Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 15 November 2019

Black history matters – but ignorance and hostility towards 'the other' still persist

The recent resurgence of the extreme right and the dramatic increase in identity-based hate crimes in some nations means that celebrations such as Black History Month are more crucial than ever before

Malcolm X at a rally in New York in 1963 AP
Malcolm X at a rally in New York in 1963 AP

It is Black History Month in the UK; the US and Canada celebrate the same event in February. In Britain, the occasion has been around for more than 30 years and represents a time to remember significant events, achievements and people of the African continent and diaspora.

The poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser once wrote: "The universe is made of stories, not of atoms." Stories are useless, though, if left untold. It is only through telling and retelling our stories and histories that we come to know ourselves and each other. Black History Month is the remembrance and celebration of those stories.

In June 1919, just over a century ago, there were race riots in Britain. The First World War had ended and in seaports across the country, black workers were being blamed for the lack of housing and jobs. During one incident in Liverpool, Charles Wotten, a 24-year-old seaman from Bermuda, was chased relentlessly through the streets by an angry white mob. With nowhere left to run, Wotten ended up in the river Mersey, where he was pelted with stones until he drowned.

This little-known chapter in British history was recently published in the book Great War to Race Riots. Its co-author Madeline Heneghan said the riots were an integral part of the history of the British empire, yet had somehow been largely erased from historical narratives. "Important lessons can be learnt from it today," she said.

Everton supporters denounced racism with a banner supporting footballer Moise Kean during a Premier League match last month. Peter Byrne / PA
Everton supporters denounced racism with a banner supporting footballer Moise Kean during a Premier League match last month. Peter Byrne / PA

I, however, knew this story well. I grew up in inner-city Liverpool in the 1980s, where there was a grass-roots educational centre affectionately known as "the Charlie". The institution's official name was the Charles Wotten Centre, named after the drowned seaman. I was fortunate enough to spend a year at the Charlie studying, among other things, black history.

I had always loved history at school, from learning about the Anglo Saxons to the Tudors and Stuarts. History was by far my favourite subject. I was particularly captivated by the story of Sir Thomas More, lord high chancellor of England, a brilliant mind who spoke truth to power and would not yield his principals, even if it cost him his life. At school, however, I learned nothing about black or African history. Given that myself and several of my classmates were of African heritage, this was a particular shame.

'The Charlie' opened my eyes to the history of Africa and the African diaspora

It wasn't until I enrolled at the Charles Wotten Centre that I began to explore a side of history that had been completely hidden from me. I read works such as The African Origin of Civilisation: Myth or Reality, by the Senegalese historian and anthropologist Cheikh Anta Diop. I also studied the writings of Ivan van Sertima, a Guyanese-born associate professor of Africana Studies at Rutgers University. Van Sertima's works included titles such as Black Women in Antiquity, The Golden Age of the Moor and African Presence in Early Europe.

These works introduced me to characters such as Abu I-Hasan Ali Ibn Nafi, also known as Ziryab, meaning blackbird. He was a celebrated chemist, linguist, astronomer, geographer, poet and master musician in the 9th century Umayyad court of Abd ar-Rahman II in Cordoba.

I also learned about Queen Tiye, the Nubian wife, confidant and adviser to the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III. The historical and cultural significance of places such as Timbuktu in Mali and Benin in modern-day Nigeria also became apparent to me. Before attending the Charlie, I had grown up thinking that Timbuktu was a make-believe place, like Narnia or Gotham City.

Then US president Barack Obama embracing Maya Angelou, the late poet and civil rights activist, after presenting her with the Medal of Freedom at the White House in Washington in 2010. Tim Sloan / AFP
Then US president Barack Obama embracing Maya Angelou, the late poet and civil rights activist, after presenting her with the Medal of Freedom at the White House in Washington in 2010. Tim Sloan / AFP

Beyond ancient and medieval history, the Charlie also introduced me to the African-American experience. Among others, we examined the lives and works of Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman and El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X, another sharp mind who spoke truth to power and would not yield his principals, even if it cost him his life.

The Charlie deepened and reawakened my love of learning and served as an inspirational gateway to my eventual careers in health care and academia. I continue to study the history of humanity and I am genuinely thankful to the Charlie for opening my eyes to the history of Africa and the African diaspora. Because black history matters.

The recent resurgence of the extreme right and the dramatic increase in identity-based hate crimes in some nations meas that celebrations such as Black History Month are more crucial than ever before. Ignorance of the "other", of outsiders, maintains divisions and exacerbates hostilities between groups with little understanding of one another. It is much easier to dehumanise someone we don't know.

Members of the far-right English Defence League in the UK
Members of the far-right English Defence League in the UK

Muzafer Sherif, sometimes known as the father of social psychology, illustrated this idea in a now infamous study looking at inter-group conflict. In the Robbers Cave experiment – which inspired William Golding's classic novel Lord of the Flies – two groups of 11-year-old boys had to fight for survival in a remote location. Sherif demonstrated that when rival groups got to know each other and worked towards a shared goal, inter-group hostilities and conflicts were greatly reduced and friendships even emerged.

The UAE has many great examples of promoting this idea of getting to know the other rather than fearing, distrusting and despising different nationalities and backgrounds

I wouldn't say knowledge is the key but it certainly helps push open the door to inter-group harmony. When we get to know people, we tend to see ourselves in them.

The UAE has many great examples of promoting this idea of getting to know "the other" rather than fearing, distrusting and despising different nationalities and backgrounds. Sharjah's Africa Hall, for example, is home to the Africa Institute, which serves as a centre for academic research into African and African diaspora studies, with an emphasis on the links between African nations and the Arabian Gulf.

Another great example is the UAE's plan to construct the Abrahamic Family House. This landmark triptych of buildings will feature a mosque, church and synagogue all in one setting, with the aim of promoting interfaith harmony and religious tolerance.

In my native UK, Black History Month is under threat. Some parts of the country are deciding to rebrand the event beyond all recognition. For example, the London borough of Hillingdon renamed the event "Culture Bite", which now features activities such as country dancing and wine tasting.

Learning about the history, beliefs, culture and languages of humanity is a gateway to tolerance. Black History Month is important and should be preserved. But appreciating and respecting those multiple strands of humanity should be year-round, not just restricted to one month.

Justin Thomas is a psychology professor at Zayed University

Updated: October 13, 2019 02:03 PM

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