There are several reasons why we, as people of African descent, must engage with, be aware of, and perhaps even internalise our history. Our narratives, the histories of those before who looked like us, and the histories of our respective ethnic groups (if applicable) are all key components of the building blocks of our cultural identities. It’s important to recognise that as Black people it can be hard to avoid what is paraded as the only relevant part of our history by white spaces – the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Recently, there have been conscious efforts to establish that though enslavement of Africans is a part of our shared history, it is not the only entry or relevant event. Black history goes further than the immense tragedy of centuries enslavement and colonisation. Black history is diverse, Black history is rich, and Black history is extremely underrepresented. Black history is more. To me, history is not just dates and timelines or analysing sources. History does not always have to be an extensive account dating back several centuries. The beauty of Black history is that it is often an oral history – stories passed down over dinner tables, conversations during car rides home after a family function, even people doing #StoryTime on social media.
To me, the beauty of history is that it is dressed in many forms. History can be your mother recounting her experiences growing up. Something as seemingly simple and nostalgic as her route to school. History can also be your grandmother showing you pictures of her in her early adulthood. Something as amusing as seeing what constituted the latest fashion in the 1940s, on someone who looks a bit (or a lot) like you. History at times can also be that book you see in the library which was checked out on the 31st of August, 1988. Who was the person that had it before? What was their story?
For me, history is everything. For Black people, history is everything. Big events, like the Maroon Wars of 1728-1740 in colonial Jamaica, where Jamaican Maroons fought British colonial authorities endlessly and tirelessly in guerrilla warfare to resist enslavement. History also includes relatively small events, like listening to my mother talk about her childhood and growing up the youngest daughter in a family of six brothers. Although we can argue that wider Black history is not as easily accessible, we can also engage with those around us in our communities. Parents, guardians, older relatives, friends. History was made with them and history includes them.
It’s no secret that history that is recorded has been known to exclude certain groups, leaving them in the cold shadow of more populous, powerful groups. Creating hollow accounts full of gaps and lacking balance. However, the honest truth about history is that history is for everyone. History has been made by each and every soul that has been on Earth, and history will continue to be made.
History objectively does not have a master, but history can be manipulated. History can be doctored, and history can be skewed. History can place road-blocks in perfectly working paths. We have seen clear examples of all of these, such as when it was reported after an official review that Britain destroyed evidence of the extent of their colonial crimes and atrocities (The Guardian, 12/04/12). History is a tool that can reveal the unwelcoming corners of humanity. However, these are revelations we have to embrace, because the alternative is confusion and manipulation.
History can be moulded to suit many purposes. From extremes, such as propaganda, to more societal and institutional uses, such as nation-building. History can be great for affirming your identity or sense of belonging. Examine why people love learning about Black history beyond enslavement. Hearing about past thriving African kingdoms and civilisations, for example. The importance as Black people of knowing the history of those who looked like us and walked before us can shape our cultural identities. Our history is expansive and shows us how we have progressed and persisted despite institutional factors which exist to subdue us. It also helps us to shape our futures.
I enjoy engaging with history of every kind because I enjoy seeing progression and regression in society. I appreciate the categorisation, and I appreciate the attempts history makes to create a coherent timeline event despite the confusion that could come from dealing with the past. I believe that history can be cathartic and enlightening, despite the gaps we may see at times. It is extremely important to engage with our history as Black people, because we are the ones who are continuing to create it. We will document our wins, our losses, our stagnation and our progression, because we are the only ones who will tell the story accurately.