Looking back, I never really believed in Santa. As the youngest of seven kids, my by-then expert parents were probably not minded to give credit for their hard work in buying us all presents to a mythical character, or to expend much energy in sustaining that particular lie – however noble. I do remember that my lack of belief never stopped me queuing up at Debenham’s or (the now-gone but unlamented) Allders of Croydon to sit on a stranger’s knee, assert that I’d been a good boy, and make something up about what present I wanted, all in exchange for a mediocre toy out of the box marked ‘Boys’. From a young age I was a pragmatist; willing to play along with others’ harmless beliefs as long as the reward was worth the effort.
In the same way I don’t really believe in ‘history months’. February is a good month if you do – the UK’s LGBT History Month coincides with Black History Month in the States. Just like my failure to believe in the existence of a man with flying reindeer who can manage a worldwide database of children’s behaviour did not stop me from wanting a present, my belief that history months are a too-often patronizing and reductive way of viewing complex histories which only tinker at the edges of power structures in the academy while maintaining the privilege they afford the powerful, does not stop me finding value in them.
In February, screenings of The New Black in Bristol, Brother Outsider in Preston and Paris is Burning in Sheffield and the brilliant Queer Contact Festival in Manchester have been a great reminder of the importance of both remembering and of finding new ways to express our experience of the now; our duty as humans to show evidence of our existence for those who may learn from it.
The inspirational Counter Narrative Project held a Twitter chat to mark the birthday of filmmaker, writer and activist Marlon Riggs #MarlonRiggs2016. The powerful nature of the twitter feed made me re-watch Tongues Untied which in turn led me to read up on Richard Bruce Nugent. In the introduction to Thomas Wirth’s collection of Nugent’s work, ‘Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance’, I came across the manifesto for Fire!! the short-lived, but massively influential ‘art quarterly’ – written by Langston Hughes, and published in The Nation in June 1926:
We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves
90 years on, at the start of this endeavour to come out of the quiet, I feel both connected and humbled. Hughes, Nugent, Aaron Douglas, Zora Neale Hurston and the other contributors to Fire!! are giants on whose shoulders we stand. Our efforts may never soar as high; we can only aspire to their eloquence, creativity or bravery but it comforts me to know that others have trod a path that I want to follow. What a gift! So thank you organisers of Black and LGBT History months, whether you’ve taken time to put on an event in a down-at-heel community centre, delivered a re-interpretation of an existing collection, or a glamorous jamboree in a city centre ballroom; thanks. I’m not going to cavil like Stacy Dash (who is she anyway?) or Morgan Freeman about the pros and cons of history months – that’s too easy. A bit like proving there’s no Santa, it’s also ultimately worthless – especially if it means I don’t get my present.