This month will see numerous events and initiatives take place across Britain to raise awareness of the contri- bution of black people to the world. While America and Canada celebrate black history month in February, it is held in October in the UK to coincide with the start of the school year as a means of instilling pride and identity in young black learners.
However the election of Barack Obama, increasing success of black entertainers and athletes as well as the multicultural society has led many to question its relevance.
Black history month originated in America as Negro history week and was pioneered by Dr Carter G woodson. Mr Woodson spent his childhood working in a coal mines before enrolling in high school at the age of 20. He graduated in two years and went on to gain a doctorate degree in history.
During his study he came to realise that the contributions of black people “were overlooked and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them”. He believed that racial prejudice was “the inevitable outcome of through instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind”.
As a result he dedicated his life to the study of black history with the aim of shattering this illusion.
Many believe that black history month still serves that purpose. British comedian Linda Bellos was involved in the UK movement to bring the celebration to this country is of that opinion.
“This (Black History month) was [to be] about what we had contributed to this country. And personally, having grown up here soon after the war, I had seen very little reflection of African or Asian people in the history of the country. I didn’t see it even on 11 November when people commemorate the war. Where were the West Indian ex-servicemen? We had to fight for them to be there. It was as though our grand- parents hadn’t come.”
“The issue of black history month in Britain is that we’re part of British culture, but without it we are ignored and our stories don’t get told. So this is an opportunity for us to look at our own”.
Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates says that Black history has been “very effective” in “resurrecting the stories of our ancestors and in integrating those stories into our history”. He argues that it must be continued until people are as familiar with the achievements of the likes of Harriet Tubman as they are of American patriot Paul Revere and other western heroes.
Nonetheless, there are many who do not see the value of black history month. London mayor Boris Johnson seems to one such person; he dramatically slashed the black history month budget from £132,000 to £10,000 and axed the Africa day grant of £100,000 in order to fund a USA Day.
Although it was claimed that this done to increase tourism, many people believing that it was an act of marginal- ising black culture.
Still many people believe that black history month is unnecessary. In 2005 Actor Morgan Freeman famously declared the concept “ridiculous” explaining that black history should be part of general history rather than being limited to a month.
There are also those who cite the fact that there is not a white history month and that it should be abolished in tribute to our integrated society.
What is most alarming for some is the fact that many black people, particularly young people are not interested in studying or celebrating their history as UK Hip-Hop artist Akala explains;
“Unfortunately there is massive ignorance amongst black people toward our own history. We only take Chinese culture seriously because they take it seriously,
because they treat it with so much pride and adulation it forces a certain respect from other groups
In this climate it would probably be more difficult as a teacher of African history to go into a class of young black kids than it would be to go into a school full of white kids. You would get more respect from the white kids
As long as we (black people) operate in a fragmented, dis-unified manner no one will take black people or black history seriously”
This is an interesting point and it is difficult to deny the importance of gaining an understanding of our history and culture. As mainstream history, television and society as a whole represents the successes of white people, it is important that black people gain an appreciation of their ancestor’s achievements.
Perhaps the way that black history is taught and the concept of black history month itself needs to evolve. Today, mainstream black history seems to start at slavery, continue on to the civil rights movement before conveniently ending with President Obama’s election. It often seems to indicate that the struggle is over when in truth there is much work still to be done.
Black people are disproportionately poor in the UK and across the world. In the UK black boys are seven times more likely to be jailed than their white counterparts and are far regularly stopped and searched. Several black men have died in suspicious circumstances in Police custody this year and black people are still extremely fragmented as a community.
If black history month was used as a platform to deal with these issues and create brighter futures for the youth rather than as an annual ritual, maybe it would command the respect it deserves.