Sunday, 24 October 2010

'How Far Now!' October is Black History Month.

Yes in the United Kingdom it is Black History Month so jerk chicken and rice with plaintain or jollof rice is being served in schools all over the country or they're experiencing the joy of African dance and drumming. Now I don't have documentary evidence of this, but if you do a search for 'black history month uk' you could easily get the impression that these are two of the favourite ways to celebrate the month.

When I was a young student we often bemoaned the fact that the only education we ever got that had any relevance to our personal and cultural identity focused on the fact that we were descended from people who were bought and sold like farm animals. Multiculturalism was something that came into schools by the time I was a mother. It meant that my children could now learn of people like Mary Seacole as well as Florence Nightingale or learn more about Diwali and Chinese New Year at school. The introduction of October as Black History Month at the time was like a natural progression and doesn't seem so unusual now. At first though I thought it wasn't for me as I'd taught myself Black History by reading autobiographies and biographies from Billie Holliday to Malcom X. I watched programmes like 'Eyes on the Prize' and anything related to African or Caribbean history and I repeated the phrase 'Black History is not just for one month'. Black History Month was for youngsters and people who didn't know any black history, in my opinion. Now I recognise that the month is for celebration and I think in celebrating we are also learning. In that sentiment I would like to think that educational institutions are doing more than serving Caribbean school lunches or enjoying a visit from a group of lively drummers and dancers from Nigeria. In my own place of work they are running a writing competition which is helping some teachers introduce the art of expression around a relevant topic such as the poems of Maya Angelou.

This year I found myself making a contribution to Black History Month quite by accident really as I never planned to do anything more than say 'Hello' to my Facebook family and friends in an African language. So my first status of October simply said, 'Jambo!' I didn't even check that it meant what I planned to say, taking it from memory of the few words of any African language I'd gathered in my youth studying people of African origin.

A few days later I said 'How now' which apparently means 'Hello' in Nigeria. This status sparked some good comments and even a correction as I was told by an African student it should read, 'How far now'. This activity was now quite enlightening  so I continued with 'Etisen' Twi (Ghana), 'Bonjour tout le monde' French (spoken in some form in some African and Caribbean countries) and 'Tena-istellen' Amharic (Ethiopia). By Friday of that first week I'd decided to keep using my status for Black History Month for the whole month but only on weekdays. I was not explicit about what I was doing until directly asked and the positive response encouraged me to continue. I decided to choose a different theme for each week.

After greetings in other languages here some links and videos I shared under their themes:

Men of Note

Nat King Cole
One of my favourite songs for the season sung by one of the first voices I ever loved. Nat King Cole was one of the first biographies I chose to read simply because I'd always loved to hear his voice when I was growing up listening to my parents records. People of my generation will also tell you how our parents loved to play Jim Reeves music and country and western singers like Frankie Laine which mystified us as children. My favourite singer of all those is still Nat King Cole.

Elijah J McCoy

I simply asked the question, 'What well known phrase is said to originate from this man?'
The answer: The Real McCoy'.This sparked a lot of comments and most of them with the right answer. I guess it was an easy one.

Ernie Barnes

Another question: Can anyone tell me whose album cover (name of singer and name of album) did this artist create?

This was a bit hard as no-one got it so I posted the answer a few hours later: Ernie Barnes' painting 'Sugar Shack' was featured on Marvin Gaye's album 'I Want You'. 

I was too young to be buying albums when this came out but I had a poster of the cover on my wall as a teenager and a few other pictures cut out of a magazine from this artist. In fact I have a couple of prints of Ernie Barnes to this day. Just love the movement in his work.

CLR James Library

Great news! During the second week in October news came out that made many local people happy. Since August we have been petitioning against a proposed name for a library which for more than 25 years is known as the CLR James Library. The council wanted to call it the Dalston Library. This news announced that the council has listened to the concerns of locals put forward by community group Black & Ethnic Minority Arts  (BEMA) and agreed to keep the name of a man regarded highly across all nationalities and of particular pride to African Caribbean peoples included in the new name of the library. Click on the links to read more about CLR James, an influential writer, activist and raconteur.

The Honourable Derek Walcott
A son of St Lucia and a Nobel Prize winner. Just because I admire him. Here is one of his poems:

A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt
Of Africa, Kikuyu, quick as flies,
Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.
Corpses are scattered through a paradise.
Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries:
"Waste no compassion on these separate dead!"
Statistics justify and scholars seize
The salients of colonial policy.
What is that to the white child hacked in bed?
To savages, expendable as Jews?
Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break
In a white dust of ibises whose cries
Have wheeled since civilizations dawn
From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.
The violence of beast on beast is read
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
Delirious as these worried beasts, his wars
Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum,
While he calls courage still that native dread
Of the white peace contracted by the dead.

Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again
A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,
The gorilla wrestles with the superman.
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?

Women of Note

Jean Binta Breeze
I met this woman briefly many years ago as she headlined a poetry evening I took part in. I watched her performance from backstage and realised that I had a long way to go before I could be as good as she. I remain in awe.
Here she is in performance a few years ago:

Mahalia Jackson

The video I used to feature this gospel great is from a movie which for me was all about the black woman and her daughter. The girl rejected her mother as she strove to pass herself off as white. Watching this movie as a young child made quite an impression on me. The funeral and the scene of the daughter's remorse always gets me. I've just recently started reading about the life of Mahalia and watching videos on YouTube of her performances.

Yaa Asantewaa
The first time I ever heard the name of Yaa Asantewaa, I was being taught by a Ghanaian friend about one of his nation's heroes. The fascinating thing for me was that it was a woman who fought for her people, a warrior queen was how I understood it then. I found some very good materials including a documentary and posted them to my page.

Sonia Lanaman
Don't ever hear her name mentioned anymore but Sonia Lanaman was one of my favourite athletes as a child. I cheered when she won and felt sad when she lost. I thought it time she got a mention.

Toni Morrison

Another Nobel Prize winner and one of my favourite authors. The first book I read by Toni Morrison was called 'The Bluest Eye'. Many others have been read since. I wish I could've had one of her books for study when I was a youngster instead of Chaucer or King Lear.

Here is a link to the Official Guide to Black History Month in the UK including an online magazine and teachers packs.

Got one more theme to choose for my Facebook statuses for the last week. Got any suggestions?

Thank you for reading.

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