I have been aware of numerous events going on to mark October as Black History Month. I have slightly mixed feelings about marking a day, a week, or a month out for a show of thoughtfulness….when really it is every single day that we should be aware of the past, making different choices in the way we behave today, and remembering that what we do now contributes to our future.
I also am mindful that Black History means different things to different people. Some of my friends are much more eager to converse about the challenges they face now as they seem to be unfairly unable to attain to certain opportunities or experience virtual harassment as they go about their daily lives. Others have spoken about some of the challenges their parents or grandparents faced in connection with governmental failures towards the “Windrush generation”.
Black History Month is about so many aspects of history, but it is hard for me not to think about the history of the slave trade because of the impact it had and because of it’s enormous scale. It is still hard to understand how it was ever allowed to happen, but it is important to remind ourselves that for far too long, too many people callously closed their eyes to the mistreatment of fellow members of the human family, and shamefully, many profited from it. Even to this day, the legacy of the slave trade and the imbalances in material wealth and perhaps just as significantly the opportunities that resulted are very uncomfortably present.
I grew up in Liverpool, and both my parents and also the school I attended made sure we visited the Liverpool Maritime Museum regularly.
There is an exhibition there on the slave trade – which gives you an idea of the atrocities and abuses that were committed on an enormous scale. I have been learning about the horrific injustices that occured in connection with the slave trade my whole life. What I learnt made a very deep impression on me as a little girl and I am sure it has shaped my outlook on so many areas of my life. History records the shameful wealth that some accrued closely tied up with their links to the slave trade.
Although I have always loved to visit the fascinating estates in UK, and I love the National Trust and other organisations who educate visitors about properties whose owners made their wealth due to the slave trade, it does make me grieve deeply to think of how people were treated.
But my visit to Ghana provided a much deeper insight to me than my trips to the Maritime. When we visited the amazing Cape Coast in Ghana, our tour guide helped us to understand the terrifying experience for those who were crammed into effectively the dark, dungeon-like basement of the castle before being herded onto merchant ships.
But my main memory of my time in Ghana was the incredible warmth (not just the climate) kindness, and hospitality of people. We made so many friends who we worked alongside while we were there. I will always treasure my time there.
One of the most influential experiences I had while in Ghana was when I had the chance to work alongside a gentleman who had six small children. He had come to volunteer and was patiently teaching his children to help as well. I did not notice at first, but he had no fingers at all. We were able to spend the day working with this family, training this gentleman and his children who were so eager to help. Two of the children spoke English and it turned out they were actually refugees from a French speaking West African land. A fellow volunteer told us about what had happened to this family when violence had engulfed their region. I won’t detail his account here because it is very upsetting, but due to the brutal acts committed this gentleman was now a widower with six children to feed and all of the work he did was of course more challenging without having any fingers or thumbs. He had fled his home and come to Ghana. We saw his children take the initiative in doing things that he was unable to. His children were a delight.
As we worked along with this incredible man and his children, we saw his inspiring smiles and ability to joke and laugh. He also loved singing, and he sang in French so I was not sure of all the words, but his voice was delightful. He was so proud of his children and it was clear they adored him. We had some gifts that friends had asked us to pack into our suitcases and we really wanted to give them to this family. But this gentleman would not take them without giving us something in return. When we had lunch, we were given a packed lunch by a host with all sorts of lovely food. We wanted to give our lunch to this gentleman and his children because we realized they did not have much at all. But he did not want to accept it without giving something in return. He had a pawpaw and a mango that was going to be lunch for him and his family.
He wanted to make sure that we accepted some of his fruit and only then was he happy to take the meal we had been given. He made it very clear to us that sharing was the only option he was happy with. He had more dignity and self-respect (and quite deservedly so) than so many of the men I had worked with back in the UK. He was an inspiration to me and someone I know I will never forget. He was a priceless gem of a man.
I know that Black History Month means different things to different people. Although the slave trade is a part of history that is important not to forget, it is also an opportunity to think about the incredible spirit that so many who have been mistreated in more recent decades and even the present day have shown. The strength and resilience in the face of injustices, the warmth and vibrancy and joyful energetic spirit that so many individuals and communities have been imbued with despite unfair experiences that nobody should have to go through. In the 21st century, we sometimes want to think that social injustice is a thing of the past, but we know that sadly it is not.
Many individuals and organizations are trying to contribute to positive changes, educating themselves about both history and the present challenges black and ethnic minorities face. Many are trying to be more mindful of creating or enabling opportunities and a fairer platform. Those who are trying to change their outlook are a positive force, but sadly there is still a lot of negative thinking and behaviour out there. We have all seen injustices occurring in broad daylight and it can be very disturbing to contemplate how ingrained some attitudes are.
I don’t think that remembering this history of abuse, discrimination and racism is just for a month, there are so many reasons to remember, respect and applaud those who despite mistreatment are still so beautiful inside and out, and proud of the inner strength, endurance and often very joyful spirit that are inspiring so many.