Zara Oteng writes a letter to her two young daughters to mark Black History Month
My dear daughters,
It’s Black History Month. Usually we’d be celebrating Black achievement, culture and art. But these are difficult times and I’m not sure I’m in the mood to celebrate.
You’re too little to know that there’s a global pandemic that’s killed tens of thousands of people here in Britain, a disproportionate number of them Black.
You don’t know that there’s another pandemic of inequality plaguing society. This one is more permanent. And it’s been here for a very long time.
But maybe things can change. Maybe one day there won’t be any need for a Black History Month: by then our stories will be woven into the fabric of everyday life, instead of ghosted away.
Maybe you’ll see kings, queens, scientists and poets with faces like yours in the history books you’ll be given you at school. Maybe you’ll be awed by Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire and his astronomical wealth, because you’ll study him as well as Henry VIII and his six wives.
You might learn about Katherine Johnson, one of the first Black women to work as a NASA scientist. I can see it now: you’ll come home one day, bouncing with excitement. You’ll tell me all about her pivotal role in that small step for man and that giant leap for mankind. And you’ll say that because of her, Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon.
Maybe things will be different by the time your adolescence arrives. Maybe, when a growing awareness of your bodies befalls you, skin as rich and brown as yours will have become a hallmark of mainstream feminine beauty. I picture you, my beloved daughters, smiling at your reflections, marvelling at the smooth tawny planes of your faces. You giggle sweetly as you gently tug the soft, dark coils of your hair and watch them spring back, just so. I’ll sleep well knowing that one day, you will walk with the confidence of women who know they are wanted.
But I cannot lie to you, my darling, sweet daughters. This year there have been many times I’ve turned my face away from you, to hide the grief etched into it. I didn’t want you to see me distraught because yet another Black person’s life had been snuffed out by an American policeman, and cities burned in rage and despair. I don’t want you to discover that something is so very wrong with our world.
For something is wrong with our world, our systems, and our justice. Indeed, justice may not belong to you and I in the same way it belongs to others.
That is the truth. So, I am fearful.
I am fearful that you may be victimised by adultification bias, which snatches youthful dreams from so many little black girls: prematurely shunted into adulthood, cruelly robbed of their innocence. And I desperately want you to know what it is to be truly carefree.
Your father and I will do all we can to protect you – but we’re just another two Black parents who have lived this for far too long.
So perhaps I am jaded. Maybe, by the time you’re both in secondary school, Black children won’t be permanently excluded at nearly three times the rate of their white peers. Maybe, by then, you won’t need to be perfect just to get by.
Maybe as young women you won’t flinch when you walk by police officers, because by that time, Black people won’t be stopped and searched nearly ten times more than white people.
I can’t see the tide of change coming in so quickly, but maybe things will be different by the time you’re ready to rear your own children. Maybe, by then, the Black maternal death rate will have shrunken until it is no longer five times that of white women. Perhaps then you’ll be able to look into the eyes of your doctor without masking the terror that is shredding your insides, scared that you might never leave your hospital bed.
It has been a tumultuous year so far. Millions of people have taken to the streets all over the world, protesting the grave injustices built into our societies. The call for change is louder than ever, so maybe there’s hope yet.
Right now, we need Black History Month so that you know that people like you have done great things and that you can, too. We need it, but my dream is that one day we won’t, because Barack and Michelle Obama will no longer be the exception. Ignatius Sancho will be as celebrated as Shakespeare and the ethnicity pay gap will completely disappear.
Maybe these are dreams that can come true – perhaps not in my lifetime, but maybe in yours.
With all my love and hope,
Your Mummy x