For most, October connotes Halloween, the transition to autumn, and the start of daylight savings. But more importantly, October marks the start of Black History Month in the United Kingdom.
The concept of Black History Month was advanced by Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, a special projects officer of Ghanaian descent at the Greater London Council, in 1987.
With the backing of senior officers of the Greater London Council, community activists and politicians, Addai-Sebo coordinated the first official Black History Month event on October 1, 1987. It had Dr. Maulana Karengaas as its first speaker following his establishment of Kwanzaa, a weeklong festival held in the United States which celebrates African and African-American culture and history.
For Addai-Sebo, the initial goal of Black History Month was threefold: to create an enabling cultural space in the UK, ensure the celebration of the magnificence and the enriching value of cultural diversity, and to achieve harmony.
February vs October
Despite the fact that for 17 years Black History Month was already being celebrated in February in the US, it was decided that it should be celebrated in October in the UK.
The US had chosen February due to the birthdays of two central figures of African-American history falling within this month: Abraham Lincoln, the president of the United States who was responsible for abolishing slavery, and Frederick Douglass, one of the most prominent American abolitionists. Conversely, in the UK, October was chosen because it falls in line with the start of the academic year. Additionally, Addai-Sebo seized this opportunity to reconnect with African roots, for October is believed to be a time when African chiefs and leaders gather to settle their differences, ensuring harmony.
Some have argued that Black History Month was partially founded following the riots by Black Britons in Toxteth, Brixton and Tottenham as a means of addressing racial tensions of the 1980s. In Toxteth, Liverpool, in 1981, riots were sparked because of the controversial “sus” laws which allowed the police to stop and search individuals, with ethnic minorities, and Black men in particular, being disproportionately targeted. Bubbling tensions and allegations of police discrimination as a result of the law came to a loggerhead when a crowd witnessed what they believed was the heavy-handed arrest of Leroy Alphonse Cooper, who had stolen a bike. The ensuing riots resulted in one death and the arrest of 500 predominantly black people.
In 1985, there were riots in Brixton, South London, following the accidental shooting of Dorothy “Cherry” Groce who was left paralysed from the waist down after she was shot by police who were looking for her son in connection with a robbery. It ultimately resulted in 50 people being injured, and more than 200 arrests. The Tottenham, North London, riots came just a week after and were triggered by the death of Cynthia Jarrett, who died of heart failure after the police raided her home following the arrest and charging of her son with theft and assault prior (he was later acquitted of both charges). In light of these riots, relations between the Black community and the police in Britain had become severely strained. The establishment of Black History Month may have been seen as a step to mend this racial friction.
Black History Month’s founding was also likely influenced by the launch of the 1987 African Jubilee Year (AJY) Declaration, which was partly inspired by the centenary of the birth of pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. (Pan-africanism being the movement that encourages the strengthening of bonds between all indigenous and diaspora ethnic groups of African descent across the globe).
The AJY also marked the 150th anniversary of the emancipation of enslaved Africans in the British Caribbean, and the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). The AJY called on the local and national government to recognise the contributions of Africans to the cultural, economic and political life of the UK and to implement their duties under the Race Relations Act 1976. One of the most notable duties under the Act was the performance of local and national government functions without racial discrimination.
Though contestable whether they had a direct impact on its founding, these events became the catalyst for many local authorities to formally confirm the month of October as Black History Month in the UK.
The Importance of Black History Month
Black History Month is often criticised for promoting the confinement of Black history to a single month, and consequently allowing it to be ignored for the rest of the year. It is also criticised for being a mechanism that promotes the separation of Black history from British history. To that, I say Black History Month should be viewed as a means to an end, not an end in itself. I look forward to a time when it is no longer necessary and is simply integrated into the national curriculum. Sadly, there have been no real steps taken to achieve this since its conception.
In the meantime, it is increasingly important to ensure Black History Month meets its objectives of increasing the confidence and self-esteem of young Black people and promoting a sense of belonging especially as the Black British population continues to grow. According to the censuses published by the Office for National Statistics, the population of people from a Black background in England and Wales increased by 62% from 2001 to 2011. Further, there are strong correlations between positive Black role models and children’s development as it helps to inspire Black young adults and children to achieve their goals and dreams. (See ‘Role model development in young African American males: toward a conceptual model’ by Christian Edward Gale). With no Black History Month, even the bare minimum of Black history is at risk of not ever being taught which would be dire for Black children in particular.
I also challenge the idea that a month dedicated to promoting inclusion and understanding could ever be divisive. If anything, it provides a great opportunity for the country to come together and learn lessons from the past that can be used in the present, and future, to embark on creating a more equitable society. Black History Month is a time to challenge racism and educate ourselves as well as others about the often-overlooked positive contributions of Black people. We should use it as an opportunity to recognise the lack of time dedicated to the teaching of the history of Black people as a profound problem.
This year’s Black History Month is a time for us to reflect on how British history is taught and how it may be tackled in a more culturally sensitive way going forward. It is time to confront Britain’s past, acknowledge its problematic nature and the persisting insensitivity regarding colonialism.
