Black History Month (BHM) is held every October in Britain. The aims are to: Promote knowledge of Black History and experience, disseminate information on positive Black contributions to British Society and heighten the confidence and awareness of Black people in their cultural history. Ever since the 1970’s, African history, art and culture has been celebrated by African Britons in the Diaspora. Whether the vehicle was Berry Edwards or Eric and Jessica Huntley ‘Caribbean week’ or Alex Pascall’s ‘Black Londoners’ programme on the BBC, our story was finally being told.
Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, a special projects officer for the former Greater London Council, after speaking to black teenagers, discovered that they were reluctant to have anything to do with or identify with Africa. Akyaaba felt this was due to the negative representation of Africans in the media, and the many and distorted images about Africa.
In 1986 and 1987, Akyaaba with the backing of several other people organised key events that established the trend for African History Month. These included serious debates about the African contribution to civilisation with leading U.S. historians. In 1987 the race unit was moved to the London Strategic Policy Unit. Symbolically this year also marked 150 years of the end of slavery.
Prior to the demise of the GLC, and in a drive to improve racial harmony in London, councillors passed a declaration that put Black History Month in October. As a result the UK’s first Black History Month event took place as part of the African Jubilee Year 1987-88 celebrations organised by the former London Strategic Policy Unit.
The event was a success. In response, the then Association of London Authorities later endorsed BHM as an annual event leading to its official recognition on the cultural calendars of all London boroughs and several Metropolitan and City Councils around the country; providing financial support every year.
The late Len Garrison, one of the founder members of the Black Cultural Archives (BCA), then historically went on to say “Remember what we inherit today has been won with bloodshed and sacrifice by others yesterday”.
Current History books still serve particular imperialist purposes as elements of world history distorted by authors’ myopic views centred around global interaction with Europe and Europeans. African American historian John Henrik Clarke commented that, ‘to control a people you must first control what they think about themselves and how they regard their history and culture. And when your conqueror makes you ashamed of your culture and your history, he needs no prison walls and no chains to hold you.’
The majority of Africans in the Diaspora still suffer a lack of knowledge of self and our past and as a result suffer from cultural disinheritance. Historically this has lead to the internalisation and feelings of an inferiority complex, which are a direct result of becoming caricatures and an inferior subset of the human race in the body of Western thought.
BHM seeks to restore an integral element of British History, which has been ignored and denied in the creation of racist mythologies. The need to continuously educate, enrich and challenge the content and construction of conventional history is essential in the drive to eradicate inaccurate views of world history.
Nowhere else in the world does Black History include the celebration of other cultures’ history that is not of African (and Caribbean) Origin. The British approach to Black History Month may be seen as inclusive to many, but to me it effectively challenges and undermines the reason why Black History Month was initially conceived. This urbanisation of Black History Month represents the watering down and marginalisation of our history and significant contribution to British society post and pre the Windrush.
In the USA, Black means anybody that is of African heritage; usually referring to Africans, African-Americans, Caribbean and African South Americans and those who identify with the Black experience but may be of dual heritage. No one else! Blacks in Britain have to accept footnote politics in that the definition of Black has to be explained on most public documents aimed at the so called target group. It’s laughable, but a fact of British politics. It’s no wonder African-Americans don’t take us seriously as a community. It’s no wonder they are confused when the come to UK Black History events only to find that the History being discussed has nothing to do with the African Diaspora experience.
It’s easy to blame the local authorities and national government, and mainstream for this state of affairs. But in reality, misguided Black politicians of the late 1970’s with strong socialist tendencies created a situation where Black political and socio-historical contributions to the United Kingdom have been marginalised, recast and re-labelled as an urban contribution to the delight of organisations and policy makers that have no interest in accepting the term Black, let alone the contribution of Blacks in the United Kingdom before the arrival of the Windrush and after!
Despite the image of a multi-cultural Britain, most non-African or African ethnic groups continue to show antipathy to Blacks in Britain when their political interests are not part of the agenda. In fact the label Black is losing its political currency and is gradually regaining its pariah status, describing people of African descent who have been defrocked, disempowered and cast aside. It is frowned upon when not used to describe other people who are not traditionally considered Black. The term Black has been exchanged for Urban, and no longer can Blacks in Britain call themselves Black in a positive context, or even talk about Black music – Urban music is preferred. Blacks in Britain can just about call themselves Black. But make no mistake if we mess up we are gladly reminded we are Black by the very communities that call themselves Black, but are essentially from other ethnic and cultural origins that are very removed from the African Diasporic experience.
Just like the Notting Hill Carnival, the unconscious, the ill informed and the misguided and other ethnic minority groups have hijacked Black History Month. This suits the powers that be because rather than accepting that each minority group has a different experience they would rather adopt a blanket approach to celebrating Black History Month as opposed to issues that uniquely affect the African and African-Caribbean communities in Britain.
The consequences are clear, the concept and reasoning behind Black history has shifted so that Black in Britain means any one that experiences oppression, including the Irish, Greeks, Turks, Kurds, Arabs. That’s all very well, but in reality it is Africans and African Caribbean that are at the bottom of the social and economical pile as other communities and local and National government agencies are quick to remind us.
In essence, perhaps Black History Month should be called African History Month and be seen as a daily experience as opposed to some state handout that Blacks in Britain should be grateful to accept. Sadly, It has taken no less that 18 years for the application of Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s concept in Britain to move from African History, to Black History Month, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes Multicultural History Month before being called Urban History Month, to no celebrations at all.
In 1926, nearly eighty years after the inception and celebration of Black History celebrations in North America and the Caribbean, the original target group Africans in the Diaspora as defined by Dr. Carter G. Woodson is clear and hasn’t changed. Neither is there any confusion about who is Black and why these celebrations exist.
In Britain however, the political and social resistance to a strictly African Diasporia by other ethnic minority groups and the wider community has meant that it has taken less than twenty years for other ethnic minority groups to encroach, reshape and redefine the event. African related history as part of the Black History Month celebration is becoming increasingly marginalised by these groups, eager to assert their historical agenda. However, they must not be allowed to assert their socio-political history agenda under the Black history banner.
Black history should remain Black; anything else is nonsense. The question we need to ask is this: Would Asians, Jews, Hindus or other minority groups allow Africans to intrude on their cultural celebrations? No way! When Blacks in Britain try and celebrate anything that is specific to the Black community, they have the nerve to call it reverse racism. Yet if Blacks wanted to get involved in a Diwali, Mela, Hanukah or St. Patrick’s Day event there is often serious opposition from these so called non-African communities’ religious and political leaders.
Social groups that are far removed from the Black experience have hijacked the British version of Black History Month. That hasn’t happened in the USA where there is no confusion about race or cultural identity. The USA really does allow you to celebrate who you are in a very undiluted manner. It’s a situation that is clearly understood and respected. Besides African Americans would never allow anyone who is not Black to call themselves Black. People of colour may be! Black! I really don’t think so.
There is no way that would ever happen in the USA, the boundaries are too clearly defined. No one has a monopoly on history. Other groups can celebrate Black History Month, but they should not be allowed to slip their cultural nuances into the equation, to the point that the only thing Black about Black History Month is the title!
We must regain ideological control of African History. Blacks in Britain must prevail in Black History Month celebrations. If Blacks in Britain are not careful they will have nothing left to celebrate! I put it to the readers in no uncertain terms that if the current state of affairs continues, that is; allowing other groups to determine how Black history is celebrated, Blacks in Britain will have a greater affinity with Kebabs, Somosas and Saris than Reggae, Rice and Peas and Steel Bands!