Heritage: The Path of Least Resistance

The theme for Black History Month this year is “Heritage”,  and how we interpret that can tell us something about ourselves and something about the society we live in.

As Black people we have many identities that can relate to, where we were born, whether we are a product of more than one ethnic group, the religion we have adopted and sometimes just the identity that we feel most comfortable with….. notwithstanding those who are in denial of their “Blackness”.  As children of migrant communities there is always the pressure to adapt to our present circumstances. Such an adaptation can sometimes leave us conflicted but no matter how hard we try to resist there is still a residue of our past in our DNA, sometimes physically and sometimes psychologically, which can manifest itself in the most unexpected ways, and in some instances either by over identification, or purposeful distancing.

There is much evidence to suggest that the more we look like the majority population the easier it is for us to assimilate or as they say….blend in. This can relate to the fairness of our skin, the straightness of our hair, the shape of our nose and the colour of our eyes and some argue that these factors can challenge our will to commit to positions that identify us with more stridentissues relating to the condition of Black people in the UK.

Education or lack of it has played a massive part in helping us to fully embrace our heritage as Black peoples dispersed all over the world. The universal narrative about Black people….what they are, who they are….what have they ever done has played a significant part in contributing to a negative awareness of our own heritage. What we are taught in school and what we are not taught in school can do a great deal of damage to young minds that may never recover.

When I was at school, I was very often embarrassed when the subject of slavery came up in the classroom; being one of the few Black boys in the class. I could feel the sly looks from the white boys in the class either feeling embarrassed for me or amused by the fact that this was my history. Images of fully clothed white explorers in pith helmets, and Black people in varying states of undress looking decidedly “uncivilised"

were commonplace. At that time and sometimes now history was taught from a colonial perspective and the glorious histories of the African continent were not told and the fact that the African continent was responsible for many great advancements in world history was very often ignored. Was this truly the legacy of my people? I am not altogether sure whether the narrative is much different now and whether the second, third and fourth generations of Black people in the west are conversant with positive histories of Africa and if the legacy of slavery is still the dominant one in the history of Black peoples and continues to perpetuate this singular narrative!

The West is in great danger of only offering the history of Africa and Black peoples from the moment Europe interacted with Africa and the subsequent Transatlantic Slave Trade followed by colonialism. Should we not contextualise that time by explaining what was going on in Africa before European intervention. How does this absence of context contribute to our understanding of the big picture. Should we not also explain how the relationship between this country and the colonies contributed to the wealth of the nation and in part to the economic condition of each and every one of us. We are presently having discussions with Sea City MuseumSouthampton about the slavery exhibition “Sugar, Politics and Money”  an exhibition about Southampton and The Transatlantic Slave Trade”; to determine the merits of practically contextualising the exhibition withevidence of Africa before colonisation.

Sometimes individuals find themselves having to make choices as to which part of their heritage they shouldidentify with most and is it a betrayal if they gravitate to one more than the other I believe that it is important to acknowledge all the ethnic backgrounds that we have and take the best from both; but if you choose to ignore certain aspects of your heritage because your appreciation of one of your identities has been poisoned by misinformation and disinformation, written from a European perspective, you may need to think again

If we are to truly respect our heritage as Black people our minds must search beyond the place where we happened to be born whether that is London, Southampton, New York or Kingston Jamaica because we all in our hearts know where our families originated from, and we all make choices about whether we are interested in identifying with that part of our heritage and that may be a consequence of our colonisation background.

Sometimes heritage is all about what we choose to remember or what is the path of least resistance.

Don John