Skip to main content

Black History Month: Cause and resistance

The political nature of blackness has been under attack for a number of years now – as shown by the suggested ‘rebranding’ of Black History Month, says ROGER McKENZIE

DIVERSITY Month or Black History Month? Does it matter anyway? That seems to be the debate taking place among those of us who have the time to be bothered. 

I have presented this in a deliberately harsh way because we should always remember that the priority among large parts of the black community is keeping a roof over their heads and putting bread on the table rather than whether October in Britain is known for its blackness or diversity. Especially when the other 11 months of the year show little sign of equality and our community continues to experience racism in employment, from the government and where we once again see racists and fascists harassing and marching against us. 

Having said that, as one of those who has the time to be bothered, I think this is actually an important debate. Spending a little time thinking about each of the key words — “diversity,” “black” and “history” — gives us a clue to what’s going on. 

Diversity has been a contentious issue for some time. Who can argue with celebrating diversity? 

Not me, that’s for sure. Why would anyone — except racists — want to argue with celebrating the richness of our society that in part comes from our diverse nationalities and religions? 

I’ve not even mentioned all the other equality characteristics that often get combined under this heading and are certainly also most worthy of celebration in their own right. 

So now we start to see the problem. Diversity is so wide in its approach that it’s everything to everybody. 

Again there’s nothing particularly wrong with that — and I’ve been introduced to many new foods and pieces of music because of it, which is perhaps what it was meant to do — but it always leaves me remembering a line from a film of many years ago where someone said: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” 

In this case “diversity” means never having to say “racism.” Diversity does not deal with power and the way that it’s used to subjugate black people. 

It challenges nothing or anyone. Its role is to develop tolerance of each other in a non-threatening way. 

Apparently we black folks just need to show more patience and wait for this better understanding of us — because we just need to be tolerated and understood, apparently — to develop over a seemingly endless time span. 

Blackness is the real inconvenient truth to many white people in positions of power (or not). 

Any assertion of our political blackness raises all sorts of difficulties that is usually related back to our famous impatience for change or, perhaps more often, to our black militancy. 

There is probably some truth in both of those accusations. I think we have a lot to be impatient about and some of us are militant, although, as I said earlier, many of us are militantly trying to find ways just to survive.

It is, however, the assault on the political nature of blackness that has been under attack in a very sustained way for a number of years now. 

It is the issue that lies at the heart of the attack on Black History Month. Black, as the great thinker and activist A Sivanandan said, is not the colour of our skin, but the colour of our politics. When you get that then you get everything.

For years now we have an endless list of acronyms used to describe us. Everything from BAME to BEAM to ME to EM (work them out for yourself). 

It got to a stage that I was turning up to meetings to be met with new and more imaginative letters strung together to apparently describe me. 

It was like doing a cryptic crossword to work out what they were talking about, never mind what on Earth drove them to think that we weren’t capable of describing ourselves in a way that united us.

Among the many reasons I’m proud of Unison is our uncompromising use of the term black and the right of black workers to name ourselves — a right that was taken from us as we were stolen into slavery and as our lands were colonised. 

This leads us nicely to the history part of the equation. A history that predates slavery and colonialism but also includes a black radical tradition of resistance against those evils. I was taught during Black History Month about the massive yet under-recorded levels of resistance to racism through the ages. 

Our black history wasn’t available anywhere else to me and, in truth, wouldn’t have been that much more widely available now without the internet. 

The inspiration I got through learning more about my ancestors’ legacy of resistance helped to mobilise me into activity into the Labour Party, in the Black Sections movement, and in trade unionism, through black self-organisation. 

Again I’m proud that Unison was at the forefront of pioneering black self-organisation and took the steps to enshrine in our rule book 25 years ago the same principle to other marginalised groups.

Frankly, if you saw that Black History Month helped to develop a deeper understanding of the black radical tradition, mobilised black people to action and your job was to maintain the status quo or to maintain white supremacy, wouldn’t you do something to stop it? 

To be honest I’m really not too bothered what agents of the status quo or folks trying to mask their own racism want to do. 

I’m not sitting around waiting for their money to put on an event. Haters are gonna hate. I’m more interested in building a movement that makes a real difference for black and white working-class people. 

Part of that must be the mobilisation of the black community and Black History Month has and should continue to play a major part in achieving that. Others can call it what they will. Black History Month is here to stay.

Roger McKenzie is assistant general secretary of Unison.


We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 11,486
We need:£ 6,514
13 Days remaining
Donate today