In some African traditions, the griot held the story of the local people – the village, family or clan. The griot pulled together the strands of the story which represented the various people who took part in it. Kept these strands and held them safe. Savored them, treasured them. Wove them together to form a cloth, a whole that blended the assorted colors and shadings into a pattern which told the story of the people.
The people then heard their story. Their tongues sang it. Their feet danced it. Their hips swayed it. Their hands drummed it. Their fingers carved it. The stories of their ancestors, treasured, remembered, shared, and preserved for future generations.
I was very fortunate in that my African American mother taught me from an early age to be proud of my heritage. When she told me about the experience of enslavement, she told it from the perspective of those who had resisted and survived that enslavement. So I was encouraged to think of slavery and resistance as one and the same – a person who was enslaved resisted that enslavement as a matter of course. She told me stories of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth that still inspire and inform me, nearly 40 years later.
In Afrika, under colonization, people were also often cut off from their heritage and even forced to speak European languages. Under an education system which left them unable to locate their home villages, and unable to speak with members of their own families, they could not communicate their experience to their own communities. And they were taught to believe they were superior to the ‘backwards’ people of the rural villages, and encouraged to adopt European religious practices, modes of behavior and so forth. However, they often have a stronger sense of their heritage than we, in the diaspora, may have.
During the time of enslavement, African people were not allowed to tell our own stories. We were not allowed to speak our own languages, or even to name our own children. Our stories were stolen from us, and rewritten in distorted forms. These distortions were then used to define and control us.
But still, African people told their stories. They whispered them. They lovingly sewed their babies’ names into their blankets. They told the stories of their homes, although much has been forgotten. Their fingers remembered. They baked them into breads and cakes, stirred them into soups and stews and rice. Plaited them into their children’s hair. And planted them in their gardens.
They made up their own words and their own languages. Creole. Patois. Gullah. They made new art forms, new musical forms – jazz, blues, reggae, rhythm and blues, gospel. Although much had been forgotten, stolen, lost, rewritten or distorted, still much remained.
In the African diaspora, we have been brainwashed for hundreds of years to believe that we are inferior to other races. During and after enslavement, our forebears were told that they were fit only for laboring and for serving their white masters, who were stronger, more intelligent and more able than they were.
Today, we see these stereotypes being perpetuated, in slightly altered but still clearly recognizable forms. In screen roles, including TV and film as well as adverts, we often see Black men portrayed as criminals or gangsters – tough, hard and violent. We rarely see Black men and women being portrayed as loving husbands and wives, and parents, in stable homes and relationships, or doing jobs such as bankers, teachers or other figures of authority.
We have swallowed the distortions, the changes to our stories. And all too often, we have believed them.
Jak Dodd created the Nubian Jak board game because of this syndrome. He said to me:
“I worked as a social worker with a lot of young Black men and women. I noticed that a lot of them had a very negative self-image. If you asked most of them how they would describe themselves or see themselves, or who they would identify with, they didn’t have a lot of Black role models in Britain…. So they would identify with African American achievers and Jamaican gun culture. We all want to have strong role models that we can identify with.”
This brainwashing is often subtle, but it is very powerful. All too often, we are not aware of its effect on us. Our negativity about ourselves and each other limits the kinds of opportunities we attract. It creates a sense of helplessness which often leads to aggression on our part as we strike out in frustration at the limitations imposed on our lives.
These negative images have a profound effect on our psyches – our conscious and unconscious minds. It becomes nearly inevitable that, in the face of this overwhelming disadvantage, we develop an inferiority complex. This negative attitude Black people often have about ourselves and each other gets passed down from parent to child, and from generation to generation.
As the journalist Henry Bonsu said to me,
“If you have no sense of your foundation, you’re skeletal, you can’t do anything. This is what’s happened. And you have no sense of shame about anything. Nothing is beneath you. There should be codes of behaviour. It should be un-Black to mug and rob somebody. It should be un-Black to attack your teacher. Because you’ve always had discipline. You’ve always had balance. But unfortunately, it’s become very Black to do these things for a certain group of children. They think that’s what being Black is, about being rough and tough.”
