Does Black History Month still have a purpose?

by Maurice Mcleod, Chief Executive, Race on the Agenda.

Picture by Bill Bedzrah on Creative Commons

Though first observed in the United States in the 1970s, Black History Month was first celebrated in the UK in October 1987.

Taking place mainly in educational and local council institutions, the idea behind it was to give some exposure to Black historical figures who’s achievements had been previously overlooked by the existing school curriculum, that preferred instead to focus their attention on the achievements of the white English men.

So for the last 30 years, for one month of the year (October in the UK, and February in the US) tribute is paid to Black heroes of the past such as Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Nelson Mandela.

But in the second decade of the 21st century, is this celebration still relevant?

This year saw the murder of George Floyd in the US reignite the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, and fuel street protests around the world.

Though BLM started as a campaign to protest the murder of African-American men and women at the hands of the police, it has expanded into a protest about structural racism.

Thus, the protests have not just focussed on bringing charges against police officers, but also bringing down statues of Confederate generals in the US, and slave owners in the UK.

At the same time, we have seen the campaign to decolonise the curriculum gain momentum.

The Windrush Review of 2019 recommended that colonial and migration history should be taught in school. Social enterprise The Black Curriculum was a founded the same year by young people to address the lack of Black British history in the UK curriculum. Fill In the Blanks is another campaign led by students from former British colonies seeking to mandate the teaching of colonial history.

The TIDE Project (University of Liverpool) and race equality think tank, The Runnymede Trust, published a report calling on the government to make the teaching of migration, belonging, and Empire, mandatory in secondary schools, and to provide teachers with the practical support and resources necessary to equip them to teach these topics sensitively and effectively.

These organisations are not asking for more stimulating and dynamic school assemblies celebrating the lives of African-American civil rights activists. What they want is for the centuries-long presence and contribution to the UK of those from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia to be incorporated into the history curriculum 12 months of the year.

It’s not about teaching the kids more about Africa and India, but rather teaching them about how the British Empire and Colonialism led to the multi-racial Britain we see today.

Teaching of the Transatlantic Slave Trade should not just be about what happened in Africa and the Caribbean but how the massive profits of the trade helped to finance the British Empire.

Likewise, it is not good enough to celebrate the works of African-American authors like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou in October. Why aren’t Black British authors like Malorie Blackman, Zadie Smith and recent recipient of the Booker Prize Bernadine Evaristo, permanent fixtures on the English literature reading lists?

What these campaigners want is not tokenism, but genuine inclusion.

And that applies not only to the school curriculum, but modern life in multi-cultural Britain.

It is no longer enough to tell us about Arthur Wharton, the first Black man to play professional football in Britain. It is not even enough for the Football Association to put Black Lives Matter banners in stadiums. What we want the FA to address is why there are still so few Black managers in the senior leagues?

It is not enough to tell our children about the heroic efforts of Mary Seacole, the Jamaican businesswoman who provided care for British soldiers during the Crimean War. It is not even enough to erect a statue to her outside of St Thomas’ Hospital. We need to know why despite a generation of Caribbean immigrants dedicating their whole working lives to the NHS, so few of their daughters and granddaughters can reach the levels of senior management within the institution. And why those doctors and nurses of African and Asian descent seem to be infected by the Corona virus in greater numbers.

Because despite what those who jump to defend of their version British history in the fake culture wars argue, the BLM movement is not about the removal of statues of white people, to be replaced by ones of Black people. It is about structural change. We don’t just want a change in monuments; we want monumental change.

In the era of BLM, BHM seems as quaint and outdated as terrestrial TV and video recorders. In this era of Netflix and YouTube, our young people are not prepared to accept the diet of males, stale and pale we have been fed all these years. They want genuine representation, not once a month tokenism.

But while none of this is happening and so many people are growing up ignorant of true role of black people in the history of the UK, Black History Month serves as a once a year reminder. In some places, the month is the only time that black people are discussed in a historical context and so the months is still necessary – an imperfect tool to tackle an ingrained problem. When the British curriculum finally acknowledges that black history is British history, we’ll be able to put the month to rest. For now, it still has a job to do.

Ends