History and Identity: Black History Month
I wrote this as a history student in 2011. It is as relevant now as it was then – perhaps, given the current political climate in Europe and the US, more so. We are still so far from the hope that ‘by the year 2000, every schoolchild will be taught the true colour of great men of antiquity’.*
History is central to identity. Not being taught your own history is a form of disenfranchisement and this is what Black History Month seeks to address. But it shouldn’t have to: we should be taught this stuff at school; we should know about the contributions different groups have made to European and British society, because they are remarkable, and because they are as much a part of British history as a part of ‘black’ (or ‘Jewish’, ‘Arab’, ‘Indian’ etc) history. Otherwise we may be in the thrall of such ignorance as was exhibited by John Cleese in his complaint that London is ‘no longer an English city’. Actually, it kinda never was. London has been a centre of trade for centuries, meaning that it has long been a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural ‘melting-pot’. Cockney incorporates words from Yiddish and Romany. So get your facts straight. Especially when you are a British ‘institution’ yourself.
However there is a danger that our sense of history will define and constrain rather than liberate us. For this reason we have to take care with the popular history we are creating. It is worrying that the two most prominent historians in the public eye are both well to the right-of-centre. Eight years ago Niall Ferguson got to explain in a six part television series why the British Empire was so great – not a conclusion that many historians are comfortable with. Do people now believe that Britain was superior, that it brought massive benefits to backward peoples? Not a healthy view. This summer David Starkey was given a platform to express his views on the riots: they happened because ‘whites have become black’, as though ‘black culture’ is inherently violent and driven by opportunistic theft. It chimed with the Conservative representation of feral youths, and then he made this a ‘black’ thing. These men are in an undoubted position of influence over public opinion, respected academics. What they say matters, and may be taken as fact, even when it is on a subject of intense debate; or, in the case of Starkey’s comments this summer, just plain bigoted.
So history should be treated with caution. It can be as important to appreciate historical ‘myth’ (not dragons and heroes, but certain historical interpretations that may come to form part of a ‘national’ psyche), as the history of ‘proper’ historians, because this is what really forms identity. How can we hope to understand the Israel-Palestine conflict without being aware that the idea of Israel defending itself heroically (ok, so some heroes) against surrounding enemy states that sought its total destruction is central to its foundation myth? And of course there is some truth in this – although to see Israel as solely defensive is misguided, as Israeli historians are beginning to admit. History, therefore, must also challenge these popular notions so that we can move past them.
Studying the past is hazardous: we must be careful that the creation of identity does not mean the closing of ranks; history should broaden our understanding, not lead us to develop a blinkered view of our ‘own community’. Specific history months risk creating an inward-looking communalism, and compartmentalising histories that really form part of the fabric of history as a whole. But at least these campaigns go some way to correcting the bias in research and teaching.
Histories should be integrated with the overarching ‘white’ narrative that dominates history in this country, because each is linked – the white narrative is both false, and boring. If this aim is pursued, we won’t need Black History Month, or Women’s History Month, or any other special focus on groups that have been under-represented in our education, because their part will be addressed and taught in schools. But in the meantime, happy October.
*The Autobiography of Malcolm X