Hopefully the events of this summer, namely the mainstreamisation of the Black Lives Matter movement, will spark a change in attitudes towards Black history resulting in a more diverse face of it being shared across schools, universities, museums, and other public spaces.
My Experience with Black History Month
Throughout my secondary school education, Black History Month was usually commemorated by repetitive assemblies about the Civil Rights Movement (Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr being standout figures) or slavery. It was almost always approached through the lens of Black American history. It began to become something to dread for me. Albeit valuable history, only hearing about people that looked like you in the context of slavery 200 years ago, or the fight for freedom across the Atlantic, year-on-year is draining. We would rarely hear about Black British historical figures or Black trailblazers outside the context of civil rights. If we were really really lucky, we would hear about the pioneer of nursing that was Mary Seacole who lived and died during the 19th century. She was the only Black British historical figure that anyone could really name. I was always left wondering whether Black British history truly existed.
This Black History Month I want to see change. Against the backdrop of George Floyd’s death, global recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement and the preceding solidarity protests that swept across the nation in June and July, what better time? The period saw statues of controversial figures of history scrutinised as well as the denaming of buildings named after eugenicists and particularly ruthless colonial leaders, rightfully so at long last.
Following this, I want to see schools teach about the 600,000 Black and 2.3 million Brown soldiers that supported the British war effort during World War Two, as well as the countless more non-combatants. I want schools to teach about the commonwealth countries across Africa and Asia, and their fights for independence. I want schools to teach about the fight for equality on home soil. To teach about the ‘Windrush’ generation, who arrived in the UK from Caribbean countries following the war, how they were invited to help rebuild the economy and yet met with contempt. I want schools to teach about the race riots from Brixton to Bristol, to acknowledge these things are not always rosy in Britain. As a starting point, I believe such lessons would aid cultural sensibility and allow children of all backgrounds to better understand the world around them and see how far the UK has come as a nation.
It is high time for the national curriculum to reflect the multicultural society we live in and to inspire a new generation to view Black history not solely in negative terms or in relation to the US, but in terms of the Black British identity. This is not too much of an ask, after all, much of Black history is British history. Such sentiment is shared by Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Labour Party.
I welcome Starmer’s call for change. Unfortunately, opinions like these are still shrouded in controversy and are not on the government’s agenda.
Marking the Occasion
Many companies and brands are doing their part to celebrate Black History Month in a more prominent way than ever before.
Royal Mail has unveiled four special-edition Black post-boxes around the UK with each featuring a figure of significance to the Black British community.
To kick start a month of conversation, under the hashtag #ShareBlackStories, Instagram has partnered with some of UK’s most iconic Black voices: actor Ashley Walters, author Afua Hirsch, comedian Dane Baptiste, and fashion designer Walé Adeyemi.
In terms of food, The Black Farmer brand has launched a special range of Caribbean flavour inspired sausages with a pack design that celebrates contributions of Black people/culture to the British society. Eleven supermarkets: Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons, Co-op, Aldi, Lidl, Waitrose & Partners, Budgens, and Ocado are supporting the campaign by donating in-store promotional space and a share of profits from the sausages to the Black Cultural Archives and The Mary Seacole Trust.
This Black History Month, Black culture is also being brought into focus on our screens. ITV viewers will see new programmes throughout October focusing on the contribution of Black individuals to British life and culture across a wide range of areas from literature, history and science to music, food and fashion.
Together with Metallic and other leading British artists, actors, athletes, entrepreneurs and activists, Bumble is working to better document Black people in the dating scene. To that end, a series of reflections will portray Black Love in a real and uniquely British way throughout the month of October.
Exhibitions are also being utilised to commemorate Black History Month. An exhibition entitled “Portrait of a Generation” celebrating the Caribbean community in South London will be open at Brixton Library until December. Focussing further south in London, “The Sounds of Croydon: From Samuel Coleridge-Taylor to Stormzy” exhibition is available online until 31st December and follows the stories of some of Croydon’s most successful Black musicians. British-Nigerian artist Latifat Obanigba has also worked with The Hug Support Group to present an exhibition titled “Herstory” to celebrate Black women breaking barriers and making history.
In addition, Law Firms are being active in celebrating Black History Month this year. For instance, international firms Clifford Chance and Latham & Watkins, have hosted events with prominent activists like Afua Hirsch and June Sarpong, offering audiences the opportunity to put forward their questions.
These are just some of the many opportunities to get involved in Black History Month this year, even from the comfort of home.
Such celebrations indicate that significant steps have been made to actualise Addai-Sebo’s initial vision in establishing UK Black History Month decades ago. The goal of celebrating cultural diversity is largely being achieved, though we are still yet to create the enabling cultural space he spoke of in our schools and achieve cultural harmony, with all the criticism continuously lobbied at the occasion. Considering this, Black History Month does not seem to have come far enough. Its trajectory has been slow and appears to have plateaued. 33 years on, the teaching of Black British figures as a standard in October has not occurred. Despite this, following the Black Lives Matter movement, I am optimistic that change can be made. We need only be active in ensuring that it does.