Want to support our work? Donate
Skip to content
26 October 2023

“We made ourselves strong”.

by Oyella Odong, founder of Go Bare, for Black History Month.

Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.

African Proverb.

Who’s history?

When we speak of history, who’s history are we talking about? When I think about history, I see clear bias. It is not an objective recounting of events, but rather a narrative of Whiteness. 

Black History Month allows us to correct that bias. To know our present, we have to know our history. And once we know our history, and what work still needs to be done, we can better understand the future and what we want from it. To know where you are going, you have to know where you come from.

We are not homogeneous

I came to the UK at the age of 7, as a refugee from a rural village in Uganda. My experience as a Black woman and a Ugandan refugee has shaped my understanding of the world, but I cannot claim to speak for or be representative of all Black people nor refugees, or that my words will resonate with all Black people. We are not homogeneous, and we contain multitudes: every Black person has their own story, their own starting point, and their own experiences with class, gender, ability, religion and sexuality, which go on to shape their worldviews. Black History Month should elevate the vast and diverse experiences of Black people, and make space for all of us.

Being a Black child in a majority White school was difficult. Once I arrived in the UK, I could feel injustice all around me, without even knowing the word for it. The education of Black history in school was inadequate, and growing up, I remember charities engaging in White saviourism, and poverty and trauma voyeurism. I only became aware of Black History Month as an adult. 

Black History Month allows me to see individuals who look like me and who share similar stories. Hearing people and listening to their stories is empowering, and also defies the distorted narrative of history that we have been fed. 

Celebrating our sisters

As a Black woman, the theme of this year’s Black History Month is so important to me. As Black women, we are held to a higher standard than most, expected to work twice as hard, expected to expend huge amounts of emotional labour, and expected to sacrifice our personal needs and desires for the comfort of everyone else. I have found myself constantly playing the role of sister, mother and therapist. Black women are expected to tolerate pain, to coddle most individuals, and to be the support system for everyone else. We shouldn’t have to be strong, or resilient. But we are strong, not because our struggles made us strong, but in spite of them. We are strong because we made ourselves strong. We are strong, but we are also vulnerable, and we deserve space to be vulnerable. 

For me, sisterhood also transcends race. I am part of a beautiful community of amazing women from various backgrounds. We celebrate each other’s strength, but we also support each other, and give each other the space to be vulnerable. The support is reciprocated, as it should be, and the burden doesn’t fall on me as a Black woman to constantly provide comfort. I deserve to put my own needs first, and the community I am a part of honours that.

Black Joy

As important as Black History Month is, the way that various institutions attempt to celebrate it feels very rushed, forced and uncomfortable. It feels performative and saviourist. What changes are actually being made after October ends? What work is being done throughout the year to elevate Black voices and challenge anti-Blackness? The effort should be constant and long-term, not just during Black History Month. 

The way that institutions attempt to celebrate Black History Month also strikes me as exploitative. Our trauma becomes something to be consumed, and sometimes it seems that institutions thrive off of our trauma. This feels heavy to witness. There is much emphasis on our pain, struggles, hardships and resilience, but barely any attempts are made to amplify and celebrate our joy. Our history does not begin with enslavement. It would be good for institutions such as schools to recognise the richness and diversity of Black African History prior to this moment. What we are taught in school shapes our psyches growing up. If we are only taught about pain, how does this leave us feeling? If we are only taught about joy, how will our struggle be acknowledged? There needs to be a balance between acknowledging Black pain and elevating Black joy. The fullness of our humanity must be respected: we are not reducible to our trauma. Nor are we reducible to the elements of our culture that society has appropriated for aesthetics. 

Being a refugee

The difficulties I faced in my childhood make me want to continue to support those who are marginalised. And my own experience of displacement has made me realise how important it is for British migration charities to celebrate Black History Month, and to honour Black voices through ethical storytelling that affirms our humanity. Nonconsensual images and videos of suffering and impoverished Black people have dominated the charity landscape for years. These kinds of images affect the way that society views us, so much so that when I was a child, a teacher asked me if I also used to have flies on my mouth, like the children in the videos. Most of my youth consisted of educating classrooms, due to these imbalanced narratives. Growing up, I never felt truly seen. These kinds of images are dehumanising, since they turn our trauma into a spectacle, and present us as passive victims with little to no agency. I am not a victim, nor have I ever seen myself as one. 

The future

Our future is defined on what we are doing now. If we do it right, we will have a brighter future. We cannot look at the future in isolation. The past has an impact on how we feel and act today, and our actions today affect tomorrow. 

I wake up every morning listening to motivational talks. Even during hard moments, I remind myself of the beautiful things in life, such as slowing down, resting, connecting with nature and community. During difficult times, I remind myself that when I was a child, I didn’t even know if I would survive the night. This grounds me in the present moment, and makes me appreciate what I have access to, and to make the most of it. I know that so many people out there can only dream of my reality, and I am reminded to see life through their perspective. I truly believe that the world needs more empathy. My upbringing has allowed me to see how important it is to have a community of loved ones around you who support and uplift you, and make space for you to be your authentic self. 

We are all connected and in community. We can use what we have access to in order to stand with others we are in community with. In the words of Maya Angelou: “I come as one but stand as 10,000”.