I was illegal when I was born. The South African government had declared it against the law for black people and white people to love each other, and being the product of a union between a black man and a white woman made me an accessory to a crime. I am certainly not the only one of my kind, a generation of children whose existence defied the malevolent Apartheid state. Our history, and this experience, is shared, collective — there is black, there is white, there is everything in between, and at its core, where the real story lies, there is South Africa.
“For many, it is liberating, affirming, a kind of reckoning for black people who feel their legacy was never recognised.”
The concept of separate histories, of histories being erased and hidden away, of being plain forgotten, was not one I was introduced to until my mid-twenties (‘round about the time I realised that history is… maybe a liar?). Certainly the idea of this phenomenon being harnessed as a tool of bigoted institutional structures was new to me, and it rocked the foundations of my world to realise that history wasn’t necessarily complete, and at times, this decision had been a wholly deliberate one. I am no historian — I wasn’t then, and I’m not now — but that realisation broke my heart.
In the years since, there has been some hope, a little bit of healing, and a deep dive into the movements that aim to correct the errors of those writing history; to shine a light where society would not want us to look, and celebrate the legacies of all people. This is impossible, of course, without stumbling across the Black History Month movements, officially celebrated each year in both the United States of America in February, and the United Kingdom in October. For a long time, I experienced it via digital spaces, social sharing, videos, and essays. Then, two years ago, I upped sticks and moved to Edinburgh and for the first time, got to experience Black History Month happening around me.
The messaging is simple, and heartening: in countries historically inhabited by a majority of white people, the black folks that were there as well were ignored and overlooked, all of their stories, contributions, and striving. Black History Month aims to correct that, celebrating the unsung heroes of the black people, reflecting on the diverse and myriad stories of people of African and Caribbean descent, and highlighting the role they played in the social, political, and economic development of their countries.
Like history itself, it is not an easy space. For many, it is liberating, affirming, a kind of reckoning for black people who feel their legacy was never recognised. For some, it is not enough, a division that is unacceptable, for history is simply history, and deserves to be told fully, all year long. For a few, it is traumatic, punctuated by pushback, bias, and lip service. For not enough, it is an opportunity to learn about new stories, and absorb new narratives and ways of looking at the world.
For me, here in the heart of the empire that once colonised my ancestors and our land, it is all of that and more. Not too long ago, I was called a black woman by a complete stranger for the first time in my life. Before, I have been brown, I have been mixed, perhaps even ‘African-looking’ and exotic — my heritage is complicated. But to be so recognised, here, by the last person I ever anticipated, has made me think about Black History Month as someone who is also now actually here, within it and belonging, in ways intertwined and often messy, to its heart. I am who I am, in many, many ways, because of this nation that so furiously attempts to leave us out of its imagining of itself.
So as we remember all that history has to offer, and celebrate its former secrets and unknown, I join in, really, and learn about the secret histories, and the stories that connect me, at the bottom of the African continent, to here, Edinburgh, Scotland.