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Black History Month: an ongoing liaison

Black History Month: an ongoing liaison

Wendy Appenteng Daniels on James Baldwin, Black History Month, and escaping tokenistic favour when approaching racial tensions 28/10/2022

“My biggest thank you goes to my sister for prodding me, during a lazy summer afternoon, to read Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin. Who would have known that such an aloof first reading would have occasioned the topic of my undergraduate dissertation?”  

Go Tell it on the Mountain is a semi–autobiographical and coming of age novel that tells the story of a 14–year–old John Grimes in Harlem in the 1930s over a 24–hour period. This was one of those books that had me hooked from the introduction; those readings that are so immersive, where every turn of page seems to whisper, ‘Turn the next page too’ until the power of sleep defeats you. However, there was nothing nonchalant about the time I submitted the dissertation: May 2020. Apart from the then omnipresence of COVID–19, there came a wave of unrest that May and in the months that followed, sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.   

The thesis I put forward was that the legacy of James Baldwin had been myopically reduced to a justification for racial rage, and that he needed to be appreciated in a more well–rounded way as a writer. My aim was to dissociate Baldwin from the identity category of race and explore the depths of his message. Simply, I wanted to redeem him from just being the go–to Black author black people quoted just for ‘wokeness’ sake’. Yes, Baldwin has greatly contributed to critical race theory – but what if we saw him not as the Black author, but turned our admiration to his eloquence and the lyrical beauty of his polyphonic writing? In fact, as others have argued, “Baldwin is large, he contains multitudes.” Although race is a recurring and often a central theme throughout his works, certainly to fixate only on that point was confining him.   

So, there I was: relieved to have completed what had taken months to write, and glad that I had hopefully presented a refreshing and not racially charged version of Baldwin – an author with creative agility and theological sharpness. But then I panicked – events in Minneapolis had left the world in further turmoil and, willingly or unwillingly, everyone was on ‘race alert mode.’ Was my thesis then out of touch or just cursed by poor timing?   

I grew more and more frustrated as the days went by, because I could not exactly understand the source of my uneasiness. Then, slowly, I was able to put words to my thoughts. I was tired that my blackness went before me like a disloyal shadow – it spoke for me even when I did not want it to. It seemed as though there was a mandate for all my likes and dislikes, observations, and views to univocally align with my blackness.   

I felt as if the world were asking me – how could you forget you are Black? Here you go – just a ‘gentle’ reminder, I hope it finds you well. Certainly not. This is one of the reasons why Black History Month is a time, I think, I do not fully appreciate – at least not in the way I believe it was intended to be appreciated.   

Black History Month was inaugurated in the UK by Akyaaba Addai–Sebo, a Ghanaian migrant who worked as a pan–African activist and coordinator at the Greater London Council (GLC) in the 1980s. Black History Month as a concept was not new. In fact, it had already been an established American annual observance every February – the time was chosen to commemorate Frederick Douglass’ and Abraham Lincoln’s birth month. Its origins stem from the Negro History Week, which was created by the historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926 to celebrate the African American community and by extension today, the African diaspora.   

The observance was not intended to be just a transient celebration, but a route to sediment new knowledge in the educational system, and an overdue appreciation for Black history.  Woodson wrote this as his motivation:  

“If a race has no history, if it has no worth–while tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated (…) The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of world– wide persecution, therefore, he is still a great factor in our civilization.”

This reflection strikes me, as it acknowledges the importance of a God who invites his children to mutual fellowship through remembrance and tradition.   

A revealing episode moved Akyaaba Addai–Sebo to import Black History Month in the UK. His colleague had told him that her seven–year–old son had asked her “Mom, why can’t I be white?” This prompted Addai–Sebo to go around asking children about their identity. By so doing he realised that black children ‘recoiled’ at the mention of their blackness and were not proudly walking in their identity. So, Black History Month became a way to instill a sense of pride and belonging, a way to colour a whitewashed cultural and social history. A way for black achievements and contributions, past and present, to take centre stage.  

It sounds glorious and fitting in its intent, yet more fundamental work still needs to be done. Black History Month is not celebrated in the rest of continental Europe, even though there is an emerging pan–European Black identity. Although the number of black people in Europe cannot be accurately quantified due to restrictions on ethnic data collection in some countries like in France, in 2017 nearly three–quarters of Europe’s sub–Saharan migrant population lived in just four countries: the UK (1.27 million), France (980,000), Italy (370,000) and Portugal (360,000).   

Great strides have been made by having minority ethnic groups in high positions of power, but this does not translate into trickle–down diversity in our day–to–day realities. So, by going back to our past, our diverse histories become an exercise that clarifies our experience.   

Maybe as time goes on, there will be more alignment between Black History Month and the year that contains that month; a time where celebrating a community will not be a ticked checklist, or a tokenistic favour, but a well–enjoyed book. Only then will topics around race not feel like a burden or ungracious conversations.  

Even so, racial tensions are not a binary discourse. We are entangled in a web of internalised racism, intraracial racism and ‘what race has it worse Olympics’. This triple liaison is what Baldwin warned us about. Beyond race, undiagnosed self–hatred and impulsive hate can lead to these tensions with ourselves and others.  

So, as Black History Month comes to a close, may it serve as a moment to, as Addai–Sebo put it, enjoy “the splendor of the days following the Fall Equinox, a glorious spectacle of seasonal balance, a harmony we also need in our relations with one another.” 


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Photo by Madison Oren on Unsplash

Wendy Appenteng Daniels

Wendy Appenteng Daniels

Wendy was formerly Research, Communications & Events Intern from May 2022 to February 2023. She is interested in the relationship between culture and religion, education policy and the African diaspora. Wendy studied Religion, Politics & Society at King’s College London, including a semester abroad in Washington, DC. She holds an MSc in International Social and Public Policy from the LSE.

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Posted 28 October 2022

Black History Month, Racism, Society


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