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Mary Seacole

I would never have heard of Mary Seacole were it not for Black History Month, the one time in the year when black achievement is given centre stage.

She was never mentioned at school. Instead history lessons were about slavery: how hundreds of thousands of black men and women were forcibly taken from their homes in Africa, shackled and packed onto ships headed for a life of untold misery.

If my young mind couldn’t conjure up the awfulness of their plight, artist images were on hand to help: the unmistakable negro features of the brown skinned ‘savages’ littered the pages of the text books we were given. You’d be surprised how much those images and the stories of those ships and their human cargo impacted on my young, developing mind.

After these lessons during playtime I was often teased about my skin shade, my features, the size of my nose and lips and the texture of my hair. At the time I made no connection with those history lessons and the impact they would have on my self-awareness and confidence, and of course, the attitudes of those around me. That connection would come many years later.

There were no positive images in my history lessons of black people, nothing that was recognisable to me about my culture and ethnicity could be found anywhere throughout the school environment. Bring that into wider society, where at the time there were few black faces on television and those in print were mostly of individuals who’d committed a crime and who the tabloid papers were keen to show as being non-Caucasian, it isn’t hard to imagine just how it affected my younger self. And still affects me to some extent today to be honest with you.

We make sense of the world around us based on what we see and hear. If the prevailing image of any one group is presented in a relentlessly negative light, that message and that image sticks. I understood only many years later, on reflection, why I was teased. The children were reflecting the message of society, one that told them that black people were not particularly clever and achieved little of worth. They were however fast runners and could hold a tune. So they were cheered on at football and other sports, and it was ok to dance and sing along to their music but nothing else they achieved was particularly noteworthy.

Things have thankfully changed. Young kids today know all about Mary Seacole. Black history and achievement is more widely felt. Role models abound, in politics, academia, science, across the board. But things haven’t changed enough for us to be rid of events like Black History Month. Black achievement remains something that isn’t naturally celebrated. Which is why the likes of the Mobos exist. Without them, many of those who have worked as hard and achieved as much as their white counterparts, would go unnoticed and undervalued.

How then to make sense of this:

Seacole, who was mixed-race Jamaican, is frequently called a “black heroine” and was voted top of the list of “100 black Britons”. She would be pleased with the British designation, for she was patriotic to a fault. But not only did she not identify as black – understandable for a light-skinned Jamaican who lived when slavery was still lawful in Jamaica – but she had not a favorable word to say of her Creole heritage. When black people appear in her memoir, they are other people, such as her maid and her “good-for-nothing black cooks”.

I don’t care for the argument that Florence Nightingale is more deserving of a statue than Mary Seacole but I do take issue with anyone who presumes to challenge her rightful place as a black hero. What is staggering to me is that Lyn McDonald, as a white woman, with all the privileges that she enjoys, thinks nothing about commenting on who black people ought and ought not, to hold up as role models. According to her, Mary Seacole wasn’t black enough.

Race is complex. Mary Seacole’s attitude about her own racial heritage reflected the times in which she lived. Lyn McDonald betrays her ignorance and in doing so, acts no differently to the children in that playground many years ago.

Racism is pervasive and there is still some way to go. See Euro 2012 if you hold any doubt. But at the barest minimum, let’s just please leave it to black and ethnic minority communities to self-determine who their black heroes are. That’s something that at the very least should be their preserve. To presume otherwise is not only the height of arrogance it’s highly offensive.