On Intersecting Identities and Black History Month: A case for Inclusivity and a celebration of Black History Month past the month of October.

On Intersecting Identities and Black History Month: A case for Inclusivity and a celebration of Black History Month past the month of October.

October 31, 2019

Black history exists beyond a month’s celebration. Although I champion the idea behind it, I sometimes find myself lost in the noise, where the celebration of black history receives its obligatory nod, only to be placed in the side-lines the rest of the year. Of course, this is better than no celebration at all. My annoyance with Black History Month is beyond this. As an Afropolitan, this year, I chose to celebrate this occasion in more intimate, albeit undervalued ways.

In an essay called ‘Bye Bye Barbar[1]’, the novelist, Taiye Selasi popularised the term ‘Afropolitan’. This is the “generation of African emigrants”, whose embrace of identity is a cultural hybrid. We are not solely defined by borders or discourses suggesting a lack of belonging; instead, we blend and infuse identities in once unimagined spaces through paths that many of our immigrant families paved for us when they migrated to other parts of Africa and beyond. As Selasi puts it, Afropolitans “belong to no single geography, but feel at home in many”, embracing their place not only as citizens but “Africans of the world”.

Rightfully, academic debate has critiqued Selasi’s image as somewhat elitist- showing Africans of privilege, who can afford - at great socio-economic costs - to fit into many inaccessible spaces governed by economic, class and white privilege. This is undeniable, as I can acknowledge my privilege. I am a Russell-Group educated woman working within an industry viewed as part of the vanguard of white middle class professions; this industry is not easy to get into. However, my intersectionality (the way my identity includes race, sex, gender and ethnicity) is also nuanced. I am able to code-switch within these spaces even when the cost may be psychological; sometimes, I worry that I am merely a token.

At the core, my language is African, Shona to be exact. As an immigrant, raised both in Zimbabwe and the UK, this grants me access to many histories I can call my own.

Being an Afropolitan means that I can walk out of my London office, speaking to my mum in idioms central to my identity. I trace my childhood to the pot-holed streets of Harare.

I see history every time my uncle, now a worker in London, reflects on the liberation war from colonialism to independence. I am African in my interest regarding indigenous knowledge systems, my understanding of culture and that Spotify playlist blasting Sauti Sol’s hit Short and Sweet as I do the gwara-gwara (South Africa) dance in my bedroom.

At the same time, Nas’ New York State of Mind plays everytime I walk out the tube - yes, every morning. I also click my fingers passionately whilst in the audience of poetry nights such as Rap Party, where Spoken-Word is often infused with a hip-hop beat; the poems usually touch on some aspect of Euro-American histories and their connection to the many pan-African identities in the audience. I am engaged and excited when elements of black history such as the Harlem Renaissance, W.E.B Dubois’ double-consciousness and the ‘brown babies’ that existed in the UK after the First and Second World Wars are discussed. Quite simply, the hybridity of my Afropolitan and pan-African identity offers me access to many histories that I view as my own to varying degrees.

Yet, somehow, I am frustrated. Growing up in a small English town, the black history my teacher compulsively drilled in us was largely American- Dr King, Ida B. Wells and Reconstruction etc. In the UK, it seemed as though exceptional figures such as Olaudah Equiano and Walter Tull - a brave captain who fought in the First World War - were secondary to the dominance of American narratives and thus the exalted exceptionalism assigned to them. Although I see the racial similarities, I always desired the celebration of black heroes in our shire that could be placed next to Dr King and Harriet Tubman without being positioned as somewhat inferior.

Years later, this desire for inclusion is still not enough.

Black history should not only be about the seemingly exceptional, be it European or American, it is also about the everyday and the intimate.

Take for example, my home country, Zimbabwe, which I rarely see in grand history narratives unless the story is a single-sided account of failed states, repressive governments, nationalistic propaganda and liberation struggles which, although worthwhile, largely glorified men and excused the suppression of citizens.

I remember classes in Harare, regurgitating histories that supported a one-party state and the military elite, who robbed the country, yet we were taught they were justified to do so due to their sacrifices in the independence struggle. As a child, these early moments influenced me to distrust my native history for the jaundiced propaganda it became- more wasteland than heritage.

As I grow older and discover myself as a collector of everyday stories, black history, as a month and broader concept has begun to shift for me. Being an Afropolitan, I choose to raise a fist for the Pan-African cause - I celebrate the likes of Jessie Jackson, Stokely Carmichael and Langston Hughes for what they have contributed to black excellence in this world. As a Black Brit, whose other home is found in the shires, I celebrate the immigrants, both Caribbean and African, who paved the way for my small immigrant family to see it through and as part of multicultural communities. As a black, queer, feminist woman, I celebrate those from the likes of Lorraine Hansberry – the first woman to stage a play on Broadway – to Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith for singing the Blues, where they loved other woman, even if it took decades for their graves to have a stone and the world to love them back.

As an African woman, I also celebrate the first Bantu man to leave illustrations of himself and his community in cave drawings lined in parts of Africa. Yes, nameless as he is, I celebrate him for that is black excellence too. I nod my hat off to the likes of Mandela and those imprisoned with him, whether by shackles or the choice to protest alone, who may have been there for years, yet remain unnamed. I celebrate my mother, for the tongue she gave me and the tethers to a history that is not always written but spoken. I am reminded of my grandmother, a year departed from this earth who could show you Southern Rhodesia in 1959 from her words alone. Mbuya (grandmother) was always my favourite history book and when I touched her, I felt the baby she was in 1929, the feel of the dust and the taste of the sun on her skin. I see the time my mother hid from the first imperial soldier she saw and the countless friends she lost, who died nameless in the fight for freedom.

My black history is both dead and alive, both exceptional and seemingly mundane – a history I encounter every day.

My black history, like most of us, exists beyond the month.

It is the old lady we walk past in the streets as much as it is the young, whose freedom is a result of the sacrifices our elders and ancestors made. So here’s what I ask: the next time someone asks you to talk about black history, yes, highlight those who are truly exemplary but I dare you walk to the next black body you see, young and old and speak in order to know them and those connected to them, small and inconsequential as that knowledge may be.

For as long as black skin exists, there too lies the ink of history.

By Danai Dee Denga

Twitter: @DanaiDJ1

Instagram: @danai_deejay

 

 

[1] Selasi, Taiye. ‘Bye Bye Barbar’ Lip Magazine, 2005 http://thelip.robertsharp.co.uk/?p=76