Where Now for Black History Month?

Est. read time: 10 min
"African Diaspora" by beautifulcataya (Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“African Diaspora” by beautifulcataya (Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Most every year at this time, a debate ensues about the purpose, merits and direction of Black History Month (BHM), a debate fuelled in the main by frustration about the focus of BHM programmes over the preceding four weeks. 

On Thursday 31 October 2013, some 1,000 people gathered at the Church of Christ the Redeemer in Allenbury Road, Greenford, for the funeral of the publisher and political activist Jessica Huntley and to acknowledge and celebrate her distinctive contribution to British schooling, British social history and Black History over the last half a century.

One of the many educational and inspirational events Jessica organized and contributed to in the period before her death was a debate in November 2012 about ‘the way forward for Black History Month in the UK’.  On 22 February 2013, Nubian Jak organized a symposium at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden, London, on a proposal for an annual ‘African Heritage Month International‘ celebration in February.  On February 23rd, the 8th Huntley Conference was held at the London Metropolitan Archives. This also marked Jessica’s 86th birthday and turned out to be her last conference.

I was unable to contribute to the Huntley debate but wrote this paper for the Africa Centre symposium.  I reproduce it here because among the very many discussions that took place around Jessica’s funeral about the many projects she was actively involved with up to the day before she passed on, was one about her take on the future of Black History Month.

Another reason is that the African community in the Midlands debated ‘the Future of Black History Month’ on Sunday 27th October as part of the Chatback programme on BBC Local Radio to mark BHM. The programme asked the question:  ‘Is this the end of Black History Month as we know it?’. On the basis of answers from the panel in their studio and calls and messages from listeners, the ‘Chatback crew created ‘The Chatback Manifesto on Black History Month’.

I trust that this article, ‘Making History by Reclaiming Black History’, will help us to have a more informed and nuanced debate about the nature, focus and timing of Black History Month.

Please read and comment if you wish to join the debate in the comments section below!

Making History by Reclaiming Black History

This short paper is my contribution to the ongoing debate about the future of Black History Month (BHM) in the UK. It is in response to the ‘Position Paper’ written by Nubian Jack for discussion at the meeting on African History Month International at the Africa Centre, Covent Garden, London, on 22 February 2013.

Nubian Jak has provided a useful potted history of the origins and development of BHM in Britain, a story that even after 25 years is unfamiliar to many.

During the last 25 years, much has happened that in my view calls into question the provenance and trajectory of BHM, thus making it necessary for us to question our connectedness with it and how we are fashioning it for the current and future generations in the same way that the early pioneers laid the foundations for us.

In no particular order, I would highlight the following developments in the last century, some of which have served as an ocean liner’s anchor to bed down BHM to the point of ossification:

a) The growth in size and diversity of the Global African Diaspora (GAD) in the UK, constituting the historical Diaspora (people of African heritage from the Caribbean and elsewhere, descendants of enslaved Africans), Africans from the continent who have long had an active presence in Britain (since the nineteenth century), Africans from the continent who in the last 30 years have come to Britain in increasing numbers (as economic migrants, as skilled professionals, as students and researchers, as refugees and asylum seekers);

b) The growth of a sizeable portion of the GAD youth population in the UK who have little real knowledge of one another and their origins, but who constitute a modern, mainly urban, vibrant section of those shaping the future of Britain into the next millennium;

c) The decision of the African Union in 2003 to constitute the GAD the Sixth Region of Africa and the implications of that for the GAD in the UK and elsewhere;

d) The implications of that for regional entities such as OECS, CARICOM, ECOWAS, SADEC, etc. and the relationship between member states within and between these regions and how their nationals and citizens see themselves and one another;

e) The issue of Aid versus Trade and the agreements, policies and practices of donor countries and multilateral agencies that set up trade restrictions that are in their interests, thus sustaining poverty in developing countries (Africa and the Caribbean especially), while plying them with aid and deepening their dependency upon foreign handouts;

f) The implications of that for how the GAD organizes itself to become engaged with the development of Africa, starting with a comprehensive skills database and a focus on economic engagement underpinned by a culture of corporate ethics;

g) The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 and the General Duty it placed upon public bodies to:

– promote equal opportunities;

– eliminate unlawful discrimination;

– promote good relations between people of different racial groups.

