By Ernest Ulaya, MRN Ambassador and The Voices Of Hope Podcast Host
We were all Black
Malawi is known for its humility and compassion, and as the “warm heart of Africa”. As someone from Malawi, I celebrate my Blackness and Black history in the UK through sharing my culture with those around me. I am part of the Ngoni tribe, which is one of the oldest tribes in Africa. It is one of the tribes that helped in the liberation fight against the British colonists. We have a rich culinary and music tradition.
When I lived in Malawi, I would watch the news, and I would wonder why people abroad were so obsessed with race. Back home, we were all Black: we were a homogenous race. We celebrated our Blackness by celebrating our specific Malawian cultures: our food, our dress and our languages. We didn’t experience anti-Black racism. But when I arrived in the UK, I began to experience other people’s perceptions of my Blackness, and the oppression and microaggressions that came with it. People would cross the road when they saw me, and treat me like an “invader” that doesn’t deserve to be here. I realised that racism was an extremely important conversation, since it implicates every facet of our lives. And I began to understand the immense importance of Black History Month.
Black History Month is about remembrance. It is a celebration and reflection of the past, of the achievements and struggles of Black people. It elevates the voices and stories of those who have been silenced and have fought for freedom, in order to challenge the omissions, erasure and distortion of our history. But it also involves an understanding of how the past informs our current reality, and how history shapes what we want from the future.
This year, Black History Month encourages us to celebrate, honour, and spotlight our sisters, their achievements and their struggles, including their fight against misogynoir. Colourism is something that affects Black women in uniquely devastating ways. Light-skinned Black women are perceived to be more beautiful and more worthy than darker-skinned Black women. Unfortunately, many darker-skinned Black women bleach their skin because of colourism. Colourism is in fact a legacy of the enslavement of Black people. It is important that we unite against anti-Black racism, but also colourism.
I often think about the situation of women and girls in Malawi, and there are sadly many patriarchal elements to our culture. Patriarchy is universal, and it manifests itself differently in different contexts. In Malawi, it looks like the expectation of women as housewives, or sadly child marriage: many families who are impoverished will marry off their daughters in order to receive a dowry. In Malawi, there is also a massive issue of period poverty, which means that girls will often miss out on school. The unaffordability of period products and the lack of access to menstrual facilities in schools is a barrier towards girls’ education and negatively impacts their academic performance.
When I lived in Malawi, I was a part of the SIC’s (Sanitation Innovations Center) initiative to challenge period poverty. The project taught young people how to create reusable period pads out of locally accessible materials: the waterproof packaging from Malawian sugar can be sewn in between the fleece from unused blankets in order to create a DIY pad. When we reflect on our history, it is important to reflect on where we are, and also on where we want to be: no woman or girl should be denied access to education.
We must celebrate the achievements of our Black sisters, not just our cisters. We can see the massive impact of Black trans women, including Marsha P Johnson, in the Stonewall revolution, and their crucial role in securing rights for the queer community.
We must also honour the queer Black communities who resist the colonial legacies of anti-gay laws in the African continent, and the queer Black History that has been erased, including in Malawi
It is imperative that people understand the interconnectedness of Blackness and migration. Migration has been part of human history for a long time, and the Black experience especially is intrinsically linked to forced migration, and the millions displaced through enslavement and colonialism.
When Black asylum seekers and refugees flee to the UK, they experience the violence of racist, Islamophobic and anti-migrant immigration policies. Their displacement, as well as the displacement of people from the Global South more generally, is directly linked to colonial legacies such as poverty, war and conflict. There is also much to be said about the way that Black and Brown asylum seekers are often disbelieved, and their asylum claims are rejected as not being “genuine”, simply on account of their skin tone. I want to learn more about the struggles that Black people face in the UK. Whilst I don’t mind being asked where I am from, I understand that for Black people raised here, that question just reinforces how they will never belong.
Anger and joy
As a Black migrant, to me Blackness means not belonging. It means that no matter how hard you try, this is not your home. But it also means resilience, strength, beauty and love. History affects the present, and the structural racism that we have experienced and continue to experience does impact our daily lives in a multitude of ways in terms of educational attainment, career prospects and health outcomes. But I am also not a victim. I refuse the victim mentality, because we are not inherently hopeless, passive victims. Something that we do have agency and control over is being unapologetic and hopeful in our Black joy and our roots, but also in our unwavering focus on a future world free from oppression. Our anger at our unjust history and present can be channelled into hope towards the future.
Black History Month is about bringing people together in the pursuit of liberation. It is about anti-imperialism and ensuring the total independence of African countries, and their freedom from colonial control. It is about reparations, education and correcting the omissions of history. It is about positive representation by Black people in policy-making. We need representation by those who have the best interests of our community at heart, not those who pander to scapegoating. Representation is about celebrating our Blackness in its entirety, and refusing to assimilate to or imitate Whiteness, or be used as pawns and agents of Empire. We must refuse to eradicate the very fibres that make us who we are. The Black struggle is the bedrock of all other struggles. Let’s be proud of it.