There is a moment, familiar to all who attend poetry open mic nights, when a poet who is of black ethnicity says, “I wrote this poem for Black History Month.”
When you hear this, three things are almost certain:
1. This will not be their best poem
2. Martin Luther King will more than likely get dragged into it
3. Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey, mostly for alliterative reasons, will not be far behind.
I am not sure why this should be the case. In fact, until very recently, I didn’t even believe Black History Month was real. I had hitherto understood that what was formerly known as October was not Black History Month at all, but Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In my breast cancer campaigning days I was somewhat scornful that black historians weren’t aware of this basic factual error.
Now I am outside of the breast cancer charity arena, and more just floating around south London, it is clear that most people, particularly in the public sector in Lambeth and Southwark, are in no doubt: October is Black History Month.
A recent trip to Peckham Library manifestly demonstrated the point. There was nothing about breast cancer, but an entire display area devoted to Black History Month. As you would expect, they had works by great writers who are of black ethnicity, such as Toni Morrison and Chinua Achebe, and a biography of Mary Seacole, a courageous nurse from the Crimean War.
Also on display was an autobiography by former Tottenham Hotspur defender Ledley King, and cookbooks by reggae cooking star Levi Roots. Initially, I thought that Ledley and Levi were out of place in this company. Indeed, I presumed that the inclusion of these two trivialised the idea of a month celebrating black history.
How wrong I was.
Ledley King’s autobiography revealed that, just like his namesake, he also had a dream. Ledley dreamed of becoming a professional footballer. When I had finished reading the book I couldn’t help but think that Ledley was probably more successful than Martin Luther King, because he achieved his dream whilst still a teenager.
Again, reading Levi Roots’ literary output transformed my view of him, and his place within black history. Little did I know that the history of spicy sauces was every bit as riddled with racial injustice as slavery. It was only with the production of the Reggae Reggae sauce that black people finally emerged from the oppression of spicy sauce companies such as Tabasco and Lea & Perrins.
The Peckham Library display left me in no doubt that it is much better for Toni Morrison to be grouped alongside Premier League footballers of black ethnicity rather than other Nobel Prize-winning authors from different racial backgrounds.
While artists such as Kendrick Lamar are demanding that this era be known as post-racial, Black History Month allows us the anachronistic comfort of judging people first by the colour of their skin and then, a little later, by the quality of their character and achievements. Which is, I’m sure, what Martin Luther King, 50 years on from his oft-poetically butchered speech, would have wanted.