Growing up as a child back home in Lagos, Nigeria, I remember vividly when after another power outage by the electricity company notoriously known as NEPA at the time, children and adults would gather outside for some cool breeze. Children would sit on their mats, gathered round the adults to listen to folktales, mostly stories about a cunning and evil tortoise and I would wonder why tortoise was always portrayed as the evil and cunning one. However, sometimes I would take my mat, lay down alone and stare at the open sky with all its bright shining stars. I would gradually drift into imagination land where I imagined a big tree with gigantic root with different branches growing in different directions, all reaching high up into the night skies and somehow all connected to the different stars with shinning stars on the tips of its branches. I called it the Tree of life. The branches represented humans of all races branching out in different directions, but all rooted in one life source.
The branches were all human siblings and I wondered why we did not get along and why some think they were superior due to their race. At the time my knowledge of racial inequality was limited to Apartheid in South Africa. Charities visited our schools; they told us what was happening in South Africa and asked us to donate to the Apartheid fighting fund. I donated my pocket money to the funds hoping it helped. My dream was to see all those branches come together united under the tree and have a big family feast.
As I grew older and travelled far and wide, I began to understand better why making that journey back to the start of our life source would be difficult for us all. Also, more difficult, traumatic, and uncomfortable to different degrees for some more than others. It is the journey through History and history is not always a wonderful place to revisit.
Black history month is that time we journey through the lens of Black people to understand the forgotten contributions of black heroes. This Black History month theme is ‘Time for change: Action not Words’. Maybe the action to take is to commit to taking that journey through history in a bid to connect to the tree of life, the very source of it all with the hope that the journey, even though difficult and traumatic sometimes, would eventually make us a better person, with better understanding and better equipped emotionally to connect with ‘siblings’ all over the world.
Understanding history is important. The way I am perceived, the way I perceive others, the way I am treated, the way I treat others, and the way we all see things have been influenced by the culture we grew up in and the culture was impacted heavily upon by history. Therefore, whether we like it or not, we are all by-product of history and its legacies.
History is why a black child would pick a white doll over a black doll when asked to pick the doll they think is beautiful.
History is the reason when black girls were shown the trailer of a Black Ariel with red Locs, they cried with happiness and screamed “She looks just like me!”.
History is also why some white adults, who felt offended by a black girl playing Ariel, the mermaid, have created the hashtag #NotMyAriel on social media, to vociferously complain about the casting.
History is the reason when I was a teenager with wild imagination, I drafted short novels on notebooks which my mates would queue up to read. One thing that I later realised was that the characters in all my stories were white and the settings British, even though I was a black girl living in a black country, who never saw a white person. Yet, somehow, I had been socialised to think and dream ‘white’.
History is why in high school; we were forbidden to speak in our mother tongue. History is why many of us who grew up in that environment hardly speak or write fluently in any language, be it English or our native language. We have a love-hate relationship with our mother tongue.
History is why as a black woman I have a love hate relationship with my hair. It is also why we say to our White colleagues. “Don’t touch my hair”. When you know the story of Sarah Baartman, you will understand why we don’t want to be touched or treated like exotic exhibits.
History is why when I visited the British Museum for the first time with a white friend who was eager to show me the African artefacts, she could not understand why I was angry and sad looking at the work of arts from my motherland displayed in British museum. When I expressed that these artefacts should be where they belonged, her response was that more people are able to see it in British museums and Britain have preserved the arts since it could have been destroyed in there country of origin. Her pride at having these artefacts in the British museum was a result of the version of history she was fed and socialised to believe. She saw these artefacts and felt Pride, I saw these artefacts, felt helpless, and traumatised. Our perception although rooted in history, was different because we had different version of the same history.
When I did a short course at Michigan State university, Michigan, I used the opportunity to visit the slave trade museum in Detroit. There I saw the epitome of man’s inhumanity to man. I saw the boats, chains and the instrument of torture that were like something out of a hammer house of horror, only that this was reality, these atrocities happened. I was traumatised, I wept for days. I was angry, I was sad, I was baffled. I could not comprehend it; I still cannot comprehend it. I knew there was no way I would let my then young son visit such a place. However, history is not something we can or should hide from.
History is why when I first came to the UK as a Postgraduate student, the white male doctor at the University surgery refused to honour my medical prescription because it was from a Nigerian University Teaching Hospital and because of his racism, I almost died.
History is why George Floyd took his last breath begging for his life with the words “I can’t Breathe” while a white police officer kept his knee on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds until George Floyd breathed his last breath. History is why killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin happened.
History is why we are where we are today. History is part of the reasons our society treat people differently.
Black history month is not just about Black people understanding their history, it is about everyone understanding History. Not just the part that appear in school curriculum but the part that, to various degrees, we have all been shielded from.
As a child, I was taught in school that Mungo Park discovered River Niger, but even then, I asked, but were people not living, bathing, and washing their clothes on the bank of River Niger before Mungo Park was born?
Slave trade interrupted the History of Africa, but the history of Africa did not stop there. Africa had a rich history before slave trade, a rich history during slave trade, and a rich history after slave trade.
Black history month is about everybody, regardless of race, making the conscious decision and putting in the effort to learn.
History conferred advantages on some and wherever there are people with advantages, there will be those who are disadvantaged by the advantages of others. When we begin to understand where we still benefit from the history of our ancestors, we begin to understand and empathise with these who are the victims of some atrocious actions in history. Then, we can stand together and not feel like we are from two different worlds, just like I felt with my white friend at the British museum.
We have come to a place now where LGBT+ Pride events are attended and celebrated not just by LGBT people but allies as well. This is what we should be doing during Black History month. It is not just a month for Black people to learn about their history, it is a time for white people to learn about their part in the history, no matter how uncomfortable it is. When you do this, you can begin to unpack how growing up in a racially unequal society has impacted on how you view the world and the privileges it confers on you as a white person.
Aftermath of George Floyd murder, many white people started learning about race and racism. Many bought books such as ‘Why I am no longer talking to White people about Race’ and ‘White Fragility’. Many attended protests rally. Did we just buy those books and let them gather dust without reading them? Did we stop attending these rallies because it was no longer trending on social media? Were we just performative allies?
We should never stop learning. It is also not too late to read these books we bought. Being an ally is a lifelong commitment. This Black history month, ask yourself, are you still an Ally?
Now, back to my fantasy of the three of life. I now understand why making the journey from the branches back to the root would be difficult. For many, the path is filled with tears, sweat and blood. Branches aren’t equally strong. Some tree branches have been made strong from feeding off the other branches or cutting off light and water supply to other branches.
However, how are we ever going to heal and unite to have that feast at the root as siblings if we don’t make the journey back to our root?
Now, as an adult, when I fantasise about the tree of life, I imagine that the starry lights at the tips of the branches are lights we emit within us. The light is not from the stars but from within us. I want to connect to the light within another human, regardless of race, sexuality, disability, or gender.
If we are ever cornered in a cave and suddenly a ray of light appears through a hole, we would gravitate towards it and attempt to break down the barriers to let in more light. The more barriers we breakdown, the brighter it becomes. When we make that journey down to the root, our lights shine brighter with every step we take. And when the lights in me join forces with the light in you, we create a circle of light that shines bright not just on us but light up our surroundings too. And this will be our new stars that light up the stormy nights, not in faraway galaxies but right here with us.I hope we will see this Black history month as a Time for change. A time to start a conversation, to read more and keep the important conversations going. A time to act, to light the path, not just for us, but for others and start building a better history that is not filled with tears and blood but filled with healing and love for the generations after us. Happy Black History Month.