Exeter, Devon UK • May 18, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
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The importance of Black History Month

Features editor Catherine Stone overviews the history of Black History Month and the event's significance in the cultural and educational calendar, outlining key projects and books, and considering its impact and criticisms.
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The importance of Black History Month

Image: Paulina Milde-Jachowska via Unsplash. Statue “The Celebration”- a tribute to three pioneers & football icons that battled discrimination- Cyrille Regis, Brendon Batson and Laurie Cunningham.

Features Editor Catherine Stone overviews the history of Black History Month and the event’s significance in the cultural and educational calendar, outlining key projects and books, and considering its impact and criticisms.

Black History Month has gained traction over the last 40 years, being celebrated by museums, libraries, community groups, schools and universities as well as in media and the arts. It is focused on increasing the awareness and visibility of black history and recognizing it an intrinsic part of modern Western history. 2022 Black History Month is the event’s 30th anniversary in the UK – the theme is ‘Time for Change: Actions not Words’ and emphasizes the importance of building a just and sustainable future of racial equality.

Black History Month was the manifestation of the desire to reclaim this history and ensure its recognition for current and future generations.

The history of Africa and people of African descent has been disrespected, misrepresented, and suppressed for centuries. The dominant Western narrative of history has been overwhelmingly focused on Europe and North America, to the exclusion of global histories. Even within these narratives, the contributions of black people to the West have been minimized or ignored. Black History Month was the manifestation of the desire to reclaim this history and ensure its recognition for current and future generations.

Originally founded in the US in the 1920’s by historian Carter G. Woodson, Black History Month built on previous historical writing on Africa and the African diaspora, such as the work of historian J. A Rogers (1880- 1966), who challenged ideas of black inferiority and highlighted the importance of black ‘Great Men’ throughout history.

Erasing history entails erasing part of identity because the actions, experiences and beliefs of ancestors informs collective and individual identity. Over generations, a distinctly African-American culture has formed past the emancipation of 1863 and racial segregation. American Black History month, celebrated in February, has been both a part and a reflection of this history – growing and changing though the Civil Rights movement and gaining official recognition in 1976 during Gerald Ford’s administration.

Political and cultural decolonisation had led to a greater understanding of the deeply damaging effects of British colonialism

In the UK, Black History Month began in 1987, coordinated by Akyaaba Addai-Sebo in conjunction with the African Jubilee Year Declaration that called for greater recognition of black history and an end to racism and marginalisation. Political and cultural decolonisation had led to a greater understanding of the deeply damaging effects of British colonialism. The large-scale immigration from former colonies from 1948, facilitated by the government to fill labour shortages, changed Britain significantly. The Windrush generation – 500,000 current UK residents born in Africa or the Caribbean and settled in Britain before the 1971 Immigration Act – helped build the foundation of modern Britain, performing essential work in fields such as transport and healthcare. The 2018 scandal of deportation threats has proved how far a lack of recording and commemoration of minority history directly leads to reduced importance in the eyes of government and the public.

The focus on increasing recognition of black historical figures and trailblazers, movements and communities has resulted in greater public consciousness. Organisations such as the British Black Panthers, Black Power and Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) and events like the Bristol Bus Boycott have become better understood as distinct from their American counterpoints. The Great Black Britons project of 2003, relaunched in 2019 further brought to attention figures such as Olaudah Equiano and Mary Seacole, whose achievements in slavery abolition and nursing have historically been overshadowed by significant white figures.

Public history such as statues, plaques, memorials and school curriculum coverage forms part of historical memory, which is a continuous and ongoing process. Mary Seacole’s story has been included in school curriculums and a statue was erected outside St. Thomas’ hospital. The absence of these memorials for black figures reinforces the perception of their insignificance, which is why projects to address the literal visibility of black history are so important. As part of David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History documentary, plaques have been put up at significant sites in black British history, from to a legionnaire regiment stationed in Roman Britain, to Francis Barber, a homeowning Georgian, and beyond.

To be productive, the month should be just part of the wider movement to integrate black history into British society and actively inform the future of the UK, never losing sight of the personal experiences that our country is built on.

The reach of Black History Month has been steadily expanding, with increasing institutional participation. It has come into renewed focus following the protests against systematic racism around the world two years ago again reminding us that to change the understanding of the past is to change the present and future.

The concept has come under criticism of superficiality however, with the focus on individuals criticised for reducing nuanced historical figures to objects to be worshipped without considering the wider historical contexts. Some, such as Morgan Freeman, have questioned the usefulness of restricting the study of black history to only one month, believing it to lend itself to institutional tokenism, where discussions are only held in October and no meaningful action is taken.

To be productive, the month should be just part of the wider movement to integrate black history into British society and actively inform the future of the UK, never losing sight of the personal experiences that our country is built on.

History books

Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World 1471 to the Second World War by Howard W French is a rigorous scholarly treatment of African history that is revisionist history at its most powerful. French centres Africa in the narrative of modernity, thus countering the dominating narratives of ‘rise of the West’ by investigating the African side of the story – a story of wealthy Empires, innovation and extensive trade.

Black and British by David Olusoga traces the history of black people in Britain in pioneering research that sifts through archives and archaeological sites to reveal evidence of their presence and impact. Through this established historical line, black Britishness can be seen as intrinsic rather than purely modern.

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala is a piercing examination of key forgotten history and important biographical account of black Britishness. Akala expertly ties together history and personal experience to expose the reality of systematic injustice in Britain, while eloquently picking apart racist narratives and arguments.

Fiction

How Long ‘til Black Future Month? by N.K Jemisin is a collection of Afrofuturist short stories by one of the best fantasy and science fiction writers living today. Characters navigate different worlds infused by magic that parallel our own and the narrative deftly examines the meaning of history, modernity and future with narratives that transcend time.

Girl, Women, Other by Bernadine Evaristo uses pared back modern prose to explore how race and femininity intersect within the narratives of twelve women. It shows how their vastly different lives have influenced each other and the different challenges they have faced.

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