This Is What Black History Month Does (And Doesn't) Mean To Brits

A moment to be 'proud' or 'performative celebration'? It's complicated.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
Jianan Liu/HuffPost UK
What does Black History Month mean to you?

You’re reading Gen:Blxck, a series exploring Black culture, history, family and identity through the generations.

Finally, Black History Month is here. Though it was founded in the US by Carter G. Woodson, the event has been celebrated in the UK since October 1987, when American activist and author Dr Maulana Karenga travelled to England to champion the contributions of Black people throughout history.

Since then, Black History Month has become etched into public consciousness. It’s a time where people from African and Caribbean origins reflect on heritage, celebrating the victories and triumphs of Black people all over the world, and the hardships they’ve had to overcome. But the month means something different for everyone. And as we found out, interpretations vary widely across different generations of Black Brits.

For 50-year old Kareen Griffiths, Black History Month is about hearing different voices, stories and successes. The founder and CEO of Calmify says her favourite memories of the event involve learning about her parents’ and grandparents’ lives. “The stories from Jamaica and their journey of leaving to come to Britain, they’re stories to cherish,” says Griffiths, from Worcestershire.

During October, it’s usual to see high profile individuals – from celebrities to politicians – talk about Black identity. But Griffiths believes hearing “from everyday people as well as prominent figures is helpful”.

Kareen Griffiths, 50, says it's a time to "heal and signify" racial inequalities.
Photographer: Toyin Dawudu
Kareen Griffiths, 50, says it's a time to "heal and signify" racial inequalities.

“It’s a reminder of the struggle and what we have done to overcome,” she adds. “This in itself is something to reflect on, but also to heal and signify the racial inequalities, which I think is the most important.”

Black History Month is now marked in many (but not all) British schools. But Griffiths says when she was young, it wasn’t something that was shouted about. “I don’t remember it even been celebrated at school, so it’s great it has become more prominent,” she adds.

Rene Byrd, a 40-year old singer and songwriter based in London, says when she first heard the term Black History Month it felt quite “foreign” to her, because there was a lack of visual media representation of Black people in the UK at the time. “However, I equally felt very proud to hear the term and championed the Black history movement to celebrate the great contributions made to British society,” she says.

The month makes her proud to be Black and share the great achievements that Black people have made across all sectors, from arts and culture to politics and medicine. “But equally, [it’s] bitter-sweet, as there are still pockets of British society that hold prejudice views and political mandates that have marginalised a large section of the Black community,” Byrd adds. “There is work to be done.”

Rene Byrd, 40, describes Black History Month as "bitter-sweet".
Rene Byrd
Rene Byrd, 40, describes Black History Month as "bitter-sweet".

Similarly, Albert Larter, the 31-year-old co-founder of Wakuda, says Black History Month is about “representation”. “It allows us to reflect and celebrate inspirational figures in the past and present that have paved the way for us to be where we are today,” he says.

Larter will be celebrating the month by attending events and shopping with more Black-owned businesses. “More importantly, I use the month to educate my daughter,” he says. “I buy her books that help her understand her history and other items that represent her.”

Albert Larter, 31, is looking forward to teaching his daughter about Black history.
Albert Larter
Albert Larter, 31, is looking forward to teaching his daughter about Black history.

For the younger generation, though, it seems Black history month feels a little less significant. As a twenty-something, my first memories of it stem from primary school, learning about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and the Civil Rights Movement. As the years went on, Black History Month started to feel repetitive and too focused on Black American history. So, during university, I took it upon myself to use the month to educate myself about Black British icons, such as Notting Hill Carnival founder Claudia Jones.

Simone*, who is a 26-year old TV development researcher from Salford, remembers Black History Month fondly from primary school, but like me has felt distanced from some elements in her twenties.

“I have fond memories of reading the displays that would be located next to the main school hall, which always consisted of the same people every year: Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali, and Benjamin Zephaniah (as well as other people),” says Simone.

As she grew older, Black History Month became a memory. “I’d tend to forget that it would be Black History Month until I see posts on my socials about it,” she says. “I feel like I have grown out of the performative celebrations and Americanised formula.”

Simone, 26, says some elements of Black History Month feel "performative".
Simone, 26, says some elements of Black History Month feel "performative".

For her, the month feels less important as she’s trying to learn about Black history throughout the year, rather than just in October. “So, by time October comes around (and I remember that it is indeed Black History Month), it still feels like any other month for me, and I somewhat see that as a good thing,” she says,

Similar to Simone, Leonie Owiredu, 26, who is a Ghanaian-British writer and cultural researcher, says her first memories of Black History Month are associated with Black Americans. “There was nothing about Black British history or my identity specifically, which is Black Ghanaian history,” she says.

She describes the way the event is marked in the UK currently as “predictable” and “a disservice to the expansiveness of Black Britishness”.

Owiredu thinks in the future, the month should be renamed ‘Black British History Month.’ “I think we should be specific,” she says. “It makes people attuned to what we’re supposed to be focusing on for that month.

“[We] can focus on what the building blocks that form the Black British identity are...our contribution to the arts, transports, media, medicine, what are the sort of things that make the younger me walk with pride?”

Another reason why Black History Month feels less notable for some of us than it used to, could be due to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. When George Floyd’s death in 2020 sparked worldwide outrage and prompted a re-emergence of the movement, millions of pounds were donated to the cause, celebrities spoke out online and non-Black people bought and read books to learn more about race.

Alison*, who is a 23-year old student from Essex, says: “The BLM protests kind of allowed corporations to engage in passive activism and Black History Month was like the cherry on the cake.

“They didn’t meaningfully engage in anti-racist practices, just latched on to the smaller organisations that were already doing things or did the most surface level engagement with Black history.”

So, how does think she we can adapt Black History Month so it can retrain authenticity and meaning? Alison says it’s about ensuring that anything implemented in October continues throughout the year.

“It should be a mainstay, not an afterthought,” she says. “A school my sister worked in put Black authors in their library for BHM and then took them all out at the end of the month. Those authors should have been added to the library and encouraged to be read throughout the year. It should be a highlight of Black history and contributions, not the main event.”

So, what does Black History Month mean in 2022? And how should we mark it?

The truth is it’s subjective. Yes, organisations should take the initiative to do more during the month of October and beyond, but how you want to spend the month is in your hands. Take the time out to speak to your Black peers, learn from them without burdening them. Watch Black documentaries, read Black books, but don’t forget about Black joy. This month shouldn’t be one of misery, Blackness and our history isn’t solely about struggle, it’s about glory too.

*Some interviewees chose not to share their surnames.

What does it mean to be Black and British? Well, it depends which generation you ask. This Black History Month, HuffPost UK has teamed up with BuzzFeed’s Seasoned and Tasty UK to find out. Read more from Gen:Blxck here.

Paris Anthony-Walker