This weekend will be the fifth Bonfire night in a row that I won’t be in England for. Don’t think that will stop me telling everyone within earshot that it is Bonfire night and don’t think having to explain multiple times what Bonfire night is will deter me; because it won’t. Bonfire night, also known as Guy Fawkes night and Fireworks night (we Brits are clearly a little indecisive on the naming) is a British holiday celebrating the foiled 1605 plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. We light bonfires, burn a Guy, set off fireworks and enjoy outdoor BBQs in November because we’re British and who needs hot weather to eat outside anyway?
Every year I’m not in England on November fifth I seek out other Brits and we reminisce about bygone celebrations and plan to do something which inevitably ends up being going out for drinks and reminiscing more about bygone celebrations because, turns out, most cities don’t tend not to like you lighting bonfires when the lighting of bonfires is not part of a national holiday. And it’s really hard to get hold of fireworks so far away from the New Year. So we relent to keeping the tradition alive in our memories.
But why is it so important to me to keep the tradition alive? Why, even though I’ve suspected from an early age that I probably won’t settle down in Britain, have I decided that, wherever I am in the world, I want my future children to celebrate Bonfire night? I guess because it’s part of my culture.
When we think about culture we tend to think about two dictionary definitions of the word:
- The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.
- The ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.
(Oxford English Dictionary)
These definitions, however, create a view that culture is constant. I’m suggesting that culture is as malleable as fresh dough. Culture is ever changing and growing. Cultures are created and cultures die every day. We are very sensitive about culture right now. There is lots out there about cultural appropriation, lots that I agree with and lots that I don’t agree with. Cultures are meant to be shared and sometimes cultures die for good reasons and sometimes they are lost and that’s sad but it’s also the way of the world. It is painful when your own culture is overpowered by a dominant culture and it is painful when your culture is absorbed by a dominant culture with no consideration for the history and people that created that culture. But I fear that if we stop sharing non-dominant cultures this will also lead to their death.
Truth is, culture is something unique to each and every one of us. The way that the same culture is manifested in the lives of two separate individuals is never identical. We pick and choose which parts we like and wish to continue and which parts we can do without. We create our own culture. My nephew woke up on Halloween morning super excited about Halloween - it might just be his favourite holiday - whereas to me it's just another cold and dark morning in Chicago. Halloween is part of his culture, not mine. If they don’t grow up in England I doubt my kids will continue celebrating Bonfire night once I can no longer force them to. It’s a part of my culture, not theirs. Both my parents are Nigerian, of the same tribe, and yet so much of their culture is lost on me and with my children it will suffer another deterioration. My mum is Nigerian; I am Nigerian and British. If my children grow up outside of Great Britain what will they be? How will they identify themselves? Will they claim my Nigerian or my British or both? What about their father, what will they claim from him? In some respects, it’s sad, in others, it’s all part of human growth.
In America I discovered Black culture. I don’t know if I’m naïve or sheltered but I never knew black culture in England. I knew African and Caribbean culture but no generic Black. In England my friends and I all watched the same American imports like Sister, Sister, Saved by the Bell, Moesha and Smart Guy. I never knew there were black shows and white shows, just American shows. Black American culture is very different to Black British culture which is in turn very different to Black African and Black Caribbean culture. I stand by my initial observations that there is no generic black culture.
Hold on to the good, let go of the bad. Cultures change and it’s not always a bad thing.