Black history, white writers

Every year when Black History Month comes around, as a white history student, I encounter the dilemma of how involved to be. I am, of course, a huge advocate of promoting Black History, especially as so much has been done over the years to whitewash our textbooks; but perhaps the tale of Black History is not mine to tell.

During my History GCSE, the only mention of black ethnic minorities consisted of two lessons on slavery and several episodes about roots. The English department were perhaps a little better, but reading To Kill a Mockingbird can only teach us so much about the past. In sixth-form, we touched briefly on Mary Seacole and race relations within the United States, but, shockingly, not one single aspect of my secondary education acknowledged Black History within the UK itself. It was almost as if Black British History did not exist, which would be a denial of Black-British identity.

Throughout secondary school, I had gone out of my way to explore aspects of history not covered by the limited curriculum, so when I reached University, I was excited to have the opportunity to learn about more diverse histories. However, as my first Black History Month at University neared and I prepared to write an article for the History Student Times, I noticed that the vast majority of History students at Leeds are White. After this realisation, I began to ponder whether it is fair for me and other White people to write for Black History Month. Or is it time that Whites stopped dominating the historical narrative, and actually stood back and listened for once?

Photo credit: Tom Box

There are undeniable historical issues involving cultural imperialism. For centuries, White people have dominated accounts, partially by ensuring the systematic under-education of minority groups. This White domination of history led to a lack of sources written by POC, and subsequently to horrifically inaccurate and unfair depictions of ethnic minorities.  The fact is that White people have often failed to properly convey Black History, because History is not objective. Every historian is massively influenced by their own personal experiences, beliefs and culture. It is for this reason that White historians, such as Ulrich Phillips, have made Eurocentric claims, like the assertion that slavery as an institution ‘saved’ African’s from savagery. In order to avoid such distortions, even racism, it is arguably better to allow Black communities to tell their own stories.

However, that said, I do not think it is wrong to be interested in cultures different from one’s own. By reading Black History, perhaps white people can finally begin to understand their privilege. Not only is Black History important in helping us to understand the racial situation in the world today, but there is some fascinating Black History which has been concealed by years of imperialist whitewashing.

I thoroughly encourage everyone in Leeds to get involved in Black History Month and to learn something new about the past: start by googling John Edmonstone if you don’t know where to begin! Black History is so much more than just American slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, and personally I feel that it is vital that people learn that from authors who fully understand the complexities of the struggles faced by BME communities.

Rosie Plummer

Photo credit: Tom Box, ‘Don’t touch my hair’ exhibition