by Barnie Choudhury
BACK in 1981, a Sikh man was murdered in Coventry city centre. Tensions had been rising for weeks, and south Asians, Africans, Caribbeans and white residents could feel that this was only the start of our troubles.
So when we heard that the anti-Nazi League was organising a peace march, we signed up for it. Unfortunately, the day ended in violence after National Front yobs started giving Nazi salutes. I remember feeling lucky that my friends and I took the common-sense decision to get out as quickly as possible, away from the scores of police, riot vans and dogs to the safety of a gurdwara. The Coventry band, The Specials, even wrote the soundtrack to
the time in their number one hit, Ghost Town.
But my overwhelming sense of that day was we were in it together, we were combating racism, and we were politically ‘black’. At the age of 16, that feeling of belonging to a common cause, and the use of labels, made me think that there was a purpose to what we were doing in my adopted home of more than a decade. It also made me realise that the colour of my skin would forever differentiate me from my white neighbours.
What I did not realise then was the charged nature of the term ‘black’. Since 1987 in Britain, October has been designated Black History Month, and rightly so. We should be celebrating how African and Caribbean people have benefited Britain. After all, like south Asia, the countries have cultural, linguistic and historic ties with Britain, known during Empire as the motherland. Their contributions cannot and must not go unnoticed.
Without Black History Month, Mary Seacole, so often overshadowed by Florence Nightingale, who funded herself to travel to the Crimea to help nurse British soldiers, would be forgotten. Without this month, we, in England and Wales, would not be encouraged to wear red on October 18 in a day being organised by Show Racism the Red Card. And
without it, the African drummer Jahman Aggrey probably would not be able to celebrate and share so prominently stories, poetry and the music which have defined him when he performs at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry.
But there has been ‘mission creep’, with south Asian protagonists being invited into the tent of Black History Month. For example, the Black History Month website lists the Sri Lankan Romesh Ranganathan’s performances in Southend as part of a series of events. The British Army too has been criticised for saying Black History Month has been “expanded to include the history of Asian people”.
Critics took to social media to cry foul. They believe this forced bringing together of two separate cultures, histories and experiences is unwarranted, unfair and unnecessary. Those on the outside will be shaking their heads in disbelief. What does it matter that brown people are lumped in with black people? They should be grateful Britain is dedicating one whole month to celebrating black culture.
And therein lies the rub. One whole month in a calendar of 12. My argument is we should be celebrating the contribution of black and Asian minority ethnic people 24/7, 365 days of the year. But in its absence, we should be celebrating our diversity and highlighting how different communities, races and religions have helped make Britain what it is today by having a ‘Brown History Month’.
If you think we cannot sustain a whole month, think again. South Asians have made Britain a much richer place, financially, culturally and emotionally. How many of us can name the first Indian-born MP in Britain? Clue: it is not Keith Vaz. Almost a century earlier, in 1892, Gujarati and Parsi scholar Sir Dadabhai Naoroji Dordi, took his seat, representing Finsbury Central for the Liberals. In the 20th century, another south Asian Parsi called Farrokh Bulsara rocked the world with his four-octave vocal range. Most of us know him as Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen. And where would Meera Syal and Sanjiv Bhaskar be today if Bissano Ram Gopal OBE did not show that Asians can do performance art?
This week, Eastern Eye’s sister title, Garavi Gujarat, hosts its annual GG2 Diversity Conference and the GG2 Leadership Awards during which the 101 most influential south Asians in the UK will be revealed. They will come from the world of business, medicine, politics, media and the arts. We south Asians have imbued our talents, thoughts and traditions into every part of Britain. We need to shout our achievements and contributions from the roof-tops so that every month is ‘Brown History Month’.
But until then, let us agree that, despite what unites us, being part of Black History Month does a disservice to both groups.