The last day of October marks the ‘end’ of Black History Month. Now is a good time to reflect on why Black History Month is celebrated and whether it’s achieving its goals. It would also be opportune to remind ourselves that one month’s celebration cannot make up for forgetting Black history the rest of the year. Here, Snéha Khilay reflects on the origin and development of Black History Month in the UK and US.
Black History Month stems from 1926 when Carter G Woodson launched Negro History Week in USA, which later became Black History Month, marked for February. Carter specifically chose February to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, the president who ‘freed the slaves’.
Black History Month was launched in UK in 1987 – a campaign led by Akyaaba Addai Sebbo who worked for Greater London Council at the time. GLC selected October as the Black History Month to coincide with the Marcus Garvey celebrations and London Jubilee.
From the London boroughs, the interest in Black History Month soon spread to other cities. Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham and Birmingham actively participated in promoting and publicising its philosophy.
The aims of Black History Month are to:
- Promote knowledge of Black history, culture and heritage
- Disseminate information on positive Black contributions to British Society
- Heighten the confidence and awareness of Black people to their cultural heritage
Black History Month fundamentally highlights the history and contributions of Black communities and Black individuals, past and present. Although the debate continues whether the month should be exclusive in promoting only the African and Caribbean contributions, the celebrations in UK have to date continued to include all ‘Black’ Minority Ethnic communities and therefore the term Black in used in the generic sense.
Now in its 24th year, the Black History Month includes over 6,000 events and celebrations. Most local authorities regard it as a mark of pride to sponsor events and even the areas with a sparse black population will delve deep to unearth their own black histories.
For instance: the 18th century abolitionist and former slave Olaudah Equiano appears in a municipal account of the Black history of Devon, a rural county in the south west of England, because he spent time there, alongside John Hawkins, a local grandee who became England’s first slave trader in 1562.
Similarly Glasgow Museums staged an exhibition around the portrait of wealthy tobacco merchant John Glassford and his family to reveal the city’s little known links with the slave trade, while in 2008 the British Library in London hosted a talk by Tommie Smith, the US Olympic sprint champion famous for making the Black power salute on the medal podium in the 1968 Mexico City games.
Schools especially take part in Black History Month; in fact, October was allocated to coincide with the start of the academic year. “I really love Black History Month”, enthused 15-year-old Isaac Kwasi whose London school put on a special concert to mark the event. “To me it’s like [Notting Hill] carnival when you are on the centre stage and can be proud to be black.”
However, it has been argued that Black History Month has become a ready made excuse to ignore African history for the other 11 months of the year. Further, journalists argue that by dedicating only a single month of the year, it provokes a tendency to assume that Black history is separate from American/British History.
Joseph Wayne states that “One month out of every year, Americans are given permission to commemorate the achievements of Black people. This rather condescending view fails to acknowledge that a people and a country’s past should be nurtured and revered; instead, at this time, the past of Black Americans is handled in an expedient and cavalier fashion denigrating the very people it seeks to honour.”
Prominent actor Morgan Freeman has publicly condemned Black History Month asking “why would you relegate my history to a single month? I don’t want a Black History Month – Black History is American History.”
Acknowledgement with thanks to:
Sandra Fullerton – Watford CVS
Black History Month Website
A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. – Marcus Garvey
Intelligence rules the world, ignorance carries the burden… – Marcus Garvey
The pen is mightier than the sword, but the tongue is mightier than them both put together. – Marcus Garvey
Snéha Khilay is a diversity and leadership consultant/trainer. She specialises in supporting organisations in meeting their statutory Equality and Diversity requirements. Snéha carries out consultancy and training on Diversity and Inclusion, Managing Diversity and the Law, Cultural Competency, Dignity at Work and Conflict Resolution. She conducts independent investigations and mediation for organisations into allegations of bullying and harassment. Snéha has published articles on diversity and leadership in Management Today, Start Your Business, Simply Business, Professional Manager, Change Board, People and People Management. Visit Snéha’s website at www.bluetuliptraining.co.uk