We can see the effects of this brainwashing on modern African British youth. Those whose parents or grandparents were born in the Caribbean and were brought up to think of Britain as the Mother Country often find themselves searching for their identity. In the ’70s, many turned to Rastafarianism. These days, some of them, having rejected the dominant culture, turn to gun violence and gang violence as a means of seeking a positive identity as strong Black men and women. Others overidentify with the dominant culture and seek to fit in with, and be accepted by, white society, so unaware are they of their heritage.
In addition, our ignorance affects the way we deal with the racism we experience. When we are not aware of our heritage, we are not as resourceful as we might otherwise be in our responses to racism.
We don’t strive to be all we can be. Instead, we settle for being second-, third- or fourth-best. We don’t take life-changing or world-changing decision, we leave it to someone else to make things better, and we hope things don’t get too much worse. How often have you complained to your friends and family about your noisy neighbors, or your Council Tax bill, or moaned to someone at the bus stop about how late the bus is? Have you taken this complaint any further?
And this is a problem that affects white people as much as Black. When one section of society is failing to live up to its full potential, all of society suffers – we see increased rates of crime, we have to pay to police and imprison criminals, we live in fear of being robbed or attacked. And the person who could have discovered the next cure for cancer may be sweeping the floor of the local supermarket or sitting in a prison cell right now.
Conscious Black adults have to take responsibility for turning this destructive tide, this tide of toxic, negative thoughts, beliefs and attitudes.
Celebrating Black heroes and sheroes allows us to decide for ourselves what images will inhabit our minds. The more we celebrate our Black heroes and sheroes, and share their stories with one another and with the wider society, the more we can enjoy our true heritage as African people.
Many African people, such as Harriet Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, having escaped from enslavement in North America, published their stories, often as a way of supporting themselves financially. Some, like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, also gave speaking tours relating their experience of oppression to a wider audience. These speakers were important participants and leaders in the abolition movement of the United States. Many of their speeches and narratives still exist, inspiring us as to how our ancestors used their strength, ingenuity and courage to survive.
Caribbean slave narratives are not as numerous, although it is entirely likely that many more as-yet-undiscovered narratives lie languishing in libraries, universities, and people’s attics. In Britain, our stories were often not recorded. Many British dealers held onto material in order to sell it to American collectors. The late Len Garrison, founder of the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, showed total commitment to building a monument in celebration of the presence of Black people in Britain. He told me:
In the late ’60s and the ’70s, when I was talking about this collection, I went round to some of the museums to ask them if they had any material relating to Black history, and they would say, “Yes, people are coming to us with materials”. I remember the Museum of Labour History said, “But we don’t collect it ‘ we just told them that we don’t know anybody who’s collecting it”, and so nothing was being collected. You would imagine that labour history related to Black people as it did for whites. But they hadn’t collected it.
He took the initiative to seek out Black memorabilia whenever and wherever he could find it. He told me,
“I used to cut out articles in newspapers. I would just collect them. But eventually, I began to build up the collection by going to antiques shops, to Portobello Road and to second-hand shops.”
When Afrikan people celebrate our heroes and sheroes, we take control – we take charge of how we see ourselves and each other. The more we know about our ancestry and our heritage, the more we are empowered by this knowledge. This changes our entire attitude and our behaviour. We are no longer at the mercy of the negativity with which we are constantly being bombarded. And we have the opportunity to pass down our positive images and attitudes to our children. And when white people celebrate Black heroes and sheroes, they reap the rewards of living in a multiracial society.
African people are good at everything – architecture, astronomy, astrophysics, and that’s just the ‘A’s. We are scientists, teachers, explorers, educators, philanthropists, healers.
Black people are heroes and sheroes. We are successes. We each have our own Black success stories to tell. The more we share them with each other, the more we create an energy of love and positivity which surrounds us and which affects our lives. It helps us to attract and connect with the abundance of the universe. It affects the kinds of opportunities we attract, and it helps determine how we respond to these opportunities.
We need to take responsibility for our lives and the lives of our children and others in our community. We need to take control of our negative thought processes and do whatever we need to do in order to turn them around. Then we can experience the bright and glorious abundance of the universe to which we are entitled, and which is our birthright. And the whole of British society will benefit from our continued successes.