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Questioning Black History Month: from left, Anna-Maria Nabirye, Dawn Dublin and Claudine Eccleston. Photo: Ted Barrow.

We Are Here: Black History Month in Hastings and St Leonards

It’s October, and therefore Black History Month. But a lot is different this year, not only in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Covid pandemic, but also as the organisers question whether the interests and contributions of black people should be centre stage for just one month in the year. Cllr Maya Evans, writing in a personal capacity, discusses the issues and describes Black History Month’s programme for Hastings and St Leonards.

The murder of George Floyd in May of this year reignited a global civil rights movement not seen since the 1960s: magnifying structural inequalities from racial profiling and police brutality, to the school-to-prison pipeline, bringing into question, amongst other things, the continued social acceptance of historical monuments to colonial conquests and slave owners. The chasm of inequality between ethnic minorities and whites was simultaneously exasperated by the comparatively adverse fatality rate of black and brown people to the Covid-19 virus.

As we now celebrate Black History Month, some people feel it is an event needed more than ever, while others feel it’s a convenient tick box requirement for the establishment. This year a group of local black residents came together to create We Are Here, a creative and cultural heritage project highlighting the historic and ongoing contributions made by black communities to British society and history. Though many of the organisers seem critical of the idea of Black History Month itself, what they have created is a cultural celebration of the black presence in the UK.

Initially planned as a vibrant cultural trail around the town, uncertainty about Covid 19 measures meant the We Are Here project has instead been moved online. The curated programme may be smaller than originally planned, but the organisers have worked hard to present opportunities for a mix of storytelling – the project theme. Planned events include craft and creative arts workshops, panel discussions, a virtual arts competition and an immersive audio trail called Walk With Us. This last project is an artistically beautiful collection of local stories celebrating the lives of black people in our community.

Anna-Maria Nabirye is the artistic director of the audio trail. “As a concept this is a project I have dreamed about for a long time, giving space to find the extraordinary among us- we are always looking far away to be inspired. I want to highlight the inspiration that walks beside us,” she commented. “As a multi-disciplinary artist with a focus on social practice I work intimately with so many communities and I am continually heartened by the people I meet and if we need anything now, it is for our hearts to be warmed.”

Stories include that of a local barber, an artist activist, NHS and care workers, those from the Windrush generation who arrived after World War II to help rebuild the country. Everyone has experienced racism but decided to turn that negative experience into positive, proving their worth by working hard and becoming successful business people. All of the stories are inspiring and educational and will make you feel proud to belong to such a diverse community.

The uploaded audio recordings and hand-drawn map are available for local people to follow on their mobile devices. The beauty of having them online means that these local stories will travel around the world.

Thinking about Black History Month

So, what does Black History Month mean to you?

Creative economist and project co-curator, Dawn Dublin, commented: “I’ve never been a fan of Black History Month, because I believe that the rich cultural heritage and contributions of the African diaspora should be celebrated and studied all year, rather than being confined to one month. However, I’ve always supported others who want to organise events during Black History Month, but for me, its title (can you name another history which is referred to as a colour?) and the concept of a celebratory ‘month’, do more harm than good.”

Dawn (one half of the duo which reopened the Observer Building in 2015) is the co-founder of Black Butterfly, a non-profit cultural heritage organisation created earlier this year. The impact of the pandemic on these communities meant that she was galvanised into bringing forward plans for the organisation’s creation. Now, more than ever, we need to provide nurturing online and in-person environments for improved mental health and wellbeing, community, mutual aid and opportunities.

Despite years of reporting to the contrary, the virus exposed the high numbers of ethnic people who work in frontline roles. Covid 19 certainly triggered a reassessment of jobs which have greater social value, proving that jobs such as NHS staff, refuse collectors, taxi drivers and care workers were far more socially valuable than bankers. Socially valuable, yes! But economically rewarded? No. Many essential workers during Covid 19 are paid minimal wages.

However, while many members of Black and ethnic communities have proved to be indispensable essential workers, saving lives and helping to keep the country running, tragically this has increased their exposure to the virus.

Tick box exercise

Local Black Lives Matter activist Claudine Eccleston described her feelings about the month: “If people really cared about Black people, they would allow us some equity, but instead we’re supposed to feel grateful for a single month of the year, I feel Black History Month is another tick box exercise, an extension of the BAME label. I am black history every day.”

Indeed, the “Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicity” label has come under a lot of criticism, as people feel it groups a huge variety of people into one category, when in fact the types of racism and discrimination people face is very varied. A black person living in the UK is more likely to experience stop and search or police brutality; Romany Gypsy Travellers face being criminalized for their desired nomadic lifestyle.

The term BAME allows corporations or institutions not to invest in different minorities or to address the various issues impacting diverse communities. It also allows workplaces to say they are ‘ethnically diverse’ when in reality they’re probably not – a good example is the current Government who boast a strong BAME representation in their Cabinet, but in reality, they’re void of any Black members.

Perhaps the one positive point of the BAME label is the potential for intersectionality between groups of people who experience racism and discrimination on the account of their ethnic heritage. Solidarity is certainly the key strength when it comes to breaking the chains of oppression. Sadly, examples of intersectionality have been few and far between in recent years, though interestingly the Black Lives Matter movement has made a concerted point of standing in solidarity with oppressed Palestinians.

Partly as a response to the shortcomings of the BAME label, local ethnic minorities have got together to form SHADE – St Leonards’ & Hastings Alliance for Diverse Ethnicities – an umbrella organization for people to network, celebrate their ethnic heritage and gain support with projects. The ‘We Are Here’ venture is the first undertaking by SHADE, who, through creative solidarity, intend to do a lot more in uplifting black and brown voices in the community.

 

Posted 20:18 Sunday, Oct 18, 2020 In: Campaigns

2 Comments

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  1. Keith Piggott

    Ambivalence, sometimes irritation, sometimes anger, is how I feel about any discriminatory movements, I’m a former serviceman where discrimination had many guises. Vicariously, we followed American 1960s civil rights’ movements, the good, the bad, the ugly, not confined to one segment of population. Malcom X was strident, even threatening, but grounded in reality; Dr Martin Luther King was measured, didactic, grounded in hope. Whereas, Governor George Wallace and the Kennedy’s represented the white divide
    At the time I paid no attention to, even unaware of, an unprepossessing commentator; but by his words he grew in stature, also charisma, he presented intellectually, the inalienable need for reconcilliation between races. His name James Baldwin, gifted public speaker and author of ‘I’m not your Negro’.
    Am I still a white supremacist racist, the slur usually levelled at my kind? No, I think not; I have lost my post-war hatred of Germany, Italy, and Japan, ended my personal embargo of their products; met and liked their citizens.
    Colour, or any other lable, is not the issue for me, always it is the person. Never could I have embraced George Floyd, but neither condone those police who, probably in fear, killed him unlawfully and will face sanction by the Law.
    Sure I have prejudices, who doesn’t? But just as I’ve met socially former WW2 and Cold War adversories, and found they too are just like myself, I say peoples everywhere should look beyond movements of whatever Ilk and value people as one finds them. It is not always easy, some are beyond the pale, but many reward us with friendship across all boundaries and divisions. KP

    Comment by Keith Piggott — Thursday, Oct 22, 2020 @ 15:30

  2. Erica Smith

    Great article – and really exciting to hear about the audio trail and SHADE. Thank you!

    Comment by Erica Smith — Monday, Oct 19, 2020 @ 13:18

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