One of the biggest ironies of the Windrush scandal is that the public have learned more about Empire Windrush and the Windrush Generation during April 2018 than in the previous 50 years.
As we approach the 70th anniversary of Windrush, we as a nation have failed in creating substantive recognition of the contribution of an entire generation, along with other migrant communities, who see themselves as British.
There are a number of factors for this historical amnesia, ranging from a scarcity of black historians in the formal academic world to Windrush not being part of the national curriculum and Black History Month not being taken seriously enough.
With the recent announcement by the government of a national Windrush Day from June 2019 with revenue funding of £500,000 per annum, only time will tell if this will provide the platform to educate the public or will it just fall in to the ‘Black History Month Syndrome’.
The Windrush Scandal is another episode of historic racism directed towards black Britain. People forget the hostile environment that was there in the 1940s: black people were banned from buying or renting houses, were paid far less than their white co-workers and were discriminated against and bullied in the workplace, as well as harassed by the police. We must remember Learie Constantine taking Imperial Hotel to court in Central London for discrimination during the height of WW2.
This “colour bar” was the catalyst for riots in Notting Hill and Nottingham in the 1950s. In the 1960s, Paul Stephenson organised a boycott to force the Bristol bus company to stop discriminating against black people and Asquith Xavier took British Rail to court after being refused a job at Euston Station. That is why, since 1965, we have had a series of legislative and government bodies tackling structural racism and discrimination due to the campaigning efforts of the Windrush generation.
By the 1970s, black men were regularly stopped and searched, despite not being suspected of any crime, simply because of their race under “sus” laws. And the toxic legacy of this legislation will continue as Britain’s hostile environment strips many of their as rights as British citizens because they have a criminal record and are thus of ‘Poor Character’.
When Black History Month was launched in 1987, everyone agreed that this was an important intervention following riots in Brixton, Tottenham and Toxteth. Black Britons were fighting for tolerance and acceptance, and against marginalisation, racism and trying to define a sense of identity and purpose. Activists and politicians such as Lindo Bellos, Ansel Wong and Akyaaba Addai-Sebo and many others played an important role in establishing the month in October.
The question in 2018 is what will the Black History Month of the future need to look like in the context of Brexit, changing demographics and intersectionality in black communities. How will the growing debate around reparations and the argument that Afriphobia be recognised as a distinct form of racism against people of African descent affect our narrative?
There is a wide range of views on what should happen to Black History Month. Some argue it should be brought into community ownership, others raise questions about identity politics, funding and quality control of content.
But another key strategic aspect linked to Black History Month, which is too often overlooked, is that 1987 was also the year the African Jubilee Year Declaration was launched, which called on local and national government to recognise the contributions of Africans to the cultural, economic and political life of London and the UK.
Over the last three decades, we have seen buildings, roads, stamps, blue plaques and several monuments and statutes erected to reflect the black contribution to Britain - but more needs to done. This raises the fundamental issue of central government not providing core funding for black heritage organisations like The Black Cultural Archives or more monuments like the proposed Memorial 2007 recognising the victims of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Maybe the UN Decade of African Descent (2015-2024) could provide a new impetus in resourcing and protecting the tangible and intangible history of black history in the UK.
Across the UK during October over 4,000 events are organised celebrating Black History Month along with activities within schools. It is difficult to assess the tremendous impact and legacy of the contribution of Black History Month over the last 31 years and whether the month has changed the perceptions of how people of African descent are viewed in society and within communities in exploring self-identity and racial pride.
From schools, universities, local authorities, museums, archives, various community heritage projects and staff networks in the public and private sector they are all pushing the boundaries of Black History Month in to a season and also throughout the year. Whilst at the same time some local authorities and schools are either adopting a colour blind approach to all histories or because of austerity and cuts are reclassifying Black History Month and creating a one size fits of multicultural history, which often serves no real purpose for young people and the public. These authorities and schools are failing in the Public Sector Equality Duty in promoting good relations. Black History Month was established to cover the deficit in lack of historical content and representation of the achievement for African and Caribbean community in Britain. With no central coordination or consistent funding sadly Black History Month is derided and at times not valued by all.
However, what is clear that Black History Month has influenced and inspired others in the equalities world to organise similar months around exposing the hidden and excluded histories such as LGBT, Bengali, Disability and Gypsy and Traveller History Communities Month.
It is very clear that in 2018 we are not in a post-racial Britain with the issue of anti-Semitism, the Windrush Scandal, hate crime against migrants and LGBT community, surging numbers going through the mental health system, and rising stop and search against black people. This makes it even more critical that we advance and promote the importance of black British history and its connection to world history both past and present. We will still need Black History Month for the foreseeable future.
Patrick Vernon OBE is the Editor of Black History Month magazine and a prominent Windrush campaigner
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