October is Black History Month in the UK, an annual celebration of black contributions to British society. And 2018 should have been an even bigger celebration than usual – marking 70 years since the Windrush migration.
In a year in which black British citizens were in many cases wrongly deported, or denied access to benefits and healthcare in a fiasco that became known as the “Windrush scandal”, the month has added significance.
The scale of the crisis burst into the public consciousness earlier this year, as it emerged that many people who arrived in the UK from the Commonwealth in the 1950s and 60s to answer the post-war call for workers were being targeted by government “hostile environment” policies. It prompted a national debate about British immigration policy, Home Office practice and race relations in Britain.
The scandal continues to cast a long shadow. It came out of the “hostile environment” policy, an idea established by the prime minister Theresa May during her time at the Home Office. The ensuing scandal led to the resignation of Amber Rudd as Home Secretary in April 2018. The government is still in the process of identifying and compensating victims, many of whom are still trapped abroad, or awaiting their British passports. As recently as yesterday, May was still being grilled on the issue in interviews.
In a statement, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, told HuffPost UK: “Black history is British history – and I’m determined to build on what we have already achieved to make Britain a country where everyone, regardless of who they are or what background they’re from, can get on in life.
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“Over many generations, Black British people have become part of the fabric of our country and have influenced every sphere of our society and culture – from education, media, sport and the arts, to business, technology and politics.”
But, May’s words come after many people have been left feeling that the Home Office has moved the goalposts in its definition of what it means to be a British citizen, and that maybe Britain has never fully accepted black people. On Sunday, May reiterated her apology for the Windrush scandal - but refused to apologise for the “hostile environment” policy that triggered it.
Some activists are now arguing that it’s wrong to celebrate Black History Month uncritically, given the year’s events.
Jacqueline McKenzie is a black British immigration lawyer who represents Kweku Adoboli, former UBS trader currently facing deportation to Ghana, and the family of late Windrush scandal victim Dexter Bristol. She believes that in the current climate, the focus of Black History Month needs to shift from commemoration to action.
“The Windrush scandal shouldn’t have overshadowed Black History Month but it has. The communities affected by Windrush need to get organised,” she told HuffPost UK.
“With Sajid’s announcement [of 20 September] regarding denying of citizenship papers to British people, it’s clear the government sees a community without resistance. Future black history months ought to focus on resistance and campaigning. Most organisers focus on creating events which will attract funding,” she added.
Sinai Fleary, a prominent writer and podcaster, says the idea of celebrating black culture this month feels inappropriate.
“How can we celebrate this year, when our elders are being treated this way? It is a national disgrace,” she said. “We cannot celebrate BHM when right now, at this present moment, in this country, there are Black people being treated so unfairly. The Windrush Generation came and gave so much to this country - they deserve better than this.”
For others, the Windrush scandal has made this month of reflection and celebration more pertinent than ever.
Labour MP Dawn Butler told HuffPost UK: “I don’t think the Windrush scandal has overshadowed Black History Month. I think it has highlighted just how important it is that we understand the contribution from the black community.
“The debt that is owed to people of African descent will never be repaid so the least the government can do is recognise and acknowledge and, in some way, commit to treating people better.”
Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott told HuffPost UK: “The scandal could never overshadow their rich history of strength and resilience. As we approach Black History month there is a renewed appreciation and admiration for all those that heard the call from the ‘mother country’ and came to help rebuild Britain”.”
Conservative MP Adam Afriyie told HuffPost UK: “Black history month is the perfect time to reflect on how far we’ve come but also on how far we have to go.
“It may be a surprise to find that I was elected the first black Conservative MP in 2005, when we look at the political landscape today. People from all backgrounds, skin tones and heritage are peppered throughout the Government and across the parliamentary benches. It is a far cry from the 1960s and 70s and it’s a positive reflection of a more inclusive and accepting society...but there is more to be done!”
What Is Black History Month?
In 1987, Black History Month was established by Akyaaba Addai-Sebo to raise greater awareness about black history in the UK.
It was a response to the political and social concerns of the time within the black community, which culminated in events such as the Brixton riots and resistance to stop and search laws. Addai-Sebo perceived a lack of understanding of the contribution black people were making to British society.
October was chosen rather than February, when it is celebrated in the US, because of the spiritual relevance of the month in many African cultures - such as harvest season, the Autumn equinox and yam festivals.
It was hoped that Black History Month’s close proximity to the new academic year might enable schools to consider including it in the curriculum.
Although some schools have previously opted to observed Black History Month at some points throughout October, the approach has never been uniform and the battle to get black British history incorporated into the national curriculum is an ongoing one.
But what of the people at the centre of this debate, the Windrush generation themselves?
Elwaldo Romeo, 63, moved from Antigua to the UK when he was four, 59 years ago, and has lived and worked here ever since. He had previously held a British passport which was stolen.
Elwaldo was then extremely distressed to receive a Home Office letter earlier this year informing him that he was “liable to be detained” because he was a “person without leave”.
He had been told to report fortnightly to Home Office premises. The letter also offered advice on “returning home voluntarily”.
Mr. Romeo has since been apologised to but, speaking to HuffPost UK from his home, he explains that Black History Month has never been something he has related to.
“I haven’t celebrated Black History Month. In 1987, when it was established, I was struggling - finished my apprenticeship, raising a child - it was all work, work, work. Most of my life was looking after my children,” said the gregarious North Londoner.
He continued: “You heard about Black History Month, back in the day, but when you looked into it, later on in life, it’s not even discussing where we’re from or our input in Britain.
“Rather than the non-apology I was given [by the Immigration Minister], I would much rather the government make more of an effort to teach black contribution to Britain in the classrooms. That would be an apology within an apology.”
Another school of thought believes that Black History Month suggests a society that can only commemorate black contributions to British life once a year, during October, meaning it doesn’t have to the rest of the year.
The UK’s first Black Studies professor, Dr. Kehinde Andrews, wrote for The Washington Post earlier this year: “The latest deportations are not an aberration, but the established norm.
“Inviting colonial migrants was never meant to be a recognition of their fundamental role in Britain. It was only a temporary measure to supply labour in the nation’s hour of need.”
The government recently pledged a £500k grant towards a Windrush Day event, but the budgets for Black History Month has been slashed across the country.
When asked about the grant for Windrush Day, a spokesperson from the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government confirmed to HuffPost UK that it would be providing the cash.
“A Windrush Day panel of significant community figures will help determine how funding will be best spent,” she added.
“Earlier this summer, the Prime Minister established a Windrush Commemoration Committee to oversee plans to create a permanent, fitting tribute to the Windrush generation and their descendants.”
Asked specifically about funding for Black History Month, the spokesperson added: “The Government is committed to supporting events celebrating black history, particularly in the month to come. MHCLG will be hosting internal events to mark the month and plans are in place for Ministers to attend key events.”