During Black History Month UK, I was asked to give a talk at an event held at the University of Bristol, called, ‘New Narratives Beyond MLK: Spotlight On the Marginalised Voice.’ The focus of the event was to spotlight people and histories beyond those that often form part of the sanitised narratives of Black History Month celebrations. My talk reflected on how absent hope of African futurity in the past and present makes such futurity itself a forgotten history. This reflection arises from my scepticism with observations of Black History Month in Higher Education where data on access, progression and content shows persistent trends of anti-Blackness. I suggest here, that the failure to end these trends signifies a particular lack of intellectual creativity as regards the personhood and possibilities of African and African-descended people. The text of the talk is reproduced below.
It is often said, often during Black History Month, often as a reaction to the inevitable shallow treatment of Black History during Black History Month… that slavery and colonisation are not Black African history… slavery and colonisation interrupted Black African history.
So, I have been asked to talk about black history that is forgotten and not spoken about during Black History Month. As a student of African history, I could talk about one of the oldest universities in the world, Sankore at Timbuktu, or the wisdom of Queen Nzinga in the face of Portuguese invasion or the deadly Amazonian might of the Mino of Dahomey. In excavating Africa’s lost histories, we often speak of the riches of Mansa Musa or the splendour of Great Zimbabwe, the influence of Benin Empire and innovation they manifested in Benin City.
I could also speak of those mothers of nations, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Amy Garvey, the women of FRELIMO, the women of UNITA. I could speak of the music makers of freedom, Miriam Makeba, Brenda Fassie, Hugh Masekela, Johnny Clegg.
There are many names, voices, and stories that I could tell. And there is indeed great significance in those remembrances. In remembering, we remember that we are an African people. People. Who prospered, built civilisations, cities, kingdoms, riches. We are a people who have laughed, cried, sang, fought. Died. But by valorising these remembrances only, we valorise only the exceptional that have now passed into oblivion. We ignore the possibilities that are being killed today. So, this is the part of Black history that I want to talk about. I want to reflect on what is not being spoken about today, that is happening today. Because we are creating black history today. And potential is being forgotten and stifled. Today.
This is very important as we consider how we mark Black History Month within a university. I have spent the last few weeks telling my students how our COVID-secure and compliant face shields make us look like low-budget versions of Star Wars characters. I think one of the reasons that people love science fiction is that it causes our imagination to break through the boundaries of what is considered possible. To imagine the possibility of the previously considered impossible. Through science fiction, we are able to imagine new worlds, new futures, and – to conflate two fandoms – to boldly go where no one has gone before. However, apart from genres like Afro-futurism and African futurism, it has seemed impossible for even science fiction writers of screen and page to imagine the possibility of African futurity. It has seemed impossible to imagine a future where Africa emerges not as a low-budget version of Europe, but as true picture of herself. How much more is that possibility of African futurity forgotten in our epistemologies in higher education?
Africa and Africans have a long history of being written into darkness. The written word has weighed heavy on us. Used to name and label and distort and deform. Used to know and unknow Africa, till all that remains is an extended history of non-recognition of personhood. We are constantly written into darkness. We live in tomorrow’s history. Are we still writing, teaching and researching Africa into darkness? What future do we see in our work for Africa’s tomorrow-children? Are our epistemologies creating the possibility for Africa to become herself? Or are our epistemologies hindering this possibility? Thus, our dreams of a new future for African and African descended peoples must start by unlearning, by unravelling and travelling. We must achieve our possible futures by revisiting the past, by unearthing the missing. Because, our nightmares of impossibility are shrouded by this false history of Africa we have created, intellectualised and internalised.
Because what use is Black History Month within a university when we think of Black history always as othered history? A history set apart? A history not leading to the same destination we are headed to?
It is evident that the increasing support of universities for Black History Month has not translated itself to a substantial decrease in the awarding gap, or a decrease in the ethnicity pay gap, or a significant increase in the number of Black women in the professoriate, or an improvement in the funding pipeline problems that meant that over a 3-year period only 1.2% of the nearly 20, 000 studentships awarded by all UKRI [UK Research and Innovation] research councils went to Black or Black Mixed students and only 30 of those were from a Black Caribbean background.
Furthermore, where is Africa and where are her children in our curriculum? Where is she in our buildings? Where is she in our research agendas? Is she centred or is she othered? So I return to the question: what part of Black history has been forgotten? Yes, there are names and achievements and kingdoms not often mentioned. But there is also the present which may yet become part of othered and forgotten histories. There are those alive now who will never know more than a world caught in the rupture of slavery and colonialism. Those who will never know more than a world that thinks of itself as not part of Black history. Who will never contemplate what world we could have had, had Blackness not been made undesirable and unmournable. Who will never know deep within their souls the truth of Imani Perry’s words, ‘Blackness is an immense and defiant joy.’ What possibilities have we written into darkness? We live now in tomorrow’s history. What future do we see in our intellectual work for Africa’s tomorrow-children? What forgotten stories will be told about our times when we become history? Will they tell stories of Blackness as immense and defiant joy?
Africa and Africans have had a long history of being written into darkness. The written word has weighed heavy on us. Used to name and label and distort and deform. Used to know and unknow Africa, till all that remains is an extended history of non-recognition of personhood. We are still constantly written into darkness.
So, if Black History Month is to mean anything beyond a shallow celebration of culture and decontextualised ahistorical accounts of Blackness, if Black History Month is not to contribute to the continued death and consignment of Black possibility and futurity, African and African descended peoples must be given the space to write ourselves into the light. Now. History’s shadows must be given space to unfurl themselves. Here. It is time. Let there be light.