In 2005 the American actor Morgan Freeman famously was quoted as saying “I don’t want a Black History Month, Black history is American history.” When I first heard this I thought could I ever agree with that around Black History in the UK? I think I can now. Walk with me if you will.
Carter Woodson was the son of former slaves and a PhD graduate of Harvard. As a student he realised that there was very limited information about the contribution of blacks to the history of America. As a result in 1915 he had previously created the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and in 1916 the Journal of Negro History. In Feb 1926 he established the Negro Week, a time of celebration for primarily black citizens to celebrate their contribution to the American history books. This would later become Black History month.
Akyaaba Addai Sebbo in 1987 decided to implement with the help of the GLC a black history month to be recognised each October. Some say partly inspired by the black history month in the US others say through the increasing network of supplementary schools in the UK for children of African and Caribbean heritage. These supplementary schools were set up to address what many parents saw as shortcomings of teachers for their children and also a way of addressing the imbalance in history which airbrushed out the contribution of Africans and Caribbeans to the history of the UK.
Given that sense of context and history I was so fired up when I first heard about black history month. Being the son of a man who was well into pan africanism, I grew up on staple diet of books that addressed pre, colonial and post colonial politics and economics across the African disapora. One of the first books I ever read as youngster was the autobiography of Malcolm X. I read papers on the revolutionary thinking that drove Kwame Nkrumah, Steve Biko and Toussaint L’Ouverture. I learnt about the Caribbean contribution to both world wars and wondered why this rich history and culture was not part of mainstream history.
For years I educated myself and others in my social groups about the contribution of those of African and Caribbeans to British culture and until last year spent a lot of energy speaking and sharing my passion for black history month. And then I stopped.
Reasons I stopped
I actually came to the conclusion a couple years ago that black history month was a bit tokenistic. Unis, colleges and schools would be so excited to call on me to speak. I would dazzle with the contributions of people of colour other than William Wilberforce to the abolition movement, the African contribution to classical music. However I wondered why is this only being done once a year. History is for all year round. Why is it that suddenly people could feel ok with just this once a month thing.
I interviewed teachers and lecturers in schools and colleges I went to on their views. Many confided anonymously they only did it because they had to. That many students didn’t even understand why, and also wondered why months weren’t dedicated to say Asian contributions, Eastern European, etc. My argument was that they could if they campaigned for it but such educators would rather not have anything that focused on one race, even though I argued that modern history usually does anyway! How to Piss of a Teacher 101!
The third reason I was reluctant was the whole identification of what was or was not black history. Many of the events I saw tended to primarily focus on US black history. Slavery, Civil rights movement, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Progress would be an inclusion of Nelson Mandela and if lucky Mary Seacole. Yet I wondered what about the British black contribution and what does it mean to be black anyway. For many mixed race people who identified as mixed race, all of a sudden once a month they were then identified as black!
History all Year Around
History is one of the declining subjects as subjects for students in the UK. Its actually a shame really given the strength of a subject that addresses how we got here and that it creates a platform for great debate. I think that the contribution of African and Caribbean history does have a place but I would rather see it as a part of the whole history curriculum. Something that addresses the diverse nature of our nation and the wider contribution of all cultures to its history be it music, politics, defence, education or whatever. Personally I am not convinced that black history month does this.
Outside of the school system I would also like to see a consistent series of events and media to celebrate the ‘black’ contribution to British history. For me that is where I want my focus to be on. For now I am content to deliver it to an audience all year round that is really intrigued and curious about such a contribution. In my case that is mainly friends and family!! I don’t knock those who wish to continue in the tradition but personally I think it has become a relic and for the best part only relevant to a minority.
As always however, no matter how strong my opinion I am glad to proven wrong, even though I know I am right!