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Black History Month: a white writer’s point of view

October is Black History Month and I am not black. And as far as I know, the OCA has no black Creative Writing Tutors. So how do we write about Black History Month? I could point to the black authors, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinua Achebe and Courttia Newland included as exemplar material in the OCA Writing Short Fiction course materials, and in poetry modules, David Dabydeen, Dorothea Smartt and Claudia Rankine, but that would be tokenism.
Should I be appropriating Black History? I’ve written blogs about this before (see my blog: Who can write what about whom: https://weareoca.com/author/lizcashdan/ ) where I concluded that whatever the problems of understanding and the risks of misrepresentation, writers have to have the freedom to write about class, race, gender, age groups which they don’t belong to themselves – otherwise their plays, novels and poems would be very one-track and boring. We need to write about what we haven’t experienced as well as what we have. And as a former secondary school history and English teacher, I have taught white children about black history. And as a first generation child of Russian Jewish immigrants and urban middle class ones at that, I have taught those same white children, half of whom were male, and half of whom were rural working class, and most of whom were Christians, the history and literature of their country and other countries across the world.
As an example of how I thought, wrongly, I could put my whiteness aside in the cause of racial harmony, I’ll quote the third verse of a poem (Cashdan: 2013: 91) I wrote about the visit to the Derbyshire school where I taught, of the black District Six Band, who were in exile in London from Cape Town during the apartheid years. District Six had been a multi-racial suburb where people had lived in harmony till it was destroyed by families being moved to ghettos according to their race and their houses then being pulled down. My colleague, Dermot, of Irish Catholic descent, keen to get the Derbyshire kids learning something about the realities for black people under apartheid, invited members of the band to do a jazz workshop at the school. That was a great success and some years later after the end of apartheid I visited Cape Town myself.

Last year in Cape Town driving through
the still derelict District Six under Devil’s Peak
I imagined the Friday smell of pickled fish,
the weekend greetings of holiday cousins,
re-heard the rainbow shouts of kids off school,
the bands playing, drum and saxophone, then
remembered how Dermot and I, Irish Catholic
and Jew, told the Band we understood dismember-
ment, diaspora. No you don’t, you’re not black.

Zita Holbourne and Jendella Benson, among other black writers and educationalists, have argued that Black History Month would not be needed if history was properly taught and if racism wasn’t still endemic in the UK. As Benson points out:
“The fact that the Home Office quietly destroyed the landing cards and documents pertaining to the citizenship of thousands of people of Caribbean descent demonstrates the callous attitude held towards the contributions of people from former colonies.”
In the meanwhile Holbourne and Benson realise Black History Month is still needed but the implication is that it should be organised by black people. No easy answers.
I’m pleased to be able to report that Bristol, where I now live, has recently appointed its second black Poet Laureate, Vanessa Kisuule, who next month will be visiting the Poetry Society’s Bristol Stanza group whose members incidentally are all white.
Cashdan, Liz 2013 Things of Substance: New and Selected Poems Five Leaves Publications

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Posted by author: Liz Cashdan

One thought on “Black History Month: a white writer’s point of view

  • Very interesting, Liz. The closest I can get is being told in the street at the age of ten that my Polish father ought to go back home. I was simply bewildered, because the European history I knew from my father – which was why he was over here, and not back there – bore little resemblance to what we learned at school. Without proper historical information, prejudice thrives as there’s no context.

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