• Mabel Osejindu

Black History Month

This October is the annual celebration of Black History Month. Starting in 1915, 50 years after the 13th amendment that abolished slavery in the United States of America, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History was founded by Carter G. Woodson, a black historian trained at Harvard University. He decided to promote the study of African American History. In February 1926, Woodson initiated the celebration of ‘Negro History Week’, which was later expanded to include the entire month of February in the U.S. to be ‘Black History Month’ as we know it today. However, here in the UK in the 1980s, race relations between citizens soured following the unrest from ongoing police brutality on young Black British men and women and economic hardship. This stirred up something in activist and community campaigner, Akyaaba Addai-Sebo in the mid-’80s. In 1987, he conceived an annual celebration of the contributions of Africa, Africans and people of African descent to world civilisation, every October. The premise was to create an enabling cultural space in the UK celebratory calendar where children could learn more about African history that was not present on the school curriculum and form their own Black identity rooted in Africaness and Britishness too. But why the month of October you may wonder? Well, that particular period of the year was thought to be the best month when the weather was not cold, children were fresh after the long summer vacation and had less or no examinations and therefore, would engage more effectively with the subject of history.

Black History Month is even more crucial given the recent #BlackLivesMatter campaign for all voices to be heard around the world which has galvanised many individuals and organisations to educate themselves about Black history and culture as part of understanding institutional racism and standing in solidarity against it. There are some stand out platforms and websites out there seeking to raise awareness of the Black experience and educate others on Black History (much of which has been unknown till recent times!)

Currently, some UK Schools mark Black History Month with a variety of school-based lessons and activities every October but it is by no way compulsory, mandatory or statutory in the written curriculum of primary or secondary schools in a committed manner. This year Black History Month’s official website has created a national Black History Month resource pack to support organisations and help them facilitate and promote Black History Month 2021 and celebrate the enormous contribution Black Britons have made to our vibrant and diverse society. You can also subscribe to the BiM Proud to Be newsletter too. For those who studied in the UK, you may most likely remember learning about King Henry VIII, World War I and the Nazi Regime but how many of us know that Black people have been living in Britain since Georgian times around 1714 or that many Black men and women fought alongside the British in World War I and II as part of the Commonwealth? Do we know the names of the heroic soldiers who sacrificed themselves at war or the names of those who were pioneering workers from the Windrush generation of West Indian men, women and children who served in healthcare, education, mining, construction, hospitality, business and manufacturing? Would we be where we are without them opening the doors before us? These are some of the exact questions, SOAS student and campaigner, Lavinya Stennett, pondered on and thereby created, ‘The Black Curriculum’ in 2019. Intended to be a social enterprise that aims to deliver the importance of Black British history all across the UK through a range of virtual and in-person, contextualised programmes to schools, young people and corporations, the Black Curriculum aims to provide and continue to develop free and licensable resources for schools to teach students about Black History and consequently, prepare students to become fully rounded citizens in an increasingly globalised world. According to Stennett, a widespread initiative like this would help to dismantle racial biases and prejudices while also gifting young people with a sense of identity/ belonging and improving racial relations in communities, in what could better be labelled as ‘diversity month’. Similar to the works of the Black Curriculum is ‘The World Reimagined Project’, a ground-breaking, mass participation art-education project to transform how we as people, communities and society understand the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its impact. Next year though, Wales is to become the first UK nation to make the teaching of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) histories and experiences mandatory in the school curriculum which is GREAT news!

