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'All the great black Britons seem to have lived long ago'

LEGENDS OF THE PAST: So many of the Britons feted in Black History Month come from the 19th century or even earlier, with only a handful of more modern figures – such as Lord Learie Constantine – being worthy of inclusion

THE START of Black History Month always fills me with trepidation. Not least because it falls at exactly the same time that students go to university, but also because it doesn’t seem like we (black people/afro-saxons/ black-brits) have achieved very much in the last hundred years since those ‘black history month’ days.

I mean, Black History Month is when we normally dust off our knowledge of great black Britons and what they did in their time that was extraordinary. But all the great black Britons seem to have lived a long time ago.

It doesn’t seem as if there is anyone today, or even more than one or two people in the last hundred years, who are deserving of the term ‘great’ in comparison with Mary Seacole, Ignatius Sancho or even Ira Aldridge – who, let’s face it, wasn’t even a black Briton.

And yet, as actors go, Aldridge became arguably the greatest black actor in Britain when he came over from the States to teach us how to speak in iambic pentameters and how to get to the deep heart and soul of that most tortured and misunderstood character of black history, Othello.

Yes, Ira Aldridge is greater than Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Harewood, Thandie Newton, or even Idris Elba.

Primarily because this gorgeous African-American, the very epitome of suave and sophisticated, would come to symbolise the inspiration for every black person who has ever trodden the boards. Notwithstanding that he withstood the slings and arrows of outrageous racism and stood aloft and now, over a hundred years later, it is he, not his 19th century haters, whose name is still echoing between the pages of any history book on the theatre in Britain.

Ira Aldrige’s name is up there because he had to be better – much, much better – than anyone else in the theatre in his day, reciting Shakespeare better than anyone else on the planet. That is true greatness.

Even the racists in those Victorian days had to admit that he was better than anyone else around and flocked to his sellout performances.

As Aldridge, the first black acting superstar, would have recited: “All the world’s a stage – and all the men and women merely players.”

On this stage that is the world we live in, it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to stand out and reach for greatness. Not least because the “firsts” are now in the past.

We cannot be the first black anything anymore. In the old days being the first would have ensured you endless gratitude from the black community for paving the way and allowing others to follow after — whether by design or serendipity.

It would have been greatness in itself. All you had to do back then was be the first black person to go to a segregated school despite the violent racist resistant against it.

None of us will ever experience the horror of a bloodthirsty white mob baying for our guts like the so-called Little Rock Nine teenagers were when they had to be protected by soldiers to simply go to school with all the death threats.

Military protection or not, I wouldn’t have gone through that human corridor of blind hate. I wouldn’t have been able to take it then and no doubt it would have scarred me for life. So we have to salute the Nine for their role in bringing about the end to segregation of schools in Arkansas in 1957.

Even if you’ve got more guts than me, there’s very few of those big ‘hitters’ left that you can be the first to do.

We cannot emulate the achievements of those giants on whose shoulders we stand for that very reason. They were giants, and their broad shoulders and their strong backs laid the way for us to follow as best as we can in their footsteps.

We do not need such broad shoulders. Thankfully we will never need such a strong back to carry the generations that come after us. That part of the hard work has been done for us by the greats of black history.

Of course, when we get the first black prime minister we will marvel at the achievement and elevate the achiever to the status of ‘great black Briton’, no doubt, and perhaps forever. Long after we have forgotten about the Little Rock Nine, the clock to which started ticking a few years back now.

Arguably the opportunity to be ‘great’, in the wider philosophical sense of greatness, has been taken away from us by the enlightened times (as problematic as this ‘enlightenment’ is). We are weaker for it.

But would we have it any other way? Would we prefer if there was still the resistance and the fight against us achieving anything, just so that we can be part of black history or Black History Month? No, I don’t think so. I really don’t.

A cursory glance at the list of 100 Great Black Britons circulated by everygeneration. 16 years ago is a case in point.

The real last Briton of stature that can match some of those legendary black Britons from the 19th century and beyond was, I suppose, the great cricketer, broadcaster and intellectual Lord Learie Constantine.

I say this even though my own wife is on the list of 100 Great Britons – but she would not put herself on the level of Septimius Severus, the black Roman emperor who ruled these shores in the third century. What he must have gone through in those days to be even taken seriously, I suppose, is what makes him great.

He must have been a proper ‘bad bwoy’, For Real.
Cause you done know that as he perused the dusty streets of old Londinium, somebody, one ignorant so and so, mistaking him for a slave would have shouted out: “Oi, n*g-n*g go black home and you’ll be all white in the morning!” Yes, and before he knew it he was being crucified for his audacity to an emperor who happened to be black.

So enjoy Black History Month but don’t even think for one minute that you go through one tenth of the tribulation that dem man in dem olden times went through and still they made it through with all their amazing “firsts”, while you can’t even go to university and come down with a first.

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