Author: Janett Walker – Chair Anti Racist Cumbria.
What exactly is Black History Month?
In the UK the focus of Black History Month is to celebrate contributions made to British society by black people whilst also sharing the history of black people in order to encourage a greater understanding. Throughout the month of October, schools, institutions, businesses, communities and individuals are encouraged to learn and share black history. It has grown beyond it’s origins in school and educational settings and today much information is shared online as well as on big TV campaigns and within the media, more often with the tags #blackhistorymonthuk or #blackhistorymonth. Black History spans much more than; colonialism, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the American Civil Rights Movement and there has been a shift to ensure that Black History Month focuses on the important contributors to society that we are!
Where did it start?
Black History Month has been celebrated in the UK since 1987, initially in London, instigated by Akyaaba Addai-Sebo. However it began life ‘as we know it’ in the US in the 1970s, although there had been lukewarm responses to the inclusion of teaching about the black experience from as far back as 1926. This was when historian Carter G Woodson introduced “Negro History Week” in February to mark the birthdays of abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. It is now celebrated in the US and Canada in February for this reason but in October in the UK, Netherlands and Ireland.
Why does it matter?
Black History Month matters more than ever this year. The current ‘one-sided’ version of history either never speaks of us or when it does, generally frames us as purely an oppressed people. Black History Month is an important starting point to talk openly about our shared history, highlight and celebrate black excellence and educate people. Sadly, we are still some way off the kind of representation and acknowledgement that will lead to an anti-racist society so until then Black History Month is for some people and especially children the only time they will be shown black excellence and learn about black history. When I was at school, there was no Black History Month and I’ll never know what ‘might have been’ if I and my peers (black and white) had been exposed to the myriad of role models that showed not only where we had come from but what was possible. My children’s school (and many many more) do not celebrate Black History Month at all, the majority of their black learning has to come from home. It’s not just my children that I worry about though, yes education should prepare our children to ‘succeed’ but also to be better members of multicultural societies and global citizens. The empowerment my young girls feel when they learn about Mary Seacole as well as Florence Nightingale is palpable, the spark is lit beneath them. The impact on their white friends? Nothing negative at all; just simply seeing and understanding that black people contribute to society too, and that is much more powerful than it sounds.
Are there any problems with Black History Month?
There is not a problem with Black History Month in its own right, only that some use it as an excuse to confine our representation to just one month, but whose fault is that? Black History Month’s? I think not. Importantly, we should also remember that whilst many people and organisations have been celebrating it for decades, the majority haven’t even started, especially in rural areas. There is a long way to go before we consign Black History Month to the history books. The real goal is for proper representation and acknowledgement in all walks of life, starting in education. Perhaps once that has been achieved (and we will know whether it has been when our economic and social advancement is the same as all other races in British society) then we can reassess its need, until then…see it as a kick start but not a solution. Our Race & Education Event is attempting to redress the balance in Black History Month and beyond right here in Cumbria, find out more about it here.
How could I celebrate Black History Month?
There are so many ways! I would always recommend educating yourself first, why not attend some of the many events that are on, read new books, immerse yourself in black history! Black excellence is a wonderful place to start; our contributions extend beyond our sporting and entertainment prowess (though these should not be overlooked!) and take in just as wide and varied range of successes as anyone! From life changing science and computing, to inventors, mathematicians, poets, writers, politicians, activists, architects, war heroes, police officers and more. The list is endless.
LEARN | SHARE | DISCUSS
Share your learnings on your social media pages, talk to other people about what you find out. If you’re an educator check out some of the brilliant resources below and discuss these with your pupils. Pupils and Teachers can even share your BHM plans with The Guardian! Try listening to new music, eating new foods and discovering about where they came from, and of course meeting new people! Why not set yourself a challenge? To discover a new fact about Black History or black excellence each day. Perhaps challenge yourself to answer how many black inventors can you name at the beginning of the month vs how many you can name at the end? In the picture above…can you name everyone and what they do? When were the photos chosen for our BHM header picture taken? Why are they important? Why not make it your mission to find out!
Where can I find more?
Famival – a free online event full of childrens activities and fun
Watch Hidden Figures
Black History Month UK