Redressing the Balance

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As the founder of Black History Month in Southampton, last 3 weeks of October have seen Don John’s inbox fill up and his phone ring off the hook. I take some time out of his hectic schedule catch up with him at his home in Portswood.

ND: In a sentence, could you give me a brief description of Black History Month?

DJ: Black History Month is a time period to celebrate the achievements and contributions of people of African descent.

ND: I get the impression every year that a lot of focus seems to be given to black celebrities and people in the public eye rather than an education on African history.

DJ: We try to have a happy medium of things that people can immediately engage with and those things that will be new and people can learn. We provide information on black history for libraries and schools, and develop initiatives to remind people that the successes of black people go beyond music and sport.

ND: How important do you think it is that people are made aware of Britain’s (and Southampton’s in particular) role in the slave trade?

DJ: I think it’s quite important. Most of black history relates to the bigger cities, London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Liverpool etc. They’re pretty well known for the history of black people in the UK. Smaller towns like Southampton are less recognised, but I think we have a special place in the city because of the ports and docks. Southampton was a gateway to the rest of the world and many people who came from the Caribbean in the 50s and 60s actually came through them. The Windrush of course is much quoted as the primary ship that transported people from the Caribbean, but of course it never actually transported Caribbean people to this city. Nonetheless, other ships did come to Southampton carrying people from the Caribbean, and of course that was an important part of their journey. For many people, Southampton was the first thing that they saw, along with the snow and smoke from the chimneys.

He tells me about the range of events taking place over the month celebrating the diverse impact of black people in society. Othello is playing at the Nuffield Theatre. A seminar on black women in literature and broadcasting is taking place on Avenue Campus. The range is vast but with a clear purpose.

I tell Don that I remember seeing him talk almost a year ago at a play at the Nuffield called ‘The Meeting’, a dramatisation of the sole face-to-face between two giants of 20th century history, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Don is something of an authority figure on race relations in Southampton, with experience that includes working as Director of the Southampton Council for Racial Equality. He explains what he believes to be the value of Black History Month for non-black people.

DJ: I think the first major question is who’s black and isn’t? The terminology “people of African descent” relates to people who belong to lots of different kinds of ethnic groups. Some people are comfortable with that, others less so. But it’s something that either is or isn’t, whether people acknowledge it or not.

This issue is tackled in the Black History Month Guide, distributed widely in the past few weeks. In it, Don challenges depictions of pale-skinned Jesuses and those who refuse to acknowledge that Egyptian Queen Nefertiti was indeed African. It’s an interesting quandary. But with a man of African origin in the White House and black people more and more visible in the mainstream, I wonder if Black History Month is still a necessary practice?

DJ: Ultimately I’d prefer not to have a Black History Month, but I think we’re a long way away from a time when society is ready to acknowledge the achievements and contribution of black people. As a major port and spa town, Southampton actually benefited a great deal from the commerce of the slave trade, but people either don’t acknowledge or are unaware of that. It would be very difficult for people here to say, “Well yes, I gained all my wealth and my family’s wealth through slavery” because people simply aren’t comfortable in doing that.

Don John’s new book, ‘A Black History of Southampton: From the 16th Century to the 21st Century’ is available in October Books and Waterstones.

For a full list of Black History Month Events, visit http://bit.ly/nW0h9N

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