As Black History Month draws to a close, and we put the tiresome debate on its necessity to bed once more, perhaps we need to reflect on its past before we decide upon its future...
There has been renewed debate over the continuing need for Black History Month in recent years. Indeed the death of George Floyd invigorated the movement, and for some reaffirmed its relevance.
Though, even some within the Black community argue that it has served its purpose and run its course. Defenders of Black History Month maintain that there is still a long way to go before we reach a day in which Black History Month is no longer necessary. Whichever side of the fence you sit on, to have a healthy debate about the future of Black History Month, it is crucial to understand its past.
Where did it all begin?
It has been 35 years since the inaugural annual Black History Month in Britain. Carter G. Woodson first established the month, initially as just one week, in 1926 in the USA to combat racism by educating white students about Black contributions to American life - contributions that were commonly downplayed, ignored, or hidden.
In 1987, Akyaab Addai-Sebo, a Ghanaian journalist and activist living in London, was disheartened by the lack of education about the contributions made by Africans and people of African descent to the U.K industry and culture. This inspired him to establish something similar on this side of the Atlantic.
Working as the Special Projects Coordinator of the Ethnic Minorities Unit at the GLC (Greater London Council, since dissolved), Addai-Sebo was instrumental in establishing a month to celebrate Black culture and history in the U.K.
Like its American counterpart, Addai-Sebo’s Black History Month would focus on working Black and African history into the national curriculum.
The idea was that educating Black children about their African heritage, and the vast contributions their ancestors had made to modern society, would create within them a sense of pride and ambition; “there is no greater ‘truth’ than knowing yourself” proclaimed Akyaab.
Furthermore, it would present nuanced and varied representations of Black culture to white children that would dispel racism and cultural biases often perpetuated from an early age.
Why do we still have it?
Often referred to as the “Black Florence Nightingale” and regarded by some historians as the first-ever Nurse Practitioner, Mary Seacole was a Jamaican-born British nurse.
Her work healing injured soldiers during the Crimean War earned her the respect of thousands of veterans at the time, and many nurses today. But before she was entered into the national curriculum in 2007 (after tireless campaigning), Seacole had become a forgotten figure of Black history.
Though as recent as 2012, discussions were being had – propelled by then Education Secretary, Michael Gove – about removing any mention of Mary Seacole from the national curriculum. After fierce backlash, the decision was made to retain Seacole's presence in the curriculum.
Many took this discussion, along with persistent opposition to the existence of the honorary month, as evidence that Black History Month is still very much necessary.
“There are still too many people who resist the idea that Black people and our history should be accepted as part of the sweep of British history," says Diane Abbott, the first Black woman to be elected into the U.K. parliament. "This is why Black History Month remains extremely relevant and is worth keeping and fighting for. The fight for racial justice must always have an appreciation of our culture and history at its heart.”
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Criticism of Black History Month from within the African diaspora in Britain often centres around the perception that Black British history is too frequently side-lined by African American Black History - as evidenced on the U.K government's own website. Similarly, athletes and entertainers are often highlighted more than prominent Black figures breaking ground in other industries.
Conversations about Black history regularly focus on people like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., or Malcolm X, as opposed to Black British figures, like Bernie Grant, the Rt. Hon Lord Boateng, or Diane Abbott, who in 1987 were elected the first Black members of parliament, or John Kent, the first Black police officer in Britain.
Others criticise the confines of restricting Black-British history to one month. They pose that we could expand the representation of historically essential people of African descent if we spoke about them all year round. Black History Month has also been seen to be co-opted by businesses and exploited as a token when challenged about inclusivity in their work environment.
Now that corporations and workplaces have adopted celebrations of Black heritage and achievement into their Octobers, it could be reasoned that Black History Month’s evolution into something omnipresent has by virtue increased our expectations of its reach and capability. But, is that a bad thing?
“I don't think Black history month has been looked at by people who are non-Black in the way that it is beginning to now”, Nigerian-born British photographer Misan Harriman says. He adds that we need to remember why Black History Month started in the first place;
“We know what we've been through. We know what our open wounds are. But Black History Month is for others (who do not have that lived experience) to learn about our lived experiences so that they can learn how to help fight and eradicate racism.” Misan Harriman
In the USA, Black History Month is in February to commemorate the birthdays of two prominent figures in African American liberation, President Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass. But in the U.K, Addai-Sebo had education in mind when deciding upon October as the month in which we celebrate Black History.
The month of October was chosen as it is a “period of the year that will engage most the minds of children and youth in the UK,” said Addai-Sebo.
“Children were fresh after the long summer vacation and had less to worry about exams and tests, and the camaraderie was stronger as they shared experiences. We believed that they would absorb more if their living environment buzzed with positive vibes.” Addai-Sebo
Black History Month in the U.K, therefore, is and has always been about education. Its expansion over the years has indeed been positive, but we must not lose focus on the grandeur of it all and forget its roots and why it began in the first place.
It isn’t about self-indulgence, virtue signalling, or exploitative social media campaigns. It is about education and ensuring that young Black children across the country can start every school year with a sense of equality, ambition, and belonging. It’s about knowledge. It’s about truth. It’s about history.
"If your history only gives your pride, it's not history; it's propaganda” Unknown