My 12-year-old sister looks forward to black history month. She has enjoyed learning about Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman and her underground railroad. But while emotive stories of a great orator or a narcoleptic who smuggled slaves into Canada are fascinating, they are little more than bedtime stories. It's a bit of heart-warming trivia from a bygone era that fails to provide a context for today's black teenagers. Teaching rarely rises to the challenge of dealing with more recent heroes and heroines, or events such as the race riots, police brutality, and apartheid in South Africa.
And it certainly doesn't attempt to bring things up-to-date by talking about the case of Stephen Lawrence and the history of the troubled relationship between black people and the police. It is vital that we discuss slavery, but we should be wary of a tendency to discuss dead issues and dead people rather than to address the travesties still being enacted.
Black history month, by its very label, ghettoises black history. If it is an event that is supposed to include the Irish, Asians, Chinese, Vietnamese and others, then why is it still called "black"? Even if it hearkens back to its aims of raising self-esteem among black teenagers, to define people's cultural identity not in terms of their colour but in terms of where they come from would be a positive first step. Defining black experience in terms of race generalises it, and opens the door to negative stereotypes. Whether it's black on black crime, or black history month, it's an easy label that does no good. There is no such thing as "white" history. By putting black experience into an isolation tank, we de-politicise it. By focusing on race, we nourish the idea that this issue is not of universal interest.
Edited by John Simkin, 29 September 2003 - 09:48 AM.