ITV has led the way for British broadcasting and television corporations to use the month of October to celebrate the contribution of Black people to television, comedy, history and our wider culture in specially commissioned programmes and documentaries. All Black History Month content is available on ITV Hub, along with new programmes including Will.i.am’s “The Blackprint” which seeks to explore what it means to be Black and British, the incredible drama series, “Stephen”, released last month, David Harewood-presented film “In the Shadow of Mary Seacole” and “Martin Luther King” by Trevor McDonald. Not to mention Alison Hammond’s ‘Back to School’ documentary which sees Alison explore and travel the length and breadth of Britain to key historical sites like Hadrian’s Wall and Hampton Court; unveiling overlooked early Black figures throughout the ages such as Tudor trumpeter to Henry VIII around 1501, John Blanke and Roman Emperor and warrior, Septimius Severus in 208 AD Britain! Watching it really opened my eyes to a new perspective on our country’s past and some crucial gaps in the teaching of Black British history in schools.

Channel 4 also have their own division of “Black and Proud” programmes with educational shows like Jermaine Jenas’ “Hunting the Football Trolls”, following rising online abuse of Black football players, and Rochelle Humes’ “The Black Maternity Scandal”. BBC has re-released some of their Black History Month programmes such as British-Nigerian historian, David Olusoga’s insightful ‘Black and British: A Forgotten History’ documentary. Based on the corresponding book, Olusoga strives to document in much detail the history of Britain’s involvement with Black people from Tudor London to the onset of slavery and the present day, which does not only refuse to skew over British imperial duplicity but exposes the unpalatable and often horrid acts of colonisers and slave masters while too refocusing on heroic figures such as Francis Barber and the abolitionists, Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano. CBBC also have series of Black Stories where children are encouraged to open up about their Black Superheroes: https://www.bbc.co.uk/cbbc/curations/black-history-month.

Furthermore, you can follow the activities and campaigns run by the “Black Cultural Archives” (Uncovering the hidden histories of Britain’s Black Heritage) on their Facebook page and the efforts of Arts and Heritage Consultant, Sandra Shakespeare, in the development of the UK’s first ‘Black British Museum’ on Twitter. This does not take away the admirable work of the history and community museum without walls, “The National Caribbean Heritage Museum,” which was created by founder Catherine Ross to celebrate and commemorate the Caribbean contribution to the UK through art, music, performance and much more in their exhibition events.

The impact of Great Black Britons 100 Great Black Britons has become one of the most successful campaigns to raise the profile, history, and achievements of Britons of African and Caribbean descent over the last 1,000 years which can be purchased here, https://www.amazon.co.uk/Great-Black-Britons-Patrick-Vernon/dp/1472144309 and information also accessible here to: https://100greatblackbritons.com/. It lists extraordinary talents like Malorie Blackman, Naomi Campbell, Olaudah Equiano and Mo Farah.

Future Learn have a 6-week fantastic course available on the little-known history of “Black Tudors”, involving only 4 hours of weekly study. Based on Miranda Kaufmann’s acclaimed 2017 book Black Tudors: The Untold Story, the course will take you on a vivid tour through the fascinating lives of Africans living in Tudor and early Stuart England by studying how Africans lived, worked, married, and died in English society before colonialism and enslavement: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/black-tudors.

The Runnymede Trust is a source and organisation striving diligently for race equality in the UK. It was founded in 1968 by Jim Rose and Anthony Lester as an independent source for generating intelligence for a multi-ethnic Britain through research, network building, leading debate and policy engagement. The Runnymede Trust continues to work tirelessly to represent the lives of those millions of Britons who constitute this country’s Black and ethnic minority communities. Their authoritative research-based interventions assist practitioners, citizens and policy-makers, across the political spectrum, to achieve genuine racial equity in Britain, most notably through their “Ethnicity, Race and Inequality: State of the Nation (2020)” publication.

There are so many great ways we can all learn more; I could say go on and on and say go and see "The Black Culture Market” in Brixton, the first-ever “Culture Kitchen” in association with the LevelUP Foundation and Black History Month book collections at the iconic British Library in person and online. I wish everyone an insightful and happy Black History month in the knowledge that awareness of our grand history is the pathway to greater equality, understanding and progress. What are you doing this Black History Month? Post, comment and let us know!

Connect with Mabel HERE