Black History Month Sensitization

Black History Month Sensitization

Marcia Forbes PhD

Address to Students at Spanish Town High School, Jamaica
February 14, 2011

Why Black History Month
The idea of Black History Month came about as one way of remembering the journeys of African peoples away from their continent to other lands far away. In remembering this, we honour their struggles and successes. Since 1976, now 35 years ago, Black History Month has been celebrated in the United States of America (USA), Canada and the United Kingdom (UK). The UK is also called Great Britain and is made up of England, Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland. So, we see that Black History Month is celebrated in many other places apart from Jamaica. In the USA they mainly call it African-American History Month.

In Jamaica 91% of us are Black people. So, in celebrating Black History Month many of us in Jamaica are really celebrating our forefathers and mothers and how they survived the indignities of slavery. We are also celebrating our National Heroes and how they fought for many of the freedoms which we take for granted today. Sam Sharpe, Paul Bogle, George William Gordon and Marcus Gravey among others, each of them fought in their own ways for Jamaica and they were all of African descent. George William Gordon’s mother was a slave and his father a plantation owner. So, yes, they ALL had African blood.

We need to bear in mind, though, that we are now learning that Africans did not come to these parts of the world only as slaves, but, that Black people came to ‘white people’ countries for all sorts of other reasons and made all kinds of contributions. Unfortunately time does not allow me to get into that today. Some people argue that Black History Month focuses too much as slavery. Still, knowing your past and where you come from can help to build self-esteem. When you hear how, despite being shacked and beaten, we as Black people would not allow them to break our spirit but struggled against the oppression, and won our freedom, this makes me, and I hope you too, feel proud.

 Black Pride
When I visited a former slave ship and saw the extremely small space in which Africans were crammed and when I visited where Robben Island in South Africa where Nelson Mandella was held in prison for 27 years, it helped me to appreciate the strength and spirit of us Black people and helped me to feel proud of my Black heritage. Today I want to encourage all of us to celebrate our Blackness and to take pride in ourselves whether Black History Month or no Black History Month. To love ourselves as Black people all the time and not just in February.

Tarrus Riley has a new song that I really love. It’s called Shaka Zulu Pickney. He talks about loving ourselves and being proud of our blackness and our African Heritage. In this song, Tarrus calls on us to be proud of our Blackness. I want each of you to listen to Shaka Zulu Pickney and to know that the Shaka that Tarrus is talking about grew up to be a King of the Zulu tribe. He was born about 1787 in the Southern part of Africa. Although he had many problems, being born out of wedlock to a Zulu Chief, Shaka was brave and fearless. Many in Jamaica like to call others Shaka Zulu when they think they are ugly. But that just shows their ignorance. Zulus were strong black warriors, not ugly people.

Skin Bleaching
This brings me to the very quarrelsome topic of bleaching. And let me tell you that it’s not only Jamaicans who bleach. When I lived in Boston I noticed that many of the girls from Taiwan had very white faces. Sometimes it looked like they were wearing a white mask. I later learnt that white faces in Taiwan were regarded as beautiful. It is said that about 40% of Taiwanese, men and women, bleach their skin. Bleaching also takes place in countries like India. So it’s not only Jamaicans who bleach.

But because other people bleach doesn’t make bleaching healthy or right. Like Jamaica, many other countries have many problems with skin colour and dark skin is looked down on in many places. This, I believe is the root of bleaching, that people look at dark skin in very negative ways and look at white or lighter skin colour in more positive ways. For us in Jamaica, a big part of this comes down from our history of slavery where if you white you right, if you black stay back. And if you’re brown, stick around.

Many black children grow up hearing “look how you black and ugly” or “she black, but she pretty”. So we really begin to believe that black is ugly and that black is not usually pretty. It’s our society and how we are brought up that help us to think this way. I don’t like to see the bleached out skin of black people because to me, it looks really sick. It doesn’t look healthy. But I’ve heard many people who bleach say how good it makes them feel. They say it boosts their self-esteem.

 My view is that if by making your skin unhealthy it makes you feel good, then something is wrong. I hear of school children being sent home because their skin break out in sores from the bleaching. So I want to talk about the problems when you bleach out your skin!! Whether you do it for style, or you do it because you think people will like you more, or you do it because your favourite DJ is doing it, we not talking about the reason why right now, I’m just looking at some of the health problems related to bleaching.

Because, as I pointed out earlier, skin bleaching occurs in many other countries and because there are some people in Jamaica who have been bleaching for a long time, we know of several of the very harmful results. Sometimes the skin actually gets darker and gets tough and thick. So a once beautiful dark-skinned person, as a result of bleaching can become tough-skinned and quite unattractive and ironically end up darker because of bleaching.

Then you see the bleachers always having to hide from the sun. Bleaching your skin exposes you to a greater risk of skin cancer. Our blackness, that some of us hate actually helps to protect us from skin cancer, so it helps us. Bleaching out our blackness makes us more vulnerable to cancer of the skin. Something that used to mostly affect white people.

The melanin in our skin is what determines our darkness. The more melanin you have, the darker the skin colour. Melanin protects us from the dangerous ultra violet rays of the sun. The bleaching agents prevent the production of melanin. Some of these bleaching agents themselves also help to cause cancer. So bleachers are at double risk of skin cancer. First, because they use creams which prevent or reduce the formation of melanin which is a protective agent from harmful sun rays, and second because the bleach itself can cause cancer.

Now consider this, if you had a choice, would you rather be a bleached dead or a living dark-skinned person? I close with the words of Tarrus Riley “The blood of African Kings run in my vein…naah guh bleach, naah dilute it.”
Think on these things as we celebrate Black History Month!!

Book -- Music, Media & Adolescent Sexuality in Jamaica
And my final word to you is about my book, Music, Media & Adolescent Sexuality in Jamaica, this book helps to explain some of the ways you are influenced into doing things because of what you see and hear on TV. Andy Ballentine, an artist and a past student of this school, will be giving your library a copy. It is of benefit to those of you doing the CXC so I encourage you to read it. Other young persons like you have told me that it’s fun and easy to read and that they learnt a lot from it.