Black lives matter Photo: @norarahimian

Amandla Thomas Johnson on the importance of Black History Month

It is a damning indictment of Western culture that fifty years on from the passage of the Civil Rights Act in America: there is a need for #BlackLivesMatter; presidential hopefuls can still use the racism card as a ticket to edge closer to the White House; and British tabloids can exude visceral xenophobia with impunity.

To try and find a common thread between these issues is to perform a sort of iconoclasm against Western ideas of racial progress. Besides, some will say, we live in a post-racial world where a black president sits in the White House, Brixton has been fixed-up, and Africa is rising.

The sad truth is that while we in the West have been congratulating ourselves on the inexorable forward march of our civilisiaton there has often been an equal and opposite deterioration in the conditions of black people.

Not only would the industrial revolution and enlightenment have been impossible without the profits derived from the transatIantic slave trade and the looting of Africa, this country would have struggled to recover from the ravages of two World Wars were it not for its black subjects.

They were designed to demoralise its inhabitants, but the the cotton and cane fields, and then housing estates, projects, favellas, banlieues and shanty towns, turned into the barricades where struggles have been fought and peculiar but spectacular art and personalities have been forged.

The syncopated beats and melodious tones of HipHop, jazz, Capoeria and Calypso have now reached global audiences; while people flock from across the world to Harlem, New Orleans or Salvador in Brazil for intense cultural pilgrimage.

Black leaders are no less famous. Mandela, Luther King and Bob Marley loom large in the history of resistance; indeed they are often the benchmark against which everyone since has been measured.

Yet there remains a tendency in our culture to eat from the low hanging fruits of black culture but still not invite blacks to join us at the table.

For instance the black populations who helped to make Brixton, Peckham and Hackney hip and cool, are being pushed out by gentrification at an alarming rate. The same forces are now at work in Harlem and Brooklyn. Bill Clinton can appeal to black voters by playing the saxophone, while his successor George W. Bush doesn’t feel the need to pay a visit to New Orleans – one of the great jazz capitals -  until ten years after a hurricane decimates the black neighbourhoods there.

Black figures have become increasingly commodified too: Bob Marley has become an icon of the marijuana lobby; Nelson Mandela has been neutered; and Martin Luther King has been repackaged as an All-American hero devoid of any radicalism whatsoever.

Black History Month provides an opportunity to correct this despairing imbalance. The events that will be taking place across the country will uncover the real stories and people that have shaped the world we live in today.

Most of all it will remind us of the ingenuity and resilience of people who were born on the front-lines and had no other choice but to die there fighting. It is a history we ought to respect.

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