Here in the UK it is black history month. Yes…it is different here. In the rest of the world the complaint is heard that it’s plain insulting to have assigned the shortest month – February – to black history. Well, in Britain we get a proper long month. Maybe there is more to be repentant about. Or maybe it’s just that Black History Month has to be shared here. It’s more like Minority History Month. Indians, Vietnamese, Hispanics — all are lumped into the celebration.
I would have almost forgotten the fact of this month, but a flurry of invitations reminded me. I was temporarily impressed by the idea that I had somehow grown in popularity, but with a more sober mind I realized it was just October. Of course. The time to be trotted out on stage after stage, the quite unsubtle message – ‘Now here is someone who is doing ok, despite, well…you know… him being coffee coloured and all.’
I’m not as cynical as all that. I’m sure if I were to really think about it I would acknowledge the importance of a month like this, but I’m afraid I’m just not wired that way generally. And if there is part of me that actually *is* cynical, it’s only to do with the clichés that are always pronounced in months like these – those tired statements of black pride – how, for instance, we are the sons and daughters of kings and queens.
I’ve often wondered about that one in particular – this imagined blue blood that runs through all black people, this imagined Africa that was so chockfull of kings and queens that if you just spit you were bound to hit royalty. I wonder if in this Africa there was even anyone to govern!
Come now. Surely some of us must have come from more humble stock. We tend to forget that Africa was very much involved in the slave trade. They sanctioned it. My dears, they weren’t selling their kings and queens. It was the kings and queens selling everyone else.
Besides – it seems so banal…it betrays such a lack of imagination, to be content with being the son or daughter of kings and queens. Me… I’d rather imagine other possibilities.
Like some days I imagine I come from a line of town-criers. Yes – that seems to suit the disposition of a poet well, and not just any poetry, but the kind that doesn’t look obsessively inward but is more interested in saying something to other people. And to walk from one end of the town to the other, making a great balloon of your lungs, and pushing out on that sound some proclamation, some declaration – yes, that’s something I would be happy to have come from.
And then again, I imagine I come from a line of watchmen. It would explain the way I love roofs – climbing onto them and sitting there for long periods, just looking out. It never seems to matter to me what is out there on the horizon – whether the landscape before me is a wasteland of industry, or a picturesque countryside, or the grids of a city, or the lawns of a suburb. Just to sit there, looking out, wondering about what is coming is as good a vocation as any I can imagine. Of course I now live in a roof, though sometimes I’d rather be outside on top of it.
And strangely, I also like to imagine that I come from a long line of village idiots – that group of men (and sometimes women) who make the great sacrifice of themselves, who offer up their lives as objects of merriment, their bodies as objects that can both elicit and contain laughter. And perhaps, if they are good enough at this idiocy, they might even be promoted to some kind of court jester. (This is as close to kings or queens as I can imagine my ancestors.) And what a fantastic job. In fact, what a serious job – to be in the business of laughter.
I gave a reading last Sunday in Ayr. I decided to read from the novel-in-progress, which is shaping up to be one outrageous book. And thank god people laughed to the point of tears. And afterwards they said to the man who went before me, a poet and rather distinguished professor of Scottish Literature here at Glasgow – they said to him, thanks for your insight. They said to me, ‘thanks for your humour.’ And I in my role of joker, made a joke of that too – that I had been demoted to mere comedian. The professor, in his role of insightful man, said insightfully – ‘I would take the
compliment, Kei. Many things can be trafficked in on the back of humour.’
So this is my claim for black history month – to have come from a long and noble line of town criers, and watchmen, and village idiots. And of this, I am proud.