October has been a busy month this year in Cheltenham. In addition to the renowned Cheltenham Literature Festival at the beginning of the month, there have been a number of events for Black History Month in Cheltenham including the visits of George the Poet, the Egyptian Spirits Belly Dancers, film screenings, African Art Competitions and musical evenings. I even contributed my own performance of the musical documentary ‘The Discovery of the Blues’ at the Frog & Fiddle pub in one of the last events of the month. The highlights, however, were undoubtedly the guest lectures at FCH by the dramatist and critic Bonnie Greer OBE, and The Guardian journalist and author Gary Younge. I was involved in the organization and planning of these talks, and while they brought a real sense of prestige to the month’s events, they also provoked questions much-needed reflection on the meaning and significance of Black History Month overall.
Bonnie Greer’s talk on ‘Disruption and Insouciance’ followed by a Q&A with Professor Neil Wynn, centred on the questions raised by David Olusoga, who argued that the whole idea of BHM needs a ‘rethink’. Essentially, Olusoga suggests it is time to drop the ‘hero worship’ of black leaders and activists who are continually framed as quasi-superhuman inspirations. Greer borrowed this argument to challenge the simplistic idea of ‘diversity’ which is reflected in the political uses of the BME category, and adopted more widely in the arts. She argued that we are living in a time of significant social, cultural and political change, and the way we think about racial or ethnic ‘diversity’ must be more nuanced, more complex than as it currently exists. To close her talk, Greer read an extract from her new forthcoming novel ‘Till’, based on the life of Emmett Till, a young boy brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman.
Gary Younge’s talk – ‘reclaiming the lost voices of Black History’ – began on the premise that BHM in reality should not exist. A society in which racism has been extinguished no longer needs to correct the wrongs of historical representation. However, we know that is unfortunately not the case. His critique focused on the way BHM reflects the way history is generally told and the way in which we like to experience it – that is – in the form of stories about leaders, struggles, and victories. For Younge, this means that while we remember and ‘heroize’ black icons, we also forget the many intricacies of the past. He used the example of Claudette Colvin, the 15-year old African-American girl who refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, eight months before Rosa Parks took the same iconic stand that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Subsequently, Colvin’s story in history books is limited to this one moment: the ‘nearly’ girl that didn’t fit the bill of the Civil Rights movement. Colvin did not become the icon that Parks became, but this does not mean she didn’t take part in the boycott, or experienced other aspects of the movement throughout her life. Younge argued Black History Month should be used as an opportunity to recover these ‘forgotten’ stories.
Overall, these talks by Greer and Younge achieved the desired aim of informing and provoking thought, and it is left to us to decide on the next steps we can take in our lives to fully appreciate the complexities of history, and to look beyond the familiar stories of the same old heroes. May the next BHM be as fascinating and thought-provoking as this one has been!