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Black History Month is bittersweet

CREATIVE FORCE: Linton Kwesi Johnson had been ‘making history’ for some time – long before he coined the phrase

BLACK HISTORY Month? Well, you can't live with it and you can't live without it. Because our history is bittersweet.

So it is, you might say, with all history – black, white or perpendicular. It is all bitter laced with moments of sweetness. Yeah, true, but is our history not more bitter than sweet?

Whereas is not white history more sweetness than bitter? Yes, sweetness, even if it is sometimes predicated by bitterness in other people’s history – specifically in black people’s history. So learning our history is never a completely edifying experience.
And yet, we have to go through it. We cannot run away from it.

Particularly in the here and now, where we are making history on a daily basis despite the bitterness that we carry with us, sometimes like a badge of honour.

After all, you’re not really black, are you, unless you’ve tasted some of that bitterness. I say it’s no mystery that we’re making history but because of that self-same struggle that I’m telling you about, we don’t even know that it’s history even though WE are making it every day.

Do you not wonder, like me, whether Rosa Parks was fully aware when she refused to sit on the back seat of that Montgomery, Alabama transit bus, the backseat that was designated for black people while the front seats were reserved for white folks only, do you not wonder whether she aware as she was being arrested and bundled around that she was making history? I’m not so sure.

Because she was an ordinary black person as opposed to a king or queen or president or prime minister. Whereas European history has so far been the story of the rich and powerful, especially when they go to war, contemporary African diaspora history has been largely the story of ordinary people without wealth or national/ international power who have changed the course of history forever.

For example, was the young youth worker Paul Stephenson even remotely conscious that we would be talking about his equivalent bus boycott in Bristol more than half a century later? You would have to ask him that. But I cannot imagine so, because were we not led to believe that history was not made by people like you and I? And yet, we were making it.

IMPACT

Ten years after the death of Daniel De-Gale, we reflect back on the impact his brief life has made over these last 22 years, saving over a hundred lives by way of life-saving transplants as a result of the organisation that he set up – African Caribbean Leukaemia Trust, who brought the black people to the table who were not previously on the bone marrow register.

And being responsible for tens of thousands more black people on the register where it was nigh on impossible to find black folks before. But I remember him well.

Both when he was sick and in remission and I can tell you now that he was just a young kid trying to enjoy as much as possible the gift of life that he had been given. History was probably the furthest thing from my mind, yet in retrospect I realise now that he is one of the most fascinating historical figures that we should be acknowledging as part of Black History Month in the country.

Claudia Jones, of course, is not just a part of OUR history. Her impact goes far beyond Black History Month as being one of the originators of the Notting Hill Carnival. Ironically the history that I feel she should be honoured for is for being the first black editor of a newspaper here in Britain.

Can you imagine that back in those early post-Windrush days of the 1950s she was in charge of putting out the West Indian Gazette, a forerunner to this very newspaper and, arguably, the inspiration for every black publication in Britain subsequently.

It was as an activist and a ‘newspaper baron’ that her legacy should be carved in Black History Month stone, but because of her activism around celebrating the diversity of Britain at a time when hooligans were attacking the new immigrants from the Commonwealth, arguably a side issue in her life work, her efforts at giving the news a black eye have been somewhat overlooked.

But did she think that a street party would be her historical legacy? I doubt it. She was just doing what black people do, which is making this world a better place. That was more a sense of civic duty than a big historical moment.

The great Linton Kwesi Johnson had been making history for some time – long before he coined the phrase for the title and refrain of one of his poems which became also the title of a fabulous album by him. It is as the chronicler of black history through poetry that he has been making history.

However, he regards himself as a poet and without him there would be no such thing as dub poetry. The format was solely his creation having put the two genres of Caribbean lyrical poetry turned battle cry at its strongest in dealing with the black condition in the world that it finds itself in, together with the instrumental side of reggae with more than a little help from the dubmaster – Dennis Bovell.

I know Linton. In fact, I performed with him on stage at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark many years ago. I can assure you that he was aware that WE as a community were making history by changing the face of Britain forever and he wanted to be a part of that making history, but I cannot imagine that he felt that what he was doing in itself was making history. Far from it. But that’s exactly what he was doing when he took to the pen or the stage.

Interestingly enough, in Making History Linton catalogues the number of ‘making history’ battles that we had to fight that made our condition here in Britain bittersweet:

Well dere was Toxteth
And dere was Moss Side
and a lot of other places where the police had to hide
Well dere was Brixton
and dere was Chapeltown
and a lot of other places dat was burned to the ground...

I did say it was bittersweet. And the next battle we have to fight is against the local councils trying to scrap Black History Month in favour of ‘Ethnic Diversity Day’.

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