We’re at the end of October already. This has come as about as much of a shock to me as Freya being kicked off of Great British Bake Off — it had to happen, but that doesn’t mean I was ready for it. In the UK, October is Black History Month.
I’ve been finding it a little disconcerting that this month my Netflix suggestions has a “Black Stories” category. Do we only tell Black stories in October? I don’t feel super comfortable with that… I’m always desperate for 3-dimensional fictional characters – I want Chidi from The Good Place on my screen all year round, baby. It made me think more about why I value Black History Month. And I realised that, for me, it’s not because we’re celebrating Black culture for a mere 12th of the year, it’s because it reminds us of the importance of Black History.
One of the many atrocities of the Transatlantic Slave Trade was the way it stole history, heritage, language, names, knowledge, and stories. It was an acute period of cultural and historical erasure, erasure that continued (and continues) long after the trade. Into this gap in our historical narrative, many rose-tinted versions of reality have been projected. I’m amazed how little I know of my history and heritage, and how little is in our collective understanding. What we do know, we so often have to untangle from over-simplified, self-congratulatory commentaries. This idea frames my understanding of the importance of telling history.
In 2007, feminist philosopher Miranda Fricker introduced a concept of epistemic injustice – the idea that we can have injustice in how and what we know. We might consider how prejudice interacts with who we think is a reliable testifier, or who has access to spheres (such as universities) where new concepts are formed1. Philosopher Charles Mills develops this fresh idea with respect to ethnicity, proposing an active and resistant mechanism that maintains those gaps in our collective knowledge2.
I want to suggest that telling the history of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora well, along with the histories of other marginalised ethnicities, both facilitates us seeing justice and is an act of bringing justice3. Maybe that’s a hot take for you, maybe it’s about as original as starting an article with a reference to Bake Off. I have three points, and a muddle of reasons: (1) we tell our history to understand our present; (2) we tell our history to bring about our future; (3) we tell our history for truth’s sake. Bear with me folks.
1: We tell our history to understand our present
History is vital for understanding our present – it’s contextualised by the past, it’s part of a trajectory. We need our past to understand present injustice.
Perhaps if we collectively understood that Haiti paid France billions in slavery reparations until 19474, we would have a better understanding of the economic devastation an earthquake can cause. Perhaps it would make us a little more humble about our aid budget too. Perhaps if the UK collectively understood that the UK tax payer stopped paying off the government’s debt for reparations paid to slave owners in 20155, we might understand our present wealth distribution a little better.
Perhaps if we collectively understood the death of Stephen Lawrence—the brutal racism of individuals in his murder and the insistent racism of our structures in failing to deliver him justice6—then we would have seen the failures of our present justice, crime, and policing system. Perhaps we would not have had to wait for so many more lives to be taken and a ‘global awakening’ from across the pond to get serious about the problems we have here.
2: We tell our history to bring about our future
It goes without saying that there’s power in invoking our histories of resistance, because they inspire and fuel our movements that are working for justice now. But more than that – the way we understand our past shapes the way we move towards our future – it often even changes where we’re heading.
I recently read about this idea of “frameworks” in a book by Emily Kenway. She argues that the framework we use to understand modern slavery changes what kinds of responses we engage in; she further argues that there are opposing frameworks. So if we want to respond to modern slavery in a way that will lead to material change, we need to get serious about having an accurate framework informed by accurate history.
Eric Williams, the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, wrote an essay called Capitalism and Slavery8. It provided a new telling and analysis of history that presented a total shift in the framework used to understand the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and particularly its abolition. It moved away from a narrative of heroes and villains to suggest that the demise of the trade was primarily due to economic factors. If his proposal is true, this totally changes the way we move forward – we shift focus from developing moral leaders to forming moral economic systems. Accurate frameworks will allow us to map out a route to real, material racial justice. We need to keep that end goal in sight.
3: We tell our history for truth’s sake
I think we have a right to have our true stories told, not only because it facilitates material change, but simply for its own sake. I often debate this with myself – perhaps that’s too abstract to be called a “right.” Perhaps, in a context in which we don’t respect the right to clean water and education for so many across the globe, the ‘right to true stories’ sounds like an indulgence. Well, I’ll share my thoughts and you can make up your own mind.
Firstly, I think that dead people are real, although they are dead. They are unreachable, but not fictional – we materialise them in collective memory, not collective imagination. So we should treat them with the respect that their complex realities deserve – by telling the truth about them. Secondly, I think understanding our heritage and history is intimately linked with understanding who we are – it’s fuelled many an identity crisis of mine, at least. By telling the truth about our history, in some ways we tell the truth about ourselves.
Finally, I think if we do not tell true history, we miss some understanding of the true God. Our understanding of God compels us to engage in social justice, but also our understanding of social justice feeds our understanding of God. We testify to the reality of a God who is steadfast and faithful, which means a God who is the same now as he was during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. We must tell history truthfully. If we don’t, how can we engage with the true God who was fully present in those stories? If we do, it raises many more questions (for me at least). If we do, it causes much more heartbreak (for me at least). If we do, we have to admit to what a small fraction of God we understand (for me, at least). But if we don’t, we testify to a warped version of a true God.
And so, in October, I’m grateful to be reminded of just how important it is that we tell true and complex histories of oppression, struggle, resistance and freedom.
1 Miranda Fricker (2007) ‘Epistemic Injustice’ – These roughly map onto what Fricker calls testimonial injustice and hermeneutical injustice.
2 Charles W Mills (2017) ‘Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism’ – Charles Mills is one of my total icons in philosophy!
3 “Diaspora” means a community or people dispersed across the globe. For example, the “Jewish diaspora” – Jewish people across many nations. In this context, it means the worldwide community of people broadly descended from native Africans, in many ways so dispersed because of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
4 https://jubileedebt.org.uk/countries-in-crisis/haiti-free-slavery-not-yet-free-debt; https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2017/12/06/in-1825-haiti-gained-independence-from-france-for-21-billion-its-time-for-france-to-pay-it-back/
7 Emily Kenway (2021), ‘The Truth About Modern Slavery’.
8 Eric Williams (1944) ‘Capitalism and Slavery’.