Ariel Nash reflects on what Black History Month means to her and the powerful potential of the BME movement in art and culture
When I was a little girl in primary school, my favourite gift to get was a journal or notebook with a nice pen. I would use these tools to write down my thoughts, my feelings, and the daydreams that wouldn’t leave my head. Whenever anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would tell them I wanted to be a writer.
My parents would smile and pat me on the head when I said this. It wasn’t that they didn’t encourage me to follow my dreams, but rather, they were looking to me to be more practical about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Writing was great as a hobby, but it wasn’t something you did as a career unless you had a profound talent. Unfortunately, I was no child prodigy.
Still, my desire to write was like a fire burning inside of me. I felt this unexplainable itch to write notebook after notebook of my thoughts. I relied on teachers to help me develop my skills further. My teachers always encouraged me to read and write. They would give me books and I would eagerly read them, sometimes finishing chapter books in one sitting just so I could have more to read the next day. And when I was really inspired by a story, I would write.
There was one problem, though. Every story I wrote about was predominantly about white characters. Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) characters were non-existent in my work. This was puzzling; I went to a diverse school and came from a predominantly black background.
After some reflections, I realised that even though my teachers meant well, the books they gave me mostly had white characters. And if there were BME characters, they were secondary and their lives were filled with struggle, pain, or trauma.
When I was old enough to do my own exploring, it was difficult for me to find books with BME characters who weren’t going through struggles that were real to me, rubbing against the internal scars of oppression that I had in my heart. It was sometimes nice to read those stories as they made me realise I was never alone, and that those scars could be healed.
However, sometimes I just wanted to read a fun and fluffy story. When dealing with those scars every day, sometimes I wanted to wrap a blanket around myself, curl up, and read a romantic comedy with a series of ridiculous events that made me laugh out loud. And when I reached the end of the book, I would sigh when the two characters admitted their love for each other and lived happily ever after. I’m a romantic at heart, and these are my favourite stories to read and write about when I crave an escape.
This is the part where I say that I know stories with BME characters like this exist. However, the young me did not know that ten years ago. All I had were the experiences fed to me through the adults in my life. Going to a school with a large BME student population but low BME teacher population meant that the adults who nurtured my writing were all white. And many of them pushed me to write about my “experience”, this being a code word for “black experience.”
Even though it wasn’t said out loud, I knew what it meant. I had to write about those personal, internal scars that I obtained as a result of growing up in racist America.
In my mind, that had been done 100 times before already. I didn’t feel like my life was as interesting as the fictional and non-fictional BME characters that were already out there. Why would anyone want to read about my life story, my thoughts, my feelings, my internal scars? If they wanted access to that, there were hundreds of stories that covered it more eloquently than I ever could.
The only thing I was good at was daydreaming about was what it was like to be in love and writing it down. But based on what I read about publishing, no one is interested in reading about BME couples falling in love with each other.
Resigned to this reality about the lack of visibility with romance novels and BME characters, I became a journalist. It didn’t take long for me to realise that it wasn’t the career for me either. So instead I fluttered off to do my undergraduate degree. My writing became impersonal and academic. Still, there was small part of me that loved to write romantic stories.
To procrastinate on my academic writing I would secretly write love stories and post them online (and no, I will not link you to those stories!) Eventually, I graduated and got my first full time job working as a mentor for teens between the ages of 14 to 18.
Writing for pleasure disappeared for me. I didn’t lose the imagination. I always had five story ideas swirling around in my head, begging to be written down. But my thought was always, “What’s the point? No one is going to read it.”
Two years after graduating from my undergraduate degree, I had the opportunity to see Cornell West and a panel of other important BME leaders speak. What he said struck me and made me rethink what it meant for me to be a writer.
He told the audience that we should not try to be like the famous people we admire. Rather, we should keep the values of those we admire in our hearts and instead find our own way of expressing our voices.
When we go to see a symphony perform, we would be quite upset to see 100 chairs of violins on stage. And when we go to hear a choir sing, we would walk out if there were only tenors performing. We go to the symphony to hear the blend of different instruments and we go to the choir to hear the richness of different voices. We go to these performances to hear the creation of harmonies and melodies that touch the core of our hearts. To be an activist, or any kind of artist, our voices must blend together to create a blend of change, love, and power. We are a choir and together, we create music.
Black History month reminds me of how important voice is. Those artists that I thought I couldn’t live up to or be like would have never been able to intimidate me if they hadn’t used their voices. What those artists had to share was important. And what I have to share is important. When I allow myself to write and I’m not afraid to let others see my words, I actively create a harmony with other black artists that is crucial to keeping the music of our history alive.
I let Black History month remind me that no one sings alone. I now realise that my voice is unique and beautiful. When I use it, I add it to a choir of people who embody the melodies of love, wisdom, and resiliency.
With music like that, the songs will live on for an eternity.