The consequent and often cynical efforts made by such bodies once a year in October to organize programmes that enable them to tick boxes and demonstrate evidence of compliance with the Act, while at the same time:

• limiting equal employment and career progression for black staff;

• excluding or institutionally discriminating against black students and keeping African heritage people marginalized;

• seeing ‘race’ and the oppression of racism as entirely separate from other forms of oppression, and the anti-racist movement as having no connection to other social movements (disability, women, LGBT, etc), as if race, gender, disability and sexuality, do not coalesce and combine into a single identity for black people who are disabled, women, lesbian or gay, etc. and who live their lives holistically;

The fact that the above approach is evident in relation to public bodies’ approach to compliance with the Public Sector Equality Duty of the Equality Act 2010

h) The tendency of such bodies to pick and choose the Black History they recognize and validate and even what they would allow their staff, black or otherwise, to showcase and celebrate;

i) Their tendency to ignore or re-write the history African heritage people in Britain have made in the post-War period, including struggles against their very own policies and institutional practices, thereby failing to assist black children and all children in understanding political events and social movements for equity and justice in their own lifetime;

j) The extent of our complicity in all that;

k) Our own tendency to treat Black History as ‘dead’ history, treat key figures in Black History as icons and dust them off and present them without establishing any connection between the history they made and the relevance of that to our time, to our contemporary struggles and to our state of consciousness;

l) The fact that the history we have made through our presence in the UK even in the last 60 years and the impact we have made on the British social, political and economic landscape has been largely airbrushed out of the British social history narrative, and that consequently neither that expanding GAD population in the UK nor their counterparts of other ethnicities have any knowledge or understanding of much of that history, or of how they must record, interpret and attend to the history they themselves are making;

m) The fact that information technology provides a multiplicity of platforms for accessing, recording, sharing and teaching about Black History;

Against that background, the question arises:

What good does it do to encourage the treatment of Black History as if it is organic to the way British institutions and people function, the way history is taught, portrayed and understood by the society, and as if we as African people claim and respect a common heritage?

What are the values that bind us together as a Global African Diaspora? How can we affirm and encourage and empower our communities to live those values such that we build an identity that is based not just on the fact that we share a common heritage and common pigmentation, notwithstanding its increasingly diluted state?

To what extent do we ourselves sanitize ‘Black History’ and project African heritage people in that history as victims of the barbarism of Empires (Roman, Ottoman, British and Western European) within identifying and seeking to understand the barbarism that has characterized historic and contemporaneous conflicts and civil wars within Africa and among Africans ourselves?

What connection, if any, do we establish between the struggle for African liberation and the global struggle for human liberation?

Were we to attend to all the above issues, we might just decide that even if we make February rather than October the month in which we focus our and the nation’s attention on Black History, that month must mark the beginning of a programme that runs each month until the following February, especially in schooling and education and in all of those organizations that currently plan their annual October BHM programme.

The ‘month’ could therefore be a time for showcasing and debating what was done to promote, understand and apply ‘Black History’ during the preceding 12 months, the pitfalls and challenges encountered, the gains and advances made and the good practice to be shared.

That programme must prioritize and address the urgent need to inform and educate the current generation of the Global African Diaspora in Britain and everyone else, especially white Britons, about:

• the interconnectedness of our histories;

• the impact of Britain and Europe on the history and evolution of the societies from which the Black Presence in Britain originated;

• the history, development and contemporary life and challenges of the countries represented by the GAD in the UK;

• the place of culture (including visual and performing arts, sport, literature, archives) in depicting that history;

• the key events in the history of each of those countries (and of our presence in Britain) that could be commemorated each month and that can help to grow an understanding of those countries and their relationship to the rest of Africa and the world (independence struggles; post-independence and anti- neocolonialist struggles; the growth of the labour movement; key advances of the social movements that had led and sustained those struggles);

• events in the social history that the GAD has made in Britain in the last century and the way we have altered the landscape of this country;

• the implications (social/cultural, political, economic, governance, border control, residency, citizenship) of the AU Sixth Region project;

• the implications of all that for how we enhance the self-love, self-belief and sense of purpose of young people in the GAD in the UK and reclaim them from a mindset of hopelessness and from prison and grave;

• the implications of all that for how we celebrate ourselves and our advances, learn from our defeats and empower ourselves to claim, safeguard and extend the rights that generations before us won;

• the implications of all that for how we organize and mobilize to ensure that we do not remain a marginalized, non- politicized, consumer class with no economic power of our own and acting perennially as if we are afraid of our own power.

If we did this, we would reconfigure Black History Month in the context of our generation, according to the challenges of our time, thus making it relevant and meaningful.

Each generation makes its own history, even as it stands in the history of those who went before it. To paraphrase Fanon:

Each age has its own part to play in its destiny, its own mark to leave on time. Each generation has its own mission to fulfil or betray.

Were we to recast Black History Month in the manner I propose, it might just enable us to provide tangible evidence of making our mark and fulfilling our mission in this generation, thus adding to Black History. If we fail to grasp this particular nettle, history itself will find us wanting.

Picture (home): “African Flag Day” by woodleywonderworks (Flickr)

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2 Comments on "Where Now for Black History Month?"

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Toyin Agbetu
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Thank you Prof Gus John for sharing this vision for BHM. I looked at the ‘Chatback Manifesto on Black History Month’ and agreed with its proposed directions. However your contribution here offered what can best be described as an essential program for growth explaining the why’s as well as the hows. Your reference to our young people and our duty to recast the month as a yearlong season with an evaluation and strategic planning phase grabbed my attention in a way many well meaning speakers on this subject have failed. Unless our generation succeed in our mission, we condemn and… Read more »
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