-Zimba Ngoma, DMAC UK and KoiFuZen Youth Enhancement Collective – on a project called Mama Africa. My own cultural entry point into this project is as an indigenous storyteller from South Africa. I’m honoured to be a part of this invigorating project in Bristol.
“It feels too commercial, like pop culture, [with] no mention of any of the amazing inventors, leaders and activists who have contributed so much to the world”
Mama Africa is the brainchild of Norman ‘Rubba’ Stephenson, director of dance company Afidance.
“I felt [Black History Month] was very tokenistic,” he says. “I needed to do something to honour our ancestors and ourselves. I want my children to grow up with a healthy sense of self worth, knowing their roots.
“I’m uncomfortable with the term Black History Month – it causes separation. Our project is called Mama Africa, but our focus is not African culture only. I call it ‘Global Culture’ and want all people to learn about each other’s cultures.” he explains.
“In Mama Africa we apply an eclectic mix of ancient African and global cultural disciplines supported by globally sourced research. We do African traditional dance, drumming, storytelling, poetry and hip hop. We go into schools, youth development organisations and businesses, and host classes at Hamilton House. Our desire is to create an evolving, adaptable cultural curriculum and online ‘edutainment’ resource tool available to all.”
Black History Month will once again be celebrated, as this article goes to print. A debate is needed to discuss the relevance of ‘celebrating’ it in its current format. (Coincidentally, it happens to fall on the same month as when Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas – and we know the devastating colonial process that was(is) initiated.)
Who’s fooling who here? We’re more alike than different, each being born on earth. I say:
“Let’s embrace our likeness as a human specie, reclaim our humanity from divide and rule tactics and do away with all cultural, political and economic devices still keeping us apart.” To humbly paraphrase the courageous Zapatista Army of National Liberation of Chiapas, Mexico: “We walk slow, we walk together, for we got a long way to go…”