Why Black History Month Matters

10 10 19

“Black History = History” – Akala

Black History Month is a celebration which showcases the many accomplishments black people have made in Britain. For many of us, it provides the impetus to overcome the many barriers we face, in addition to providing positive depictions of black people that detract away from harmful stereotypes we’re subject to. Figures including Anthony Joshua, Charlene White and Diane Abbott exemplify just that – black people from traditional working-class backgrounds who dominate their field. This isn’t to say the people aforementioned are exempt from structural racism (far from it), but their presence in white-dominated professions show young black people from similar upbringings are just as capable of excelling in whatever career path they choose.

Historian and Broadcaster David Olusoga said it best in his assertion that black history is taught in isolation from wider, global processes. We’re taught about the industrial revolution but not about the cotton processed in mills made by 1.8 million enslaved Africans thousands of miles away. It’s a history that’s covered inadequately in schools, but it’s important for everyone to understand what’s deemed as “black history” has helped shape the modern world we live in today. As such, BHM provides a basis to understand the darker periods in our collective past, in addition to recognising that black history is vital for all to learn.

“Black history is not limited to slavery” – Kehinde Andrews

Black History Month is the perfect opportunity to learn about the rich history, language and cultures of various African and Caribbean cultures in the UK. We account for 3.3% of the population but what’s known about us, our history and our worth is often limited to slavery. Black history precedes and extends beyond slavery and our influence in shaping culture in modern-day Britain is palpable; slang from Jamaica patois is the backbone of Multicultural London English (MLE), and Afrowave – a fusion of hip-hop, dancehall and Afrobeats –  continues to dominate music charts. In essence, BHM provides a gateway to understand how different cultural frameworks inform multicultural Britain today.

“We need to talk about political blackness” – Melissa Owusu

Black History Month matters more than ever as the achievements and contributions black people have made in shaping society risks being forgotten. We’re seeing this right now with the rebranding of Black History Month in schools, local councils and organisations across the UK to include a vast array of ethnic and cultural groups. Wandsworth Council has reinvented BHM to “Diversity Month” which celebrates the “learning together about the many and varied experiences and cultures within our borough”. Kent University heralded Zayn Malik and London Mayor Sadiq Khan as leaders in the black community. This was met with backlash on social media, with the university apologising for “not getting it right”. I champion diversity – inclusion even more so – but grouping together people of colour as if we’re one big monolith erases our varied experiences. Though many of us share a history of colonialism, our stories are not the same. The experiences of the Windrush generation differs from that of other communities, and our contributions to UK social and economic life should be treated as such. Therefore, we should do more to champion cultural events which celebrate the accomplishments of other people of colour.

“Why don’t we have a white history month?! 😡” – Too many people to quote from

Black History Month divides opinion. For some, it’s a celebration of Britain’s ever-changing landscape but for others, the very concept of having an entire month dedicated to the achievements and contributions black people have made in the UK and globally is separatist and racist but that’s a conversation for another day. This blog explains why Black History Month matters, and why we should continue to champion it.

It’s great, but it could be better 

Despite BHM’s fixture in our cultural calendar, it’s far from perfect. Growing up, I found it incredibly frustrating learning about the legacy of slavery in the US, and the civil rights movement year after year, but almost nothing about a historical equivalent in the UK. Even now, I know more about American history compared to British History – even less so about black British history! Stories such as the Windrush scandal generated outcry, but it provided a teachable moment that explained clearly how British-Caribbeans helped rebuild the country after the Second World War. It’s a story that’s seldom told but it shouldn’t take a national scandal in order for that to happen. Black History Month creates a space where we can tell these stories openly. There’s still a long way to go but opening up the conversation is, perhaps, the only way to overcome historical revisionism and generate understanding.


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