Monday, 14 December 2009

On Black History Month

Black History month (BHM) is perhaps now as ubiquitous in Britain’s inner cities as it is in the USA. The Americans have theirs in February and we have ours in October. It is one of the better ideas we have borrowed from our African American cousins. Here in the UK community organisations, colleges, schools, trade unions and local authorities have all embraced the idea.

For some local authorities, BHM is an opportunity to tick race equality boxes and earn brownie points. Others approach the occasion with the seriousness it merits. The London boroughs of Camden, Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark jointly hosted a number of films this year, including one on HIV and another on climate change. Even the venerable V&A museum had a ‘black heritage season’ between August and November. Their events included a talk on Paul Robeson and Othello; a Caribbean film festival; a carnival arts lecture; story telling; and a jewellery making workshop.

Given the popularity of BHM, it was inevitable that it would become more than an annual series of events focussing on our collective past. The fact that it has become a bandwagon embracing all kinds of cultural and educational programmes does not diminish its importance. The Voice, the sole national black newspaper, publishes important historical facts and publicise events, as did their erstwhile rival, the New Nation throughout October. We also get, every October, the annual list one hundred most important black Britons – a list which some would argue is arbitrary.

‘Why is BHM important?’ I was asked that question by a student at the Bridge Academy in Hackney at an event I shared with talented wordsmith and actor, Bashy. I replied, ‘Because we’re British and black history is a very important part of British history.’ I should have added, ‘and because the subject is not taught in schools and institutions of higher learning.’ This is where we differ from the Americans. The year 2009 marked the 40th anniversary of the establishment of African American and Black Studies in the USA. It was fought for and won during the black power struggles of the late 1960s; Cornell University the main battleground.

A few years ago, after a poetry reading somewhere in New York, a member of the audience asked me if BHM had become as commercialised in England as it had become in the USA. Not knowing the extent of the alleged commercialisation, I paused before replying, ‘Not quite.’

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Legality, Legitimacy and Vigilance

As we all know, the British National Party is a fascist, racist, xenophobic organisation, dedicated, like its National Front antecedent, to fomenting racial conflict. Their politics of hate has promoted and continues to inspire numerous racist attacks against, and murders of, ethnic minorities in the UK. The vast majority of whites have come to terms with the fact the UK is a multi-ethnic nation and find the views of the BNP abhorent. Hence the furore that erupted when BBC Television decided to offer the BNP's leader, Nick Griffin, the chance to participate in 'Question Time', their flagship programme of political debate. Buoyed by the publicity generated by the BBC's cynical ratings ploy, Griffin has announced his intention to contest the Barking constituency at the next general election, where his party has about a dozen or so local councillors.

The BBC defended its decision to give the BNP a platform on the grounds that the party has significant electoral support and that their inclusion was consistent with its public broadcasting ethos. It is the business of government to ban extremist organisations from pubic media, argued the BBC's Mark Thompson, not the corporation's. Moreover, it was argued, the BBC would find itself in a difficult to defend charge of censorship in the courts. The controversy is all but forgotten but, to my mind, leaves a number of unanswered questions.

Democracy is a sham if it is not at least about playing by the rules. In the light of the High Court ruling that the racist constitution of the BNP is illegal, why were they allowed to contest the by-election for Glasgow North East on 12th November 2009 where they lost their deposit? I have asked a number of people this question without getting a satisfactory answer. Yes, the BNP have declared their intention to change their memebership rules which exclude non-whites. But it was with the same racist constitution, ruled illegal, that they contested Glasgow North East. How can a political party whose membership rules are deemed illegal be allowed to contest any election under our electoral laws?

If or when the BNP change their illegal constitution, I am sure they will find a way to circumvent the law, calculating that they will not be inundated with applications from blacks, Asians, Jews and immigrants. I assume that the law under which their constitution was ruled illegal was passed after the election of their 2 members of the European Parliament and their last batch of councillors. But if it precedes their election, what would be the implications for their legitimacy?

The 'significant support' that the BNP enjoys reflect a wider resurgence of fascism and xenophobia in Europe and Russia during the last two decades. It is at times of economic crisis, like the current global crisis, that the enemies of humanity seize the opportunity to exploit the misery of poor working class whites, scapegoating ethnic minorities, igniting ethnic strife. Those of us who know about the history of racist and fascist attacks and murders cannot afford to be complacent. Our watchword must be vigilance.