“They gave us 1 month to celebrate our history?!”
“We do not need a month for our history, black history should be everyday.”
“It’s an American thing. Nothing to do with the UK”
“There is no White History Month, so why do we need a Black History Month?”
The above are just some of the yearly excuses I hear from many black people as to why they do not acknowledge Black History Month (BHM) here in the UK.
It used to baffle me that a month created to commemorate the great contribution that black people have made, and continue to make, to the world is met with so much distain by the same people it is meant to represent.
Interest and funding in BHM has been on a steady decline in the UK since 2012. Throughout my 15 years working within the community at schools, youth clubs, hosting events and participating in Notting Hill Carnival, I interact with a lot of people and BHM seems to be mentioned less and less. Often those that do bring it up spout a negative view on it.
In my view, a lack of education within and beyond the black community about the importance of BHM and why it was created is the reason for the increasing rejection of it. I have found that most people who speak out against it, have never heard the name Carter G Woodson – who pioneered BHM in the USA - or Akyaaba Addai-Sebo – the founder of the UK version. In fact, most have very little knowledge of anything to do with black history.
I grew up in family where black history was paramount. Coming home from school we had homework to do, followed by 30 minutes of reading or writing on something related to our history. And just to ensure we were taking it in, my dad dropped the odd pop quiz.
The education system, which should be diverse and multicultural, has a duty to ensure the curriculum reflects the student demographic. But my dad knew this was too often not the case so saw it as his duty to instil that in us. He also started a Black History club at my school, and began doing the same at other schools urging parents to join him: “If we do not see it as important to teach our children their history, why should the school have this mantra.”
This taught me, in order for real change to be achieved, it is important to lead by example. I started showing friends pictures of black historical figures such as Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth – to see if they could name them. The results were often very poor. A general lack of interest and knowledge of our history was definitely being passed down to the next generation.
So I started to promote BHM to defend its integrity and educate those around me as to why it is so important - starting with addressing misconceptions.
The notion black people were given this period to reduce our history to a mere month is false. Carter G Woodson founded the first black history week in the US in the 1920s to counter black history being “overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who teach them”. The purpose of the week was to celebrate, commemorate and study our history in-depth: for the adults to educate themselves for the purpose of educating the children.
In the 1960s, the week-long celebration became a month to intensify the focus on our history. But it also serves as a yearly reminder to educational institutions and wider society to recognise the contribution of black history to the world.
BHM was never intended to be the only way we celebrate our history. It was never stated that we must confine all our great contributions to a single month and ignore it the rest of the year. Ironically, the whole reason the celebration was created was because our history was being erased everyday. BHM kickstarted a process that has allowed us to gain the knowledge and power to make black history a proud part of our daily lives.
In my experience, those who celebrate black history everyday are the ones who recognise the importance of participating in BHM. Those who reject it usually lack interest in black history in general.
The British education system teaches white history on a daily basis. It glorifies people and events from its past and vilifies those who have opposed it. We have holidays and commemorations yearly that celebrate white history. But during slavery, our history and our culture was eradicated. Many of of us could not read or write. All we knew is what we were told, and for a long time history books and textbooks have reflected that.
In my education, I have learnt a lot about the history and culture of many races, none of them reflected that of my people. I learnt of the religions of many races, none of them reflected that of my people. If we were lucky, Martin Luther King would get a mention. Then it was Voodoo, witchcraft and Blacks Sold Blacks into slavery and whites abolished it.
People control the narrative of their own history. It is time black people took back control of how their story is told. This is why we need BHM, whether or not white history is celebrated.
This year - like every year - I will be proudly celebrating Black History Month, because BHM is about remembering black history everyday. And there is nothing wrong with celebrating one’s history.
As Marcus Garvey said “A people without knowledge of their history and culture is like a tree without